The first week of April 2005, I packed (some of) my earthly belongings into my Ford Escort and drove west, alone. I was 23, had recently graduated from Penn State with a BA in theater, and was eager to start working in a theater city more welcoming than what I perceived New York to be. Plus, I had a friend from high school looking for a roommate.
The drive was a breeze. Quite literally breezy, as I bound through Ohio and Indiana, windows down, with my carefully crafted mix CD blasting as I sang along. I made excellent time. It was the last 30 minutes of the journey – the endless construction outside Gary, the Skyway, 90/94, my first left turn on red through a six-point intersection – that really challenged me. I parked just north of Fullerton on my new street in Lincoln Park. I had moved to Chicago.
And ten years later, I’m staring down my last two months here. My family – husband Scott, toddler, and growing baby belly – are moving to Pittsburgh in July. My husband and I grew up there, and our families still live there. We hesitate, though, to say that we’re moving ‘back,’ because the last time either of us lived there for any stretch of time, we were graduating high school and getting the hell out, like most people we knew. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I’m sad to leave Chicago. The calendar is mocking me as I sit and think of all the things I’d like to do over the next seven (seven!?!) weeks. I’m emotional thinking about it. It’s going to be really really hard.
Sitting in that sadness isn’t doing me any good, though, and I truly have so much waiting for me in the Burgh. The family that I’ve missed for 10 years in Chicago plus four more in Happy Valley, my in-laws’ beautiful home, back yard, and covered porch, new experiences and relationships with and for my daughter and bebe to be. I’ve been tallying a pretty scattered mental list of the things I’m gratefully looking forward to, partly to temper all of the loss I feel. Some of them are here.
A Bigger Bed
Seeing as how I moved (some of) my earthly belongings three states away in a compact four-door sedan, you can imagine I didn’t have room for much furniture. Any furniture, really. I was moving into a gorgeous 2-story, furnished Lincoln Park apartment in a building owned by the older brother of a genius high school friend who’d recently moved out there himself after undergrad at MIT (…genius). I didn’t know it yet, but this would be the nicest place I’d ever live in Chicago.
My friend had offered to let me sleep on an extra air mattress until I could afford to buy a bed for myself. That’ll be pretty soon, I thought. I actually managed to find employment within a few weeks – I’d work as a server in a fairly large neighborhood restaurant around the corner. I was also hired to work in the box office at a theater not too far away, which I thought would be an important stepping stone toward my theaaataaah career. (…It wasn’t.)
Two part time jobs does not a pile of money make, and while I wasn’t spending outrageously – I was pretty much eating like a college student – between Lincoln Park rent and utility costs and Lincoln Park bars, I wasn’t saving much either. I wound up on the air mattress for longer than I’d hoped. In pretty short order, the air mattress developed a hole in it, which slowly, sadly, weakly, pathetically leaked air over a day or two until I was really just sleeping on a large rubber bag on the floor. I was embarrassed, and depressed. Too embarrassed to tell my friend, so I tried to patch it up with duct tape, which didn’t work. I’d refill the mattress each night and after a few hours wake up just straight up lying on the floor. Adulthood was not what I envisioned.
My mom brought my brothers up to visit in July and surprised me by taking me to buy a bed. I think I knew at that point that my sister would be moving to the city in August and we’d be moving in together, ending my tenure with my buddy and our other roomie Tom. My friend had started looking for someone to fill my spot and found a dude named… Anthony? Gabriel? There would be some overlap in our time in the apartment – a week or two after he’d move in, I’d move out. The day Anthony moved in, my bed was delivered. And my friend offered to give me a break by not charging me rent over those days, but in turn expected for Anthony to have full use of his (myyy) room. Including my brand new bed. After four months on the floor, I spent my last nights in Lincoln Park on the couch in the living room; Anthony spent his first few in my bed. Insult does not quite cover what I felt. Bitter rage might be closer.
My husband and I have slept on a cheap, full-sized bed since we met. We’re both relatively small people, but my expanding body now requires that I be surrounded by a nest of pillows in order to sleep comfortably. Shit’s pretty crowded.
We’re moving in with my incredibly generous in-laws in Pittsburgh, and staying with them for who knows how long, at least through the birth of the newbie this fall and probably through the holidays. The room we’ll occupy is big, bright, and fully furnished. From night one, we’ll sleep on a glorious queen-sized bed.
I quit my restaurant job shortly after moving in with my sister in Wrigleyville. I had already found a third part-time job at a big, brand new theater downtown and could no longer maintain the one that was no longer a 5-minute walk away. We lived a few blocks from the red line, and I found I didn’t really use the car much except to grocery shop. In fact, my sister and my new boyfriend (Scott) used it more than I ever did.
