I hate that sort of writer who makes lists of why one city is better than another. Those lists often come across as either defensive (“why we’re better than [bigger city, often NYC]”) or superior (“why [big west- or east-coast city] is better than [Midwestern or Southern city]”), as if the quality or worth of any single city is (a) quantifiable via personal experience and then (b) can be easily applied universally among a diverse range of people with wildly variant values, hopes, and expectations. So while I personally prefer NYC over Chicago, you won’t ever hear me say it’s a better city. You might hear me say it’s a better city for me, but for many people it is not.
I’m lucky enough to have been born in the Midwest and raised in the South (or Texas, if you think that it’s not “the South”). I’ve spent significant time in South Carolina, most of my adult years in Chicago, and a handful of springtime weeks in the deserts of New Mexico. And, now, after visiting NYC for a cumulative six weeks every year for six years (approximately 11.5% of my life during those years), I’ve been in NYC eight months, months that have been exactly what I’d hoped at the very same time that they’ve been exactly as horrible as I’d feared. But bad experiences don’t make a place better or worse (nor do good ones); it’s just life, getting interesting, shaking things up. I’ve learned not to complain. Shakeups give way to heartbreaking stories and new baby kisses and random encounters — be they in the Village on a Tuesday at 2am or at an airport in Wyoming — and also not rarely things that become deep and meaningful to everyone involved.
I haven’t been everywhere but I’ve been enough places that I know that there’s a place for everyone, whether they’ve found it yet or not. And I know that every place has its good qualities along with its bad (subjectively speaking). Your place might make me miserable and vice versa, and sometimes we write off places before we’ve ever given them a chance; in retrospect I left Texas far too soon to tell whether it could have been my place, or at least a place I could have stayed for a little while longer. The trajectory of my life has been such that I think my chance to find that out about Texas is long gone. Maybe I’ll go back to write about it or if my dad needs my help or if at some point it calls my name in a way I can’t drown out with the sounds of the city. Otherwise it will just be in the collection of places I’ve been that I carry with me. The memories are everywhere, if you let yourself remember.
Years ago, back when I was still visiting NYC every few months or so, wanting to not be a real newcomer when I moved here — how näive! more on that in later writings — I mentioned to my friend Dave (upon whose futon I slept for my first months in the city) that I didn’t like doing touristy things when I visited cities, that I preferred exploring neighborhoods and finding places both quiet and loud that I’d remember (or just crawling onto his fifth floor fire escape to read a book, often distracted by the odd things that happen in Harlem on rainy nights when random women hang out of fire escapes, reading, when they could be in Times Square with 80,000 other clueless people, but that other thing isn’t seeing a city any more than viewing a postcard of neon lights would be. And who wants that? Besides me, of course, the first time I was in NYC; it had to be gotten over with.)
A graduate of the seminary, Dave can say profound things that stick with a person, though later he rarely remembers. What he said to me that day was, “Ah, you’ve learned how to be a traveler instead of a tourist.” That distinction has stayed with me, not just about the places I visit but also relationships and my family and life in general. If, that is, you think of traveling as digging in and exploring with gusto versus touristing, which is going where everyone else goes because a lot of people have gone there before (because a lot of other people told them they should).
This is why, when I think of Charleston, I think of the people I met and the smell of the air and the sunset on the beach the night Nick and I drove down from Columbia. Also jam bands at The Pour House and Colonial Lake and the tiny French restaurant where I ate a trés légumes (three vegetables) plate three times a week. And the feeling I had when I was there: as though I were really alive, despite the drinking.
Chicago has its own set of memories, too long to list. Every day brings at least a few. Today was thinking of seeing Steve Frisbie with Jocelyn in Rogers Park, which was spurred by a Beatles tune coming up on shuffle, which made me think of Beatles nights with Tributosaurus. That led to thinking of Monday nights at the Hideout, with jug bands, and Robbie Fulks’ radio show from the Old Town School. Then there’s Lincoln Square, where I got sober and recovered from brain surgery, hobbling on a cane, and fell in love with Jack and lived in one place for longer than I ever had in my entire life.
I sat down to write a list, and this is what came out. I suppose it’s apropos, a piece of writing about places and traveling that isn’t a piece about tourism but a piece about memories and what they mean, as I walk down the streets of Manhattan — my place, at least for now — and remember all the places that have come before. Travel, don’t tour. You’ll be grateful.