Untraveled

Beginning with my first moments on the Blue Line from O’Hare, I catalogue the places I didn’t go.

Right out of the gate, Tash and I talk about the neighborhoods I should avoid. It takes the burden off of me wondering whether I’m being too conservative about exploring certain places on my own, like in Boston. We discuss Hyde Park, Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Projects and areas that the Green Line traverses. “Stick to the Red Line and the Blue Line,” she advises, giving me street boundaries.

Tash relates stories of daytime shootings, the time she was chastised her for walking down certain streets at night, and the evening that a bus driver refused to let her out for fear of her safety. “And I was like, Excuse me? You’re not going to let me out there? Have you seen the color of my skin?” Her indignation made me smile because I was naively wondering the same thing.

Admittedly, as a white person who lives in Seattle, I have a vague awareness that I am a minority in many parts of Chicago, but I don’t really understand what it means or how people perceive my presence. I notice that I am treated with a range of curiosity and dismissiveness: some bus drivers reply curtly to me while effusively greeting passengers of color, for instance. On the L, pairs of eyes examine me –not my outfit, but my facial features, my skin– in ways that never happen at home. Mostly, it’s not aggressive, but I am being inspected.

“I don’t want to alarm you, just make you aware,” Tash continues, telling me about groups of men who have been pulling off flash-mob robberies. “If you see a group of five or six guys converging quickly somewhere, grab your things and leave immediately.”

Coming off of the recent deaths at Cafe Racer in Seattle and the shootings in Cambridge, I marvel at Chicago’s murder count: 275 so far this year, which is quadruple that of New York and double Los Angeles’ rate, mostly due to gang crime. Though being being black in black neighborhoods doesn’t guarantee safety, I’m still surprised when Tash points out that many in Chicago wouldn’t consider her “black enough,” one of several elements that triggered the bus driver’s abundance of caution.

That notion blows my mind. As a Caucasian, no one questions my ethnicity or if I’m “white enough.” Tash and I wait for the 144 on Michigan Avenue, surrounded by a tapestry of black schoolchildren, Vietnamese couples on vacation, Puerto Rican saleswomen and Latino families, and I consider how different my experience of the world must be as a white woman.

My mind skips back to Italy where everyone was very interested in determining my province of origin –north or south– and the town. Though my status as an American writer in residence removed me from any sort of caste, it was clear that they were attempting to classify me by tribe.

There is also my German heritage, which would have been under scrutiny had my great-grandfather remained in Europe throughout the World Wars and raised his family there. But this is modern-day America. If I’m restrained by anything, it’s my gender, not my skin color.

In fact, the only time any consideration of my lineage arises is when I mention that my mother’s family was Catholic and my father’s Jewish. When this fact is met with surprise, I play the tape that my father instilled in me –how neither side was very happy about the marriage, “as can be expected”– though I’ve never seen any evidence of strife between the families. Looking back, it was more a statement of his perception than reality.

Like many things, my mother was silent on that subject.

In Chicago as elsewhere, I think of her often when I travel. It is easy to look on her married life and see a conservative existence –one without adventure or wanderlust– but to know my mother is to flip through the photo albums of her young self.

Inside each volume are detailed accounts of trips to places like Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Hawaii: carefully preserved pamphlets, clean cocktail napkins pressed flat like fall leaves, and pages of square photographs with white scalloped edges. The girls wear kerchiefs and movie star sunglasses; the boys are tan and wear board shorts and perfectly slicked back hair. Next to each are names and well composed descriptions inscribed in the meticulous flourishes of her 1950s schoolgirl penmanship.

Within the collection are letters from friends she traveled with and people she met. Inside those envelopes, another side of her is revealed: the young single woman I never knew. Words of affection from her girlfriends affirm that she was as thoughtful and funny in her friendships as she was in motherhood. They talk lovingly of memories made together: water skiing and snorkeling, laughing and drinking fruity cocktails, long walks and dancing around bonfires. These letters written by strangers make me feel close to her, even if the window into this part of her life is as thin as a fingernail moon.

There are occasional love letters, too. My favorite, from a naval officer named Huey, begins, “Hi Pretty Thing.”

I spirited it away when I left home, something I couldn’t bear to leave behind. He wrote it in red ink, each sentence connected in neat cursive script similar to my mother’s, back when students were graded on penmanship. As my mother’s friends wrote of her humor and tenderness, Huey wrote of her bewitching beauty,

“…Been thinkin’ on you all week; got that long hair on my mind. Reckon you might be a devil woman, the way you charmed me.”