My car’s name was Bob — Bob Costas. Full name Amber Bob Costas Mandylor, he was a gift to me from my grandfather. My very first (and only) car. My grandfather was newly apart of our lives and Bob was my reward for ‘being such a good girl.’ He took me to an Enterprise dealership, which sold used (rental) cars. I was so nervous, I think I was 22. I chose the first and only car we test drove, even though the steering wheel squeaked when turned and aside from the transmission, everything else about the car was manual. (At one point my grandfather nodded approvingly, saying, “What do you need all those buttons for, anyway?”) Bob was a choice kelly green 2002 model with, I want to say, about 50 thousand miles on him. I was wildly confused and excited by my decision.
Back in Chicago, between gas, registration, parking permits (and parking tickets), it seemed like a smarter idea to drive Bob back to Pittsburgh and let my brothers use him, which I did. They’re both much taller than I am, and Bob was a very small car, so that must have been hilarious. I’m sad I missed it.
And I’ve been a public transit gal ever since. Definitely challenging at times, when you really really just want a car for what would be a quick trip if you had one. And with a baby, I’d be lying if I said our plans weren’t subject to change depending on the weather we’d be strolling through to get to the train to get to the destination. And accounting for CTA reroutes, detours, planned work, traffic, sporting events, parades… exhausting. After four years in Wrigley, an epicenter of CTA bountifulness, Scott and I moved just west of Lincoln Square, into an apartment a half block from the brown line, sandwiched between bus routes to our north and south.
In the Burgh, though, no such public transit wonderland exists, at least not where we’ll live, making access to a car a necessity. The suburban geography of Pittsburgh is beautiful and challenging, and I’ve always loved to drive it. Mountains and curves – and lots of cursed deer – but mostly lush hillsides, green lawns, tall trees, steep driveways, ornate stone walls that eliminate the road’s shoulder. Icy and intimidating in the winter. A far cry from the flat-ass grid we’ve maneuvered for the past decade. We are gratefully set to inherit a car from family shortly after getting back, but even with it we might feel squeezed to get everywhere we need to, depending on where we end up. No matter, the car will be a welcome luxury, to be sure.
Mommy friends of mine have recently been sharing and comparing the finer, and incredibly well researched, points of family vehicles – SUVs, mini-vans. There are so many considerations I’ve never even, well, considered before. Hopefully someday soon we’ll buy a new or used car of our very own. I will endeavor to test more than one. And this time, maybe go for the buttons.
A Change of Accent
My sister went to school in New Orleans and would come home on breaks, have a few drinks, and sound like she’d been bayou-born. Bothered me. How affected, I thought, how fake. I moved to the Midwest the year she graduated and within months, was mistaken for a Canadian/Appalachian hybrid. I can’t pinpoint how my accent changed or exactly when, but I began to hear it in myself and I can say, it’s completely unintentional. And it’s strong. I’m Joan Cusack up in here.
The Pittsburgh accent is near and dear to my heart. Neither of my parents have it very profoundly, and none of my siblings do, either, but it’s a collection of cherished sounds that we can all imitate. In fact, I was a paid dialect coach on a play Scott wrote that was set in Pittsburgh, and it was pretty hard to teach. I won’t try to describe it here, but there are plenty of really good examples on YouTube, if you’re interested. The accent is so unlike the way people speak in Chicago, and when I begin to hear it again, I’ll know I’m really home. A good thing. A bittersweet thing.
That April day, as Bob Costas and I ventured toward my new life, I couldn’t have told you how long I’d stay in Chicago. I didn’t come for a degree, so my time didn’t have an expiration date. When I said goodbye to my mom and brothers, I didn’t know how much of their lives I’d miss. I’ve lived away from my two brothers since they were barely teenagers, they’ve grown into men in my absence. Knowledgeable, well rounded, complicated people who I can’t wait to know better.
I didn’t consider the consequences of choosing to work in a time-sucking, low-paying, fucking difficult grind of a profession where you hold on and hope you’re making the right decision to commit your time and energy to it, time and time again. Where you hope that what you’re doing is worth what you’re missing in the other corners of your life. Weddings, funerals, showers, anniversaries, porch hangs – all manner of celebrations and gatherings. I’ve made it back a good bit, consistently visiting two, three times a year, but not for longer than a week in ten years. That’s wild.
I’m better for having lived in Chicago. That’s the truth. And there is so much to look back on proudly. I’ll always have met my husband here (at a Steelers bar). I’ll always have had my daughter here – she’ll always have been born in Chicago while the rest of us were born in Pittsburgh, and I hope that’s special to her. I’ll always have grown into the artist and friend that I am today here. And it’s time to move away. Also true. To slightly more temperate weather, carpeted floors, air conditioning, new beers and bars, winding roads, brand new theater, work, and art. And back to something familiar and loving.
I guess if I really think about it, the only thing I dread about being back is the first time someone asks me, “How was Chicago?” As though I took an extended vacation, didn’t really immerse myself at a young age in a new place and work hard, and suffer and grow. As if I didn’t really live here. If you’re reading this, and you’re in Pittsburgh, please don’t ask me that. I can’t reduce my time here in any sort of sufficient way to begin to answer that question.
Please do ask me about my friends, though, and the plays I worked on and where I lived, and the band I sang in for years, and what being a mommy here is like. Because then I can tell you how amazing Chicago is, and how I miss it.