“I just can’t believe it’s happening again,” he said. He couldn’t look at me. I guessed he was 23, 25 years old at his eldest. I laughed, something small and sharp. I tried to remain sympathetic.
“It happens every year,” I said. “Winter comes, and we just have to be tough till next summer.”
It was September, and we were gathered in Logan Square on one of those lingering, hot fall nights that wraps you in the comfort of humidity like a child in a heavy blanket. I walked to the party because I wanted to savor what it felt like to wear light clothing and open-toed shoes. I wanted to sweat outside the gym. Unforced sweat. The back deck was loaded with people, most of us strangers, and we were talking and standing with the heat, listening to nearby traffic blend with the music, and feeling the energy of the city against our skin. When it’s warm like that, Chicago warm, that’s all you need: the heat, the conversation, and the cool drink in your hand. We shared the sensation that we had something good here. That we were living in the best city in the world during the best time of our lives, with the most interesting people we’d ever met. Our only responsibility was to remember it.
That feeling, for me, lasts from June through August. Summer in Chicago: when nothing matters but right now. It’s being on the beach and feeling like you’re on an oceanside vacation, without a care in the world, and with a place to call home nearby. It’s setting up in the park with a blanket and picnic basket and listening to your favorite band play for free. It’s the calm and afterglow you feel walking home from those experiences, surrounded by the soft hum of the pulsing city through the heat of the night. It’s one enormous fireworks show. Just as one experience fizzles, another explodes and again lights up our skies. The hard truth, though, is the show must end. The grand finale eventually comes. By September, like my young friend fearing the inevitable, we have to admit that summer is almost over. But, in Chicago, that doesn’t mean it all must end. It just means annually we must band together to endure and pay attention to a lingering warmth that is too often overlooked.
Universally, fall is seen as a season of death. The leaves fall, and the vibrancy of summer life sinks with the temperature. I think of it more as a surge. It’s a final rush of energy when you can, and will, get everything in that you want before winter hits. Maybe it throws back to the feeling of going back to school. You get new school supplies, bright white tennis shoes for gym class—the fresh start of blank pages to write a new chapter of your story. It’s a season to harvest friends and memories. It’s the time of the year for bonfires, football games, carving pumpkins, and sitting on the curb to watch the homecoming parade go by.
I live on one of Chicago’s boulevards, and we’ve got so many tall, lush trees that their leaves actually block my view of the skyline from a third-story window. The sun peeks through, but there’s a constant green glow, like the leaves are tissue paper against the glass. By September, the glow brightens to yellow and brings an orchestra of sounds with it. In the mornings, I know neighbors are up and on their way to work when the crunching of leaves floats on the back of cool breezes to my open window. That sound represents the relationship and fight between life and death. This time, it’s life. It inspires me to get out there and crunch some of my own leaves. Fall brings all the admiration that maybe we forgot we had for summer. When the air breathes in heavy, I always evaluate those days of pure indulgence. Did we go to every concert we wanted to? Could we have squeezed in another street festival? Did we really appreciate those afternoons on the beach?
Fall reminds me that before long, this golden view lining my window will fade to cold, gray light as winter rolls in. That I’ll have to sling on a big winter coat, wrap my neck in a scarf, top myself with a hat, and clumsily fumble my keys as I try to lock my door with gloves on. On those dreary winter days, I make sure to check the window. The trees are bare then, but I can see the skyline again. That’s enough to get me out the door with a smile.
Outside of the holiday season, most of my memories of winter are putting on my winter coat and boots. Vivid, huh? I take my dog out about four times a day, and otherwise leave the house maybe twice. We spend so much time suiting up and trudging through the icy wind and snow. We pass neighbors, also out walking dogs, but our heads are bowed as to block the wind. In retrospect, summer’s such a breeze. It’s when no time outdoors is wasted. Its potential can be maximized, embraced. We don’t relish our time outside in winter, scraping the ice off windshields, slipping on the sidewalks landlords didn’t salt. Pessimism takes over my otherwise optimistic outlook. I roll my eyes as I walk past dibs in parking spots. I get in the mentality of Bill Murray from the film “Groundhog Day,” wherein the weather prediction is a great summation: “It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.”
We’re Chicagoans. Winter is our badge of honor.
Luckily, that last part, no matter how insatiable winter’s appetite grows, isn’t true. My young friend at the party had only lived in our great city for a year—that’s the chrysalis stage of an outsider’s metamorphosis to a full-blown Chicagoan. As each winter goes by, your wings get stronger, and you’re able to float through with less effort. You can find beauty in those first few hours of a fresh snowfall. The parks sparkle and the streetlights illuminate the falling snowflakes like the heavens chose to rain breathtaking glitter. We get a childlike giddiness from the idea of building a snowman or taking a romantic walk through the neighborhood, mittened hands gripping hot chocolate. But winter isn’t that accommodating. It comes with a catch or two. Traffic quickly blackens our whimsical spirits, and the snowplows create slush mountain formations transplanted from outerspace. We realize that when we go outside again, it’ll be cold and wet and slippery out there. But we’ll survive it. We’re Chicagoans. We were bred with steel and born unto nails. Last February was the coldest of its kind on record. We shrugged and quipped to cold-weather brethren, “I’ve seen worse.” We get through winter because we prepare for it together, accepting the responsibility of making warm weather count. We know what kind of winter coat to buy (down feathers, past the waist). We know that snowboots are mandatory, and where you can and cannot park after Dec. 1. We learn, without judgment, that people will hole up in their homes, and you may not see those friends on the fringe of your social circle until spring thaw. We will all complain about waking up in the dark and coming home in the dark. The days are short, and the season is long.
Out in that world, we get over each catch by looking out for each other—or we should, and if you don’t, start because we’re in this together. I’ve had neighbors graciously keep their snowblowers blowing longer than their stretch of sidewalk. They leave shovels propped outside buildings in case you don’t have one of your own or yours cracks against the brick-like ice. Need a push out of your parking spot? No problem. And when I unknowingly dropped my gloves outside my car last winter, I came back to find them neatly tucked inside my door handle.
It is our brawn, but also our bond, that carries us through. We’re the city of big shoulders and deep-dish pizza. We don’t tolerate crap like ketchup on hot dogs and slices you fold in half. We work hard. We build our buildings tall. We didn’t just survive the Great Chicago Fire, we came out fighting and rebuilt an even better city. We are not perfect and we own it. We endure criticisms about our politicians and have a history that’s heavily marked with the likes of Al Capone. Through corruption and pettiness, we remain steadfast in our belief that Chicago is the greatest city in the world, and there is nothing—especially a few feet of snow and subzero temperatures—that can change that.
Winter teaches us that we need balance. It reminds us that life itself moves in seasons. We wear shorts in November because we won’t until April. We’ll have warm times, we’ll have dark times. We’ll hug the moon, then curse the sun. We’ll have days where we’re not sure if we’re dying or just starting over. We need the perspective to prompt us to band together as a community and warm up. To look out the window before we leave, see the skyline, and smile. We’re Chicagoans. Winter is our badge of honor. We can take pride in that no matter how cold it gets.