O’Hare’s Lost and Found
by Chris Wilkensen
I put in headphones at the Japanese airport before boarding the plane. My best friend, Tim, posted a YouTube link to “Sweet Home Chicago” on my Facebook timeline.
The head of the English department at the Malaysian university expected my decision within a week. I had six days to decide whether to take the plunge into yet another foreign contract. I had already taught abroad for five years.
I spent a lot of time in these foreign airports, traveling to different countries for excursions, almost never going home until now. Everywhere I went in the world, people knew me by the name of my hometown. I introduced myself as a Chicago boy, and that was enough. I had to come back home for the potential visa process for the job in Malaysia.
The image of Chicago’s skyline taunted me wherever I went, as if tattooed on my contact lenses. I looked out the plane window, seeing the buildings with my own eyes. As magnificent as in my memories, the buildings showcased themselves in their metal magnificence.
On past trips, I had mailed friends postcards of Hong Kong, Dubai and Singapore, whose skylines were on the same level as Chicago’s. Friends said they put the cards on refrigerators and bulletin boards. I wondered where the cards sent to my parents ended up.
* * *
In the afternoon, I landed at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, without anyone to meet, without anywhere to go, except to a Starbucks for WiFi access. I posted on Facebook: “I arrived safely. Who wants to go out for dinner?” People were busy, or at least, that was what they responded on Facebook.
That evening I drove my rental car to Chinatown and ate sweet ’n’ sour chicken alone. The fortune cookie offered, “You will find your calling soon.”
My aunt’s house was a ten-minute drive away. She remained the only white person on the block and continued to be a rarity in my family: not a drunk or a recovering addict. She had warned me in her hand-written letters about the newly emerging crime in the city, mentioning that a year ago someone had shot an 11-year-old neighborhood boy for no reason.
I hugged my aunt. She scrambled around the kitchen to make me a sandwich, although I had mentioned how full my stomach was. We talked about my future.
“Maybe it’s for the best that you take that new job in Malaysia. At least you’ll be safe,” she said. She went to bed early.
I sorted out my stuff from suitcases and slept in her spare bedroom.
“How much longer are you going to be here? Have you made up your mind yet?” she asked during breakfast.
“I’m still thinking,” I said.
* * *
That afternoon, I met my best friend, Tim, in the Loop, my ideal location to work since college. However, after one thousand job applications and dozens of interviews in the two years since earning my Bachelor’s, no company wanted me. I ran away to teach English abroad, unable to take my life at home any longer.
I hugged Tim, who wore a polo shirt and jeans, the same business-casual boredom clothing style he had sported before.
“I’ve been gone from Chicago for so long. Two years since my last visit. It’s nice to be back,” I said.
“You didn’t miss much. Chicago’s still the same. Nothing really changed. Nothing ever changes here.”
Even though I hadn’t seen Tim in about two years, we ran out of discussion topics in just twenty minutes. He brought up Game of Thrones, which I hadn’t seen.
“Obviously I didn’t miss much if the main thing you’ve been doing is watching TV shows.” I bit my tongue in regret after saying that. I could no longer look at him, and focused my view on the chilly Chicago River.
Twice I had watched boats dye the river green. I savored the wind in my hair, watching the peacefulness of the water going about its business despite the chaotic city above. As before, I still wished to spend every day downtown. The city meant everything to me, but I meant nothing to it.
Outside America, I’d witnessed picture-perfect sunrises and sunsets over crystal-blue water, and I’d seen the sun smile down on the beaches where lovers shared tongues and secrets. But I would have preferred looking at the sun over the Chicago River or Lake Michigan.
“You’ve been running away for too long. You gotta stay home. This is your home.” Tim broke the silence.
“I hate where I grew up. I can’t live where all that stuff happened,” I said.
“It’s all in the past. It’s time for you to face it. You have a little money in your pocket this time after all your work abroad. That should help.”
I didn’t respond, lost in thought and awed by the steel skyline around us. Looking at the skyline every day wasn’t enough to keep me here years ago, although it tempted me with its beauty and unattainability.
“The competition for jobs in Chicago is like a shark tank,” I said. “I’m a decent guy, and the smell of blood makes me sick, like the stockyards made my great-grandparents vomit. My great-grandparents never left; they just got used to the struggle here. I had to leave my parents’ house. I had to go. You know why. A degree was supposed to be my ticket to a better life here, not in another country. I left because I needed money, and the city wouldn’t give me a job.” I stopped rambling.
“You should ask your old professors for help. They could try to hook you up with some kind of work. It would definitely be easier than before.” Tim put his hands on his hips.
* * *
He returned to work. I took a walk to Millennium Park. The lovers grasped each other in their dumb, warm bliss, while the loners, self-conscious and pitiful, wanted nothing else than to be unnoticed.
