Driving through my old neighborhood with the windows up and my mask on, and I’m thinking about the now-beatified times. The moments I thought I wouldn’t live through, couldn’t, now stuck in the cloudy bubble world of a snow globe on a quarter-life shelf. Counting the days down until something would happen, or not happen, always passing the time until a more desirable outcome presented itself, but never wanting to look at the possibility that This Is It. That maybe this moment is the thing. That it always has been and always will be.
I get a drink from the convenience store I used to haunt as a kid. Some sugary abomination in a tall can. The old shop owner’s still working there, and I tell myself that the reason he doesn’t recognize me is because of the mask, and not the fact that I haven’t been in my old neighborhood in way too long. The only thing that’s changed about the shop is that you can now do the contactless pay thing, which I do, and the old shop owner smiles and wishes me a nice day behind a plastic shield that’s been put up now at face-level.
I read reports that my town was one of the hardest hit by COVID-19 in the Chicagoland area, but Des Plaines officials were quick to qualify that not all of those cases were “in town,” that a sizeable number were in the unincorporated area, where I’m from, as if that’s some consolation. Another rug or municipality to be swept under, I guess. But seeing it makes it real, on these ghost-town-streets that used to be filled with kids on skateboards, BMX bikes when it was fashionable, when my friends and I wandered the streets as a roving gang, back when that was a thing that kids did.
I don’t see anybody. I know that that’s a good thing, or that it could be, but it’s still disheartening. All that’s left of this place that I once knew are the memories of it, and the bits and scraps that I’ve written down, some of it even collected in a book. It’ll be a tidy series of recollections, permutations that change with each retelling, every shadow of remembrance filled in with heat and light from a time far removed, like a dusty old polaroid.
I took this trip alone, which was for the best. Even if flying were a safe thing to do right now, I would’ve still made that drive up anyway. I needed to take that time for myself, watch the rolling hills segue to farmland and flatness, the eventual outcroppings of buildings in the distance, then that familiar old skyline, because if Chicago and everywhere else has changed, at least the shapes of its buildings are still the same. I don’t know what I’m here for, besides the obvious of seeing my friends and family. I had a general idea of what the city might look like now, but reality is always different. Right now it’s crueler. Maybe later it’ll be kind.
Everything has the quality now of a rough draft, and over and over again in the margins, someone’s scrawled in “TBD.” Even down Potter, and past it in Bay Colony, folks have been hit hard and it’s unclear when they might be able to get back up. I wonder why sometimes I identify so much of myself with that old neighborhood. If that place doesn’t technically exist anymore, why does it still feel so much a part of me? And then one further: If I got through what I got through living in that neighborhood, why would I ever want to go back to it and be reminded? Why not just keep moving forward? But it’s not that simple.
I walk over to where the old hideout used to be, where as kids we’d propped up a tarp and put down a wooden plank floor and ran extension cables into the woods so that we could play PS2 in the fort that we’d made, and one of the kids had snatched a hookah from his older brother, and we coughed and sputtered in between songs played in Guitar Hero. I see these moments as clear as the barren, patchy ground that stands there now.
But it’s getting closer. Or at least that’s what Kevin Parker tells me through the speakers of my car as I start it back up, as I take one last lap around the old block and let these things burn themselves into my mind. I drive, and I listen, and I breathe. I leave.