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20 Reasons Aleksandar Hemon Will Never Leave Chicago

In an excerpt from his new book (due out March 19), the Bosnian refugee turned literary star lists what he loves about his adopted hometown.

Hemon near his Andersonville home   Photo: Carlos Javier Ortiz

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Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete, Random List

Excerpted from The Book of My Lives (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25)

By Aleksandar Hemon

1. Driving west at sunset in the summer: blinded by the sun, you cannot see the cars ahead; the ugly warehouses and body shops are blazing orange. When the sun sets, everything becomes deeper: the brick facades acquire a bluish hue; there are charcoal smudges of darkness on the horizon. The sky and the city look endless. West is everywhere you look.

2. The way people in the winter huddle together under the warming lights of the Granville El stop, much like young chickens under a lightbulb. It is an image of human solidarity enforced by the cruelty of nature, the story of Chicago and of civilization.

3. The American vastness of the Wilson Street beach, gulls and kites coasting above it, dogs sprinting along the jagged waves, barking into the void, city kids doing homemade drugs, blind to the distant ships on their mysterious ways from Liverpool, England, to Gary, Indiana.

4. Early September anyplace in the city, when the sunlight angles have abruptly changed and everything and everyone appears better, all the edges softened; the torments of the hot summer are now over, the cold torments of the winter have not begun, and people bask in the perishable possibility of a kind and gentle city.

5. The basketball court at Foster Street beach, where I once watched an impressively sculpted guy play a whole game—dribbling, shooting, arguing, dunking—with a toothpick in his mouth, taking it out only to spit. For many years he was to me the hero of Chicago cool.

6. The tall ice ranges along the shore when the winter is exceptionally cold and the lake frozen for a while, so ice pushes ice against the land. One freezing day I stood there in awe, realizing that the process exactly replicates the way mountain ranges were formed hundreds of millions of years ago, tectonic plates pushing against each other. The primeval shapes are visible to every cranky driver plowing through the Lake Shore Drive mess, but most of them look ahead and couldn’t care less.

7. Looking directly west at night from any Edgewater or Rogers Park high-rise; airplanes hover and glimmer above O’Hare. Once, my visiting mother and I spent an entire evening sitting in the dark, listening to Frank Sinatra, watching the planes, which resembled stunned fireflies, transfixed with the continuous wonder that this world is.

8. The blessed scarcity of celebrities in Chicago, most of whom are overpaid athlete losers. Oprah, one of the Friends, and many other people whose names I never knew or now cannot recall have all left for New York or Hollywood or rehab, where they can wear the false badge of their humble Chicago roots, while we can claim them without actually being responsible for the vacuity of their front-page lives.

9. The Hyde Park parakeets, miraculously surviving brutal winters, a colorful example of life that adamantly refuses to perish, of the kind of instinct that has made Chicago harsh and great. I actually have never seen one: the possibility that they are made up makes the whole thing even better.

10. The downtown skyline at night as seen from the Adler Planetarium: lit windows within the dark building frames against the darker sky. It seems that stars have been squared and pasted on the thick wall of a Chicago night; the cold, inhuman beauty containing the enormity of life, each window a possible story, inside which an immigrant is putting in a late shift cleaning corporate trash.

11. The green-gray color of the barely foaming lake when the winds are northwesterly and the sky is chilly.

12. The summer days, long and humid, when the streets seem waxed with sweat; when the air is as thick and warm as honey-sweetened tea; when the beaches are full of families: fathers barbecuing, mothers sunbathing, children approaching hypothermia in the lake’s shallows. Then a wave of frigid air sweeps the parks, a diluvial shower soaks every living creature, and someone, somewhere loses power. (Never trust a summer day in Chicago.)

13. The highly muggable suburbanites patrolling Michigan Avenue, identifiable by their Hard Rock Café shirts, oblivious to the city beyond the shopping and entertainment areas; the tourists on an architectural speedboat tour looking up at the steep buildings like pirates ready to plunder; the bridges’ halves symmetrically erected like jousting pricks; the street performer in front of the Wrigley Building performing “Killing Me Softly” on the tuba.

14. The fact that every year in March, the Cubs fans start saying: “This year might be it!”—a delusion betrayed as such by the time summer arrives, when the Cubs traditionally lose even a mathematical possibility of making it to the play-offs. The hopeless hope is one of the early harbingers of spring, bespeaking an innocent belief that the world might right its wrongs and reverse its curses simply because the trees are coming into leaf.

15. A warm February day when everyone present at my butcher shop discussed the distinct possibility of a perfect snowstorm and, in turn, remembered the great snowstorm of 1967: cars abandoned and buried in the snow on Lake Shore Drive; people trudging home from work through the blizzard like refugees; the snow on your street up to the milk truck’s mirrors. There are a lot of disasters in the city’s memory, which result in a strangely euphoric nostalgia, somehow akin to a Chicagoan’s respect for and pride in “those four-mansion crooks who risk their lives in crimes of high visibility” (Bellow).

16. Pakistani and Indian families strolling solemnly up and down Devon on summer evenings; Russian Jewish senior couples clustering on Uptown benches, warbling gossip in soft consonants against the blare of obsolete transistor radios; Mexican families in Pilsen crowding Nuevo Leon for Sunday breakfast; African American families gloriously dressed for church, waiting for a table in the Hyde Park Dixie Kitchen; Somali refugees playing soccer in sandals on the Senn High School pitch; young Bucktown mothers carrying yoga mats on their back like bazookas; the enormous amount of daily life in this city, much of it worth a story or two.

17. A river of red and a river of white flowing in opposite directions on Lake Shore Drive, as seen from Montrose Harbor at night.

18. The wind: the sailboats in Grant Park Harbor bobbing on the water, the mast wires hysterically clucking; the Buckingham Fountain’s upward stream turned into a water plume; the windows of downtown buildings shaking and thumping; people walking down Michigan Avenue with their heads retracted between their shoulders; my street completely deserted except for a bundled-up mailman and a plastic bag fluttering in the barren tree-crown like a torn flag.

19. The stately Beverly mansions; the bleak Pullman row houses; the frigid buildings of the LaSalle Street canyon; the garish beauty of old downtown hotels; the stern arrogance of the Sears Tower and the Hancock Center; the quaint Edgewater houses; the sadness of the West Side; the decrepit grandeur of the Uptown theaters and hotels; the Northwest side warehouses and body shops; thousands of empty lots and vanished buildings no one pays any attention to and no one will ever remember. Every building tells part of the story of the city. Only the city knows the whole story.

20. If Chicago was good enough for Studs Terkel to spend a lifetime in, it is good enough for me.

First published by 3 Book Publishing, © 2006 Aleksandar Hemon

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