The Windy City
Inspired by my time in Chicago.
A blisteringly cold gust of wind pushes against the small child, layered so many times that the two-sizes-too-big snow coat can barely zip up. The chill still reaches deep into his bones, the air freezing the protective fluid on his eyes. Nearly tipping over backwards in the gusts that race between the skyscrapers, the child hunches his shoulders and attempts to march on, all his effort only preventing him from going backwards. The snow starts floating down, distracting the child momentarily from the cold into thoughts of building snowmen.
A child wrapped in layers, as if an onion. Layers of protection, layers of personality to please those who might judge, layers to make sense of this cold world. The thickest layer, that oversized snow coat, comes off indoors where a cup of hot chocolate warms the fingers. Each gulp of chocolatey goodness literally warms the heart on its way down, heating the blood as it streams around their little body. The tip of their nose goes bright pink as it warms, the lips from blue to red and the frown turns into the smallest of smiles.
Outside, the snow drifts toward the ground, spinning in the changing winds. The black bitumen of the road slowly disappears in a sea of white, the traffic goes from little to none as drivers realize that it is better to just stay home. A stillness falls over the city.
Inside, lights and the smell of an open fireplace warm the environment. Maroon-coloured vinyl seats, slight tears at the edges showing the wear from age and the many who’ve taken comfort from the elements, beckon cold bottoms to the safety of this haven. A waiter, pancakes in tow, completes this little diner.
The snow falls faster, deepening the piles outside the doors. As it reaches a steady pace, the wind dies down and the child can continue the adventure home, this time able to throw snowballs at his siblings while their parents, wearied by the weather and responsibilities, can only laugh at what it was once to be a child.
As the years go on, the child grows and the coat shrinks. The layers, however, remain. Sometimes in physical form, protecting against the elements, always in their emotional form, protecting against the many insults that are flung from near and far. Adolescence brings a special set of problems – from pimples to hormones to the feeling of never quite fitting in. The layers are always keeping out the cold, the diner always offering a safe haven against whatever happens outdoors.
One day, the teen years not so long-lost, the grown-up child stands outside the diner and looks up. Far above this 6-foot frame stands a ‘40s skyscraper, as if untouched by the years of wind that should have weathered its walls. Strong against the elements that have so aged our young friend. Unshaken by the wars, the economic collapses, the protests and the good times it has seen. It stands tall in the city, proud of its citizens, disappointed when they destroy a neighbour in their haste for modernity, demanding a better future. Standing there, looking up into this wise old friend, the grown-up child wonders how some things can withstand time without a single wrinkle. Before heading interstate for college, he thinks, “this is the place I call home.”
Twenty years later, that sentence long since forgotten, a blistering wind storms through the new town that he has long-since called home. He watches his eldest daughter pull the only son through the snow to a small diner they often frequent. As he sits down and orders hot chocolates for the whole family, he pulls at the loosening thread of the green vinyl booth seats ... and remembers.
Excusing himself quietly from the table, he steps outside again and looks up in to the sky. Instead of seeing a timeless skyscraper, he sees a four-storey business block. Instead of the wind gusting down the tunnels created by hundreds of tall buildings in a grid-street city, he feels the wind pushing him from every direction. Each gust so strong that he can almost fall into it without falling at all. He is so wearied trying to hold up all of these layers. So wearied being a bread-winner, bringing up three children, playing happy families, paying bills. The daily grid makes this wind seem a cinch.
He begins walking down the street, taking off a layer at a time. Removing the stress about money. Throwing away the idea of keeping up with the Jones’. Leaving behind a job he hates. Letting go of his hate for the punk kids that made high school a misery. Ceasing to wish his kids stepped into his dream of being a professional sportsman. Forgetting the niggling feeling that this was all just a little bit wrong. Letting out the cold that he had been insulating inside all of these layers all of these years. Feeling the ice melt to tears that washed down his cheeks, disappearing into the wind that was flying around him. Feeling the rage rise, warming him, then letting it go in sobs that floated into the noisy sky. The sorrow was being beaten out of him by the elements.
Freed, he slowly walked back to the diner. This time, he looked ahead. And this time, the hot chocolate warms him so much that he grins broadly. “Honey,” he says, “I think we need to find a new home.”