The year I turned eight and got my first pair of glasses, I rode horses. I wore carpenter jeans and oversized summer camp t-shirts. I did not notice or know to care that I looked like a very pretty little boy when I tucked my ponytail under my riding helmet. I would smile madly beneath my uneven Coke bottle glasses as Dotty cantered with the grace of an elephant swatting a bee.
Dotty was a bit unhinged. Her prance was an unveiled attempt to let everyone know that though she may be old, she could still pop that booty. She was huffy about eating and grooming, too. She needed a lot of attention. She was clearly very insecure. But who could blame her, with that droopy eye?
I fed Dotty sugar cubes, and bayed at her like I thought her sister might do, if she had a sister. We were cool. Most of the other campers were afraid to ride her, but they just didn’t know her like I did.
Thusly we incurred the accident of our claim on the prairies of Northern Illinois, majestic in their vacancy. The land had no reason to be there, other than to be there. And neither did we.
Mischance whisked my mom, sister and I away to rows and rows of ranch houses, lawns with city-regulated grass length; a land dotted with strip malls and chain stores where one uncharacteristic township seamlessly stretched into the next along highway 290 until the Costco-littered land mass reached Chicago. These suburbs annually graduate a dicotomous army of teenagers. The teenagers are either content to live inside taup-walled McMansions, or they have the uncontrollable desire to graffiti said McMansions.
I was of the latter group.
Off to college, predictably to a liberal arts school in a cornfield. Iowa City is equal parts NPR-donating farm-to-table granola, and ra-ra Big Ten football tailgaters. I waited tables during football games, preferring to make money off of booze and to drink for free. I relied on the coop and the farmer’s market for locally grown organic snap peas and semolina baguettes. Charmed at the used bookstore where the owners let their cats run the Shakespeare section, the hole-in-the-wall bars on the Grad School Side of the River, underground dance parties at the Yacht Club (a dive bar, not an actual yacht club), and the convulcade of human oddities and wonders in the city center pedestrian walkway, I wanted more. More of that.
In Chicago. This is where I decided it was big city or die. Anything can happen in a city with the right amount of magic. You can grab last-minute tickets to your favorite band’s after hours show. You can find a hole in the wall where the beer is cold (and you’ve probably never heard of the microbrewery) and strangers tell stories for your sick sweet heart. A portly woman on tranquilizers can surprise everyone and moon the entire 22 Clark bus. You can run into the same person over and over until you finally have coffee and realize it would never work because he has been wearing a thumb ring this entire time.
I’ve had a stranger in SanFrancisco say that perfect thing to me, a perfect stranger, at the perfect moment. I’ve had a conversation about nothing in French with a jovial shop owner along the Seine in Paris — the point is: he was willing to indulge my terrible French. I’ve lost a book on a park bench in Dublin only to find a different book on the same bench the next day. I’ve attended a traditional Australian potroast on a rooftop in Brooklyn after ferrying a chocolate bobka from Dean & Deluca on an absinthe-fueled subway ride. Cities are magic.
In search of a different kind of magic, I moved to Los Angeles one July day. It was actually one July week, because it takes four days to drive through the Rockies and three days to recover from the shock of careening 90 miles an hour down a mountain. The whole town is dusted with the glittering feeling that something will happen if you mine for magic. It will find you there.
It found me like thunder, and I left it like lighting. Chicago calling. With more work, with family, and all the other horribly practical reasons people live where they live. On my last long run down the beach that paralells the Pacific Coast Highway, I stopped at the end of a pier in the Palisades and cried at the ocean with my whole being. It confused a lot of beach-goers and a few pelicans. Disenfranchising this alchemy of city and nature and the Wild West of it all, put the chill of Chicago back in me.
Chicago’s chemistry had changed, and I returned its prodigal changeling. The city blocks seemed tame, for I had tamed them years ago. But there are places unexplored here, and places unexplored everywhere. Rather than a yawn at a place known came a calm resolve to seek magic wherever I go. I want to travel and run and put my feet on different parts of the earth to let it know I was there. I want to stomp on the Earth’s face.
Somewhere on North Avenue, between a reclaimed abandoned railroad park and a tattoo parlor, I found my home city littered with a magic hidden from anyone who chooses to be blind to it. This is native magic.
When SanFrancisco trash talks L.A., and L.A. trash talks Chicago, and Chicago trash talks Milwaukee and everybody trash talks Detroit, there are those defenders of native magic.
“No,” we say. “You just don’t know it like I do.”