They met in Montego while he was on leave; his note attempts to map her world.

“Truly, it was a slick weekend and I hope to renew our acquaintance first chance I get. Only consolation is that it’s not long until June. Seems I’ve been promised a guided tour of Detroit, and I don’t intend to miss out on it. Do you live by yourself or share an apartment with your gal-friend? Seems like I plumb forget her name. Eyes for you only, I reckon. You never did say where you worked… or are you an international play girl?”

The last line always makes me laugh. My mother was proud of being an independent woman; she began working as a secretary immediately after high school so that she could make her own money and travel. Pictures during this time show her in tailored outfits with long brown hair in large wavy curls, the kind I can never quite tease my own hair into holding. She is curvy but svelte. When posing with her friends on the Michigan lakeshore, she looks like a model from a Mad Men ad.

I always wondered if she wrote to Huey, who included his military address for her response. “Drop a line when you can,” he urges her at the end. She kept his letter because it meant something to her, but perhaps corresponding with him was one of the places that she couldn’t go. Each time I looked through that album as a child, gingerly extracting the letter, I wondered if she had let him go or if she had let him down easily.

Memories of this correspondence arise as I’m wandering around the Gold Coast, searching for Hugh Hefner’s former manse. Huey’s letter is dated 11 May 1969. About a year later, my mother and father would meet. A year after that, my father would ask my mother to marry him during dinner at Maxim’s on a trip to Chicago.

The air is stifling, especially in the sun, so I pull over to the edge of the sidewalk underneath the shade of a street tree near a handsome brownstone to search for Maxim’s on my phone. I take it as a sign that the address is only blocks away. Walking up Astor Street, I can hear my father’s exaggerated tale: the multi-course dinner that overwhelmed him, dishes of exotic food like escargot that he only tolerated because it was a French restaurant and how he couldn’t raise his eyes without the waiter coming over to ask if they needed anything. He complained that it was so dark inside that they could barely read their menus.

I don’t recall my mother ever reliving this meal in tales or scrapbooks.

In fact, it occurs to me as I walk up and back on Goethe Street, unable to find the listed address, that my mother’s elaborately annotated memories include all of her journeys as a single woman and several volumes dedicated to my birth and childhood, but none that rhapsodize her marriage, other than an album of wedding photographs. As for stories of their engagement weekend in Chicago or their honeymoon in New Orleans during Mardi Gras –two cities that are difficult not to memorialize– there is no trail of souvenirs for me to follow.

I map the address on my phone again, feeling nervous about the time. I need to meet Tash back at the house in an hour for the Full Moon Jam and I already knew that the 151 up Sheridan is going to take forever. I decide on one more pass; after all, this is a landmark of my parents’ marriage. I picture myself telling the doorman my story in the hopes that he will let me inside without a reservation.

As I retrace my steps a third time, I consider the places I’ve been and the ones I haven’t yet dared to explore — in travel and in life. My mother’s adventures stopped after she married my father; I wondered if there wasn’t a reason that my own took off only when I became single again.

I stop in front of a building that looks like a multi-family residence rather than an exclusive restaurant; I wonder if Maxim’s has gone out of business. I pause, sweat dripping from my temples, time running. I contemplate calling the number listed on the website, but there is a part of me that doesn’t want to see the place, even after all this.

At the corner of Goethe and Astor, I consider the experiences my mother and I have shared in our adulthoods — it’s just that she hasn’t been here to discuss them. For decades, I’ve searched for familiar signposts in this country and beyond, even traveling back to her mother country, not realizing that the scrapbooks she never made spoke just as powerfully to me as the ones we flipped through together.

They whispered stories that have encouraged me to diverge from the path she took without me knowing it. Her unwritten words have given weight to the things I hold important today: freedom, travel, exploration, taking chances, an unconventional life. For better or worse, I married those values and boarded a flight without a clue as to the destination, only the appreciation of what its distance represented.

In my path towards the bus stop on Marine Drive, I wonder if my shoes are touching the same sidewalks that my mother’s did 40 years ago. I like the idea that the echo of my footfalls and hers are somehow meeting in space, even if headed on different trajectories.

I never did find Maxim’s.

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One thought on “Untraveled

  1. Checking on Yelp, it appears Maxim’s is no longer a restaurant, but a special events only venue owned by the City of Chicago. It wouldn’t surprise me if their street presence has accordingly been made low key.

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