(I wrote this in July, 2007, as I started my year of internship at Bethel-Imani Lutheran Church)
A few short days after finalizing our move to the western suburbs following seven years of calling Chicago home, I motored down the eastbound Ike on my first day as a true commuter. I wondered if I would join the growing segment of the population categorized as ‘supercommuters,’ not for their ability to send text messages, read the paper, and take their blood pressure medicine all while intuitively finding the least-busy streets and highways but instead for the length of their commutes: over an hour each way. It shouldn’t be too hard, I thought, to reach this rarified company; after wending my way to the expressway, I could expect a long, slow haul from Mannheim Road to downtown, followed by an agonizing creep up the feeder to the Dan Ryan, and then the video-game like chaos of the Ryan itself before alighting on the eastern edge of Englewood on the city’s Southside. And some days, surely this is exactly what will happen, but that first day (and the three driving days that followed) I was lucky and I made the trip in just under an hour.
Because of construction and general re-formatting, the Dan Ryan has lost some of its exits either temporarily or permanently. This isn’t so bad, really, as the frequent entering and exiting of traffic combined with a high density of Dodge Deathbringer SUVs and a folk driving style that mixed a suburban sense of entitlement to speed with city grit and outright hostility to make the Ryan easily the most terrifying expressway to travel at any time of day or night. On this particular occasion, however, I was looking for the 63rd Street exit, which appears to have been walled up to the frontage road as smoothly as the door of a tomb. I ended up getting off at 75th street, a road that dead-ends a few blocks in from the highway, leaving one with an inevitable tour through the by-ways of south Englewood, a sprawling and heavily afflicted series of communities at the heart of Chicago’s southwest side (although I see now that a real estate map has broken Englewood into a western half, still known as Englewood, and an eastern half with the less-loaded moniker “Hamilton Park.” From a PR point of view, this is a good idea; Englewood is not a name that evokes favorable feelings in most Chicagoans. Perhaps they can carve out “South Fuller Park” or “Under the Yards” until Englewood proper consists of a few blocks around Damen and 63rd).
It was a short detour that filled me with a bit of nostalgia. My third apartment in Chicago (Sept. ’00 to Sept. ’01) lies east of the expressway about that far south. These were the roads I drove to visit one of my hospice patients (summer ’06), a frail and tired but luminous woman that I came to really love. I came here largely because of the Southside, but I came specifically for music. For the young blues guitarist, Chicago has a deep romance. While the coasts picked off most of our jazz musicians, soul singers, publishers, and broadcasting, blues never called any other city home the way it did Chicago, and 43rd street in particular (this leaving the Delta aside, for obvious reasons). I pictured years of evenings spent at the Checkerboard, Lee’s, Artis’, and the other crepuscular remnants of a blues circuit that once boasted dozens of stations (how crepuscular the remnants, I would hardly have guessed back in 1999 when I decided to come down here). There would be a period of apprenticeship with the local scene (including evenings spent at some forgotten eminence’s knee–we like to imagine details like that) and then some gigs of my own with a band of other prematurely grizzled-looking young white guys.
Things didn’t work out that way, of course. Rather than spending my nights entertaining lonely alcoholics, I now spend my mornings hanging out with little kids who call me ‘Pastor Ben’ and show up to read and learn and socialize. I work and chat with aspiring teachers, college students, and clergy. This is something T.S. Eliot understood so well, in lines that I have quoted to myself and others ad nauseam:
And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.
Blues, therefore Chicago; Chicago, therefore God (a long story); God, therefore Church; and Church, therefore Chicago again. Skipping down in the poem,
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
For all these years of intermittently living, working, and hanging out on the Southside, I am in some ways every bit as much of a stranger as I’ve ever been. I know very well that I am the only white face in a place that, for all its needs, does not need me.