Chicago, City of Ghosts


For the last four days or so I’ve been in Morton Grove visiting my father in a nursing home. I’ve been asked on more than one occasion how often I come to Chicago to see the old man. I may be projecting, but it always feels like there’s an undeniable element of judgment to the query, like the actual question is, “Do you visit your father often or are you a bad son?” My stock answer is, “Not as often as I would like.” 

That answer has the benefit of being true. Even when flying Spirit Airlines and staying at a Motel 6, this trip will cost me somewhere between eight hundred to a thousand dollars that I don’t really have. But beyond the expense and the loneliness of being away from my wife and son and dog, it’s tough for me to come back to Chicago because it’s the home of so many bad memories. 

For me, Chicago is a city of ghosts. It’s populated by ghosts of dead relationships. It’s haunted by ghosts of dreams abandoned and crushed. It’s a spooky specter of past trauma. It’s rife with the ghosts of things unsaid. But it’s also haunted by the ghosts of uncles and aunts and grandparents.

When I’m in Chicago, the past feels more concrete and consequently more painful. My stomach tightens as the plane approaches O’Hare, and I have to steel myself for what’s to come. I have the kind of complicated, agonizing emotions that can only come with loving something with all your heart and soul, and knowing that passion is entirely one-sided. 

My brain has done me the questionable service of blocking out a lot of my memories. It’s a survival instinct, I suppose. I don’t think I’d be able to function if I remembered every terrible thing that happened to me. I’m not even sure my brain could store that much damage. I’d probably have to procure some manner of artificial brain just to handle all the overflow. 

Unfortunately, when my brain deleted or at least hid my painful memories of the Windy City, it seems to have taken all my happy memories of Chicago. I know there was a reason I loved the city with such ferocious intensity, but all I really remember is the agonizing cold and struggling and that final year of rejection and failure and falling apart. 

Dad. The Phish hoodie, not surprisingly, is mine. 

Dad. The Phish hoodie, not surprisingly, is mine. 

The past is painful. To paraphrase that motherfucker William Faulkner, the past is never dead. It's not even past. But I’m trying to move beyond that and create new, positive memories of Chicago. I think of Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast as an exciting new beginning, so it felt wonderful to see my friend Clint and record an episode of our podcast in his apartment. It was a welcome reminder that Chicago is full of wonderful people and not just ghosts of the past. 

The other undeniable highlight of the trip was taking my dad to Rosa’s Blues Lounge, an authentic blues haven where middle to upper middle class white people (as well as me and my dad) listen to authentic blues music. It was a semi-regular hangout for me and the old man before I moved to Atlanta. My dad loves music, and a lot of my favorite memories of him are music-based, like when I was able to take him to a ZZ Top Storytelling show as an adult or when we watched Michael Jackson Moonwalk during the big Motown 25 special when I was a kid. 


My dad is that one older gentleman who really does not like living in a nursing home, even if that’s the best and only place for him at this point. But his gloom lifted and for a couple of hours my dad was in blues heaven. Listening to Billy Branch and the S.O.Bs (Sons of Blues) perform reconnected both of us to happy, joyous memories of connection and happiness and acceptance, when things were a little brighter and also that piece of shit Trump wasn’t President but rather a man who represents everything that’s good about Chicago. 

How exquisitely ironic that nothing connected me to the joy and pride and sense of belonging I used to feel towards Chicago quite like listening to ancient blues singers sing about pain and despair and, perhaps not coincidentally, their own complicated relationship with the city.

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