I could be living anywhere, but some mornings I wake to the city. My walk to work takes me under the L track the moment the train passes over, or I’m blasted by the uplift of warmth from sidewalk grates. Some mornings I hear the neighborhood shouting man greeting passerby along Wells near North. His words are rarely intelligible, but anyone within hearing senses the charged air around him. People pause and look for him, like animals momentarily alarmed by what’s outside their cages.
I once lived in Delaware and wrote an essay about what it’s like to inhabit Anywhere, USA. The suburban commute of my old life was the most insular act of an insular life. I climbed in my car in my locked garage, and, ten or twelve feet down the driveway, the car doors locked automatically. Climate control was no farther than my reach, my radio stations were preset, my route invariable but for the occasional nuisance of someone else’s accident or the glacial progress of road construction. Modern marketing made most of the scenery interchangeable, the cycling background to a chase in a seventies cartoon.
Here, it’s different. Oh, I see people try to avoid humanity in Chicago—ear buds buried deep or cell phones magnetically pulling at their heads. Some wear phones like Borg from the second incarnation of Star Trek. Fully assimilated in their virtual meetings, they advance down sidewalks speaking blissfully from another dimension. But even they shudder under the L tracks or hasten to escape when real blasts of human breath beg for recognition.
Before I moved here, people told me they could not live an urban life. It’s too impersonal, they said, everyone is a stranger. Superficially that’s true. I’m not really friends with the people in my building and know no one on my block well. Yet Delaware was the same. I don’t miss the insulation of suburban civility and the cooperative way we spun each other’s cocoons. In a city, the shouting man yells you’re not alone, which is a strange comfort on a cold morning.