I ARRIVED IN CHICAGO IN OCTOBER 2003, completely heartbroken. My relationship of 10 years had just ended, which had a lot to do with my insatiable need to see more of the world than the small town we’d been living in. Sure, we hadn’t tied the knot, but it had that feeling of permanence — the one that makes your stomach sink. I left on a Wednesday. Once I finally stopped using my lunch breaks to weep uncontrollably in the park outside my office, I realized I couldn’t have been happier.
My first apartment in the city was a huge studio in Ravenswood on the North Side. Being far from downtown and in a quiet residential area of the city, I figured it would be a safe spot for a single girl and her dog. I was wrong. It was the only place in Chicago that I ever got broken into (and I would live and work in some pretty rough areas of town in the years to come). I had been hired by a big hotel corporation, so not only was I finally moving to the city I loved, I had my first high-profile design job.
I took the Brown Line downtown. Every morning on the El was a combination of thrill in the new, disgust in my fellow man, frustration in my choice of footwear, and plain excitement to finally have a Chicago address. My stop was Washington and Wells, smack dab in the hubbub of morning commuters. It was the stop right before mine, though, that always caught my attention.
Merchandise Mart was a scene of stylish creatives and design studio reps. Every day I would watch men and woman, clutching giant portfolios and leather notebooks, make their way off the train. The women had smartly cropped silver hair and horn-rimmed glasses. The men wore perfectly distressed jeans and shoes that cost more than my rent. I loved every second of it.
I immediately signed up for classes at an interior design school. Being just down the street from Merchandise Mart, I knew it’d take advantage of the incredible resources the Mart offered. Classes were after work and often left me downtown late and completely exhausted as I boarded the train. On occasion I’d need to walk over to Merchandise Mart for research, and catch the El there for home.
Downtown is deserted by 7pm, so on these occasions I found myself completely alone. One warm October night, waiting for the northbound train on the raised MM platform, my mind drifted…how did I get so far off my original path? Was I right to have left? And why did I choose to live so far north?
As I sat there, it hit me how long I’d been waiting. I wandered down the wooden walkway overlooking the river. The city was still and strangely quiet, glowing with the warmth of city lights. I was overcome with the peace of it all — peace at what was before me, peace at being there, peace in my choice to leave what wasn’t right.
As I stood in silence, I was surprised to see the slow rise of each of the river’s street bridges — something that doesn’t happen often, especially in October. It was the first time I’d ever seen them rise, and I leaned over the rusted railing to gaze further down the water. In a moment, the silence was broken by the chop of helicopter blades whizzing past me down the river. It was there, and then it was gone. I almost thought I’d imagined the whole thing, although later I heard they’d been filming a movie on the river that night.
It was again quiet. I laughed. The glow of the buildings across the water seemed to permeate my skin, and I became sure that Chicago was my home. That platform would forever be my favorite spot in the city — the spot that defined this new certainty. I’d find myself wandering in that direction after work, even though it was completely out of the way. I’d take the train there early in the morning on weekends, to have a bagel and watch the river when it was abandoned by the mass of commuters.
It was one of those mornings, at my favorite breakfast spot, that I snapped a photo.