I picked up a free RedEye from a newspaper box. I saw an ad for the Air Force, which reminded me how a recruiter had almost talked 18-year-old me into signing up, to escape my parents.
“If you sign up, you have an opportunity to see the world. This world is so much bigger than Chicago and America,” the recruiter had said. At that time, Chicago was not where I wanted to live; it was where I wanted to die. At 18, Chicago did not feel like my home, just where my parents had eloped.
That night, my heart started palpitating after passing a stop sign off Roosevelt Road, driving west from downtown. The skyline lit up the streets. My heart beat faster in excitement and fear.
I passed the house, the house of horrors. The lights were off. The big, rusted Buick sat in front. Nothing changed on the exterior of the house. It wasn’t my home — just the place where my parents lived.
“One of these days I’ll see you guys again,” I said to myself in the rental car.
* * *
I had a rough time falling asleep at my aunt’s house that night. Alone again, I didn’t need to be in a different continent to feel like an outsider.
Having been abroad for so long, I felt like a tourist coming back. Likewise, while abroad, I missed the City of Wind. I missed seeing shirts and tattoos of the Bulls, Bears, Sox, Cubs, the skyline. Overseas, I just wanted to talk with someone from Chicago but almost never ran into Chicagoans.
Chicagoans had everything here. If people wanted to visit China, they went to Chinatown. Poland, they went to Midway. Chicago had an ethnic neighborhood for everyone to experience. Why would anyone ever leave it, this cold steel paradise?
“Decide yet?” my aunt asked at breakfast the next morning.
“I’m meeting someone to talk about job opportunities here in the city today.”
“Best of luck to you, like always.” My aunt smiled.
The person I was meeting indirectly encouraged his students to travel. My university professor told us that we should travel from Chicago because when we came back, everything would be the same, as if it were right there waiting for us. I had three more days to decide on the Malaysia job.
I needed to ask him about what to do: to try to find work here or to go abroad again. We went out for beer.
“So, did you grow out of that traveling phase of yours?” he asked.
“It was never my dream to travel. Just a last resort,” I said.
“Well, the job market was tougher back then, kid. So, where have you been?”
“Bangkok. Paris. Seoul. Hong Kong. London. More places. Twenty countries. I’ve seen the world.”
“It sounds like you’ve seen enough,” he said.
“How many job applications do you think it would take for me to get a job here in Chicago? Before I left, I applied for one thousand jobs with no success.”
“That was the Great Recession,” he said. “It took better students than you longer to get jobs, if you must know. But I can help you get something, especially now that you have international experience.”
We drank. He bought a couple of rounds, switching from beer to cocktails. He said he’d help with my resume and talk to hiring managers on my behalf. The sourness the city had for me sweetened. I deserved a new taste of the city.
After more drinks, he began to ask question after question about the different areas I’d visited. “This is where I belong, though,” I concluded.
* * *
I went to bed early that night for the sole purpose of waking up early the next morning. I e-mailed him my resume, to which he confirmed a deadline of a week for him to work on it. Cracking eggs over a pan, I started to cook breakfast, something monotonous to avoid the stress of turning over serious topics.
“If you stay or go, you should at least give your mom a call.” My aunt sprinkled pepper over her plate.
“I’m going to a coffee shop to figure it out. I’ll tell you tonight.”
I’d been to coffee shops around the world, but this one on the south side was my favorite. It was a simple, clean wooden cafe for clear thoughts. On my laptop, I typed the first sentence of my cover letter. “Failures can often equal success.” In two hours, I finished the letter.
I declined the offer to work in Malaysia via e-mail. Even with a yet to be edited resume, I applied for twenty, then thirty, then forty job listings in Chicagoland. An hour later, a response came to my e-mail, asking to set up an interview.
Thinking the e-mail was a dream or too good to be true, I ordered more coffee to become more alert. I responded. The manager confirmed it. I left Tim a voicemail about the good news.
The excitement was too much for me. I did it: I called the house, the same number that hadn’t changed since my childhood.
“Hi, Mom,” I said.
“Is that really you, son?”
“Yeah, I’m back in the city, for good.”
“It’s so nice to hear your voice. I didn’t think I deserved to before. But I’ve changed for the better now. I’m sober.”
“Do you need anything?” I asked.
“I’m all right,” she said. “But it would be nice to see you if you could manage it.”
“I’ll come over in a bit. You’re sure you’re sober, though?”
“Those days are over. You won’t be able to know for sure unless you see me in the flesh.”
“I’ll see you soon,” I said, hanging up the call. My eyes closed, and I took a deep breath, difficult to do while smiling .
I ordered another coffee for the drive to see my mother. Even without sugar, I couldn’t recall having a sweeter cup of coffee before. I connected my iPod to the car’s stereo and listened to “Sweet Home Chicago” on repeat.
Copyright © 2015 by Chris Wilkensen