When I was a junior in high school, and I had to begin my college application process, I only wanted two things: Catholic and Chicago. Or, at least, Chicago-ish.
For me, this meant applying to the University of St. Francis in Joliet, and to Loyola University Chicago. I got into both. I chose Loyola, because Chicago.
Some of my high school counselors and teachers were visibly disappointed with my choice. With my GPA, I could “aspire to more.” I could have done Notre Dame’s Great Books program. I could have gone to Harvard. I couldah been a contendah.
Instead–as I was told by a friend whose uncle worked at Loyola, and who therefore claimed to be in a position to know–I had chosen an athenaeum whose last entering class had an average ACT of 19. I wasn’t a 19. I was a 32. A 32 should act like a 32. This meant giving at least a nominal flail in the direction of the Ivies.
If I wanted to stay in the area, I should have picked Northwestern. So went some of the muttering. Or, perhaps, the University of Chicago. Such places were like the Ivy League. They’d help move you along in life. Nobody much knew where they’d move you to. But “moving along” was considered important.
Around the same time, my congressman came to my high school to give a speech. A bunch of local pols joined him onstage, gazing down at us teenagers. Hizzoner’s speech concerned a new south suburban airport.
We should push our parents to support the airport, he said. We should do it because people our age were leaving the area, and we were not coming back. Members of our cohort might be induced to stay if there was more economic opportunity. This would happen if we got an airport. Consider the concessions, the mechanics, the baggage handlers, and the franchises that would spring up around them.
I confess to not knowing the precise merits or demerits of having another airport. Although, considering where I live now, I assume the planes would fly right over my head, which for me is a minus. Also, I more than fully realize that the south suburbs of Chicago are in desperate need of more economic opportunity of some kind.
Even so, there was something eerie about the whole thing: a congressman standing onstage at my private high school, looking at the children of the local ruling class, as much as acknowledging that we would all “move along.” For, as went unsaid, most of the people who’d directly benefit from the airport would not be us. For we were being groomed as “leaders.” We did not do concessions, mechanics, baggage handling, or franchises.
Which is not to say we didn’t have a role in saving our suburbs. Our job was to go home and push our parents to call our politicians, most of whom, as it happened, were sitting in the theater that morning. And they would then embrace the airport, voting on behalf of the kinds of people who drove carts, managed sandwich shops, and clerked at hotels. Which, again, didn’t mean us, because our school was figuring out the secret code needed to tap our way into the Harvard/Yale pipeline (about a year after me, they finally cracked it), and everybody knew that.
None of it was said just this way. Most of it wasn’t said at all. Yet that was the subtext of the morning. “We know you’re leaving. But may you and yours have pity on us.”
I graduated Loyola with a theology degree. I contemplated grad school. I sat outside on a hazy summer night (or was it a foggy fall evening?) with one of my best friends. I told him I was thinking about the University of Chicago Divinity School, or maybe Notre Dame’s automatic-all-tuition-paid master’s program in theological studies.
My friend shook his head. “You need to break the Chicago orbit,” he said. It was time, it seemed, to “move along.” Because.
I began to believe it. It was a slow process. I’m a slow person. But I drank the Kool-Aid sip by sip. In 2010, I audited a summer grad course at Boston College. I had a good time, felt reenergized, thought it was “the Spirit.” Maybe I should “move along.”
BC would work, of course. Or maybe HDS, the abbreviation by which the cognoscenti refer to Harvard Divinity School. And in 2013, after several years knocking about the basement of the Chicago nonprofit world, realizing at some level that I was not doing anything like what I should be doing, I concluded that what I needed to do was shoot higher. Maybe Boston was my “shooting higher.” I thought about it so much that I believed it to be so. I took another summer grad course at BC, this time for credit, to test the waters.
The class itself was great. It was liberation theology, taught by a Jesuit. I wrote a beautiful paper, if I may blow my own horn. I got an A.
Yet I also spent the whole two weeks feeling cosmically alone. It was like I’d left my soul back at Midway Airport, near the Southwest kiosk. There was no other way to explain it. It hit like a bomb.
The clanging bell at the T stop, which I found so charming the last time, now said: “Go away.” Undergrads in summer school looked at me funny when I ate my soup and sandwich in the cafeteria. One of my roommates remarked that I looked dreadfully homesick. I was.
The last time I had been there, there were some beautifully-cool days and nights. This time, the hundred-degree highs baked me into a wet dog. I later found that my other roommate, a Franciscan friar, had tweeted about me. He said I was too sweaty for him. He tweeted this several times. At least he didn’t use my name.
Moreover, the spiritual was reflected in the physical. While I was at BC, I caught one of the worst colds of my life. I kept my hacking cough for a month. Then, one morning during my final week, my Jesuit teacher kept repeating: “Idols demand sacrificial victims in order to survive.” By “idols” he specifically meant “oppressive systems,” but I wasn’t thinking about “oppressive systems.” Instead, I thought about my relationship to the city and the school that I had embraced, but that had in the end turned on me. A couple of hours later at Mass, while listening to a different priest preaching about Old Testament idolatry (by chance, such were the readings that day), I had what I can only describe as a flash, or mental vision. It consisted of the concluding words of The Great Gatsby:
I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out Daisy’s light at the end of his dock. He had come such a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. But what he did not know was that it was already behind him, somewhere in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
That afternoon, the one and only friend who consented to have lunch with me in Boston showed up at the burrito shop, hauling around her books in a bag. It was a Great Gatsby bag, bearing the classic art deco book cover.
It meant idolatry. Not that of the ancient Israelites, nor of the Latin American ruling classes. But mine. God had cued up a shot on a pool table. With it, he’d finished off my eight ball.
Boston, as a personal mental construct, started to die, though it took me a full year to admit that I was through. The idea of “moving along” died with it.
I came to perceive that among the privileged of my generation, we receive this universal command to “move along” to “bigger and better” things. If you have the grades and the pedigree, you are assured that you are wanted, nay, needed, on some bigger stage than the one to which you were born.
So you look around your hometown and wrinkle your nose, because you are told you must. You take off, never to be seen again. But “never to be seen again,” I’ve noticed, does not mean only back home. My people are not seen again even in the places where they set up shop with such initial fanfare.
The politics, the injustices, the inequalities, the great policies, the great cures, whatever it is we are running off to solve by becoming grandees in the capitals, or at least big shots in the coastal cities: these problems all remain more or less intact. We, meanwhile, disappear silently and anonymously into business, law, consulting, nonprofits that “raise awareness,” or writing those dreadful listicles that exhort the masses concerning “10 More Things You Didn’t Know About Living in Brooklyn (No, Really, There Are 10 More Things).”
Because we accumulate in the same few geographic areas in huge numbers, we must compete ruthlessly for the same nationally-standardized, homogenized, eternally-sold-and-resold scraps. If we don’t stop it, we’ll end our careers and lives just as nondescript as any of the faceless climbers who ever preceded us. Meanwhile, many of our hometowns are dying from what amounts to a shiny, sneaky derivative of white flight.
I, in any case, have decided to stay. Not in Chicago proper, thought that will always be a part of my life, but in the southland. The city contains enough copies of me already.
And that is, henceforth, the advice I will give all the “smart kids” I find jogging on my old educational treadmills. “You know, you’re really talented. You could go on to great things. You ever considered staying on the South Side?”