by Kate Bishop
The digital red lights of the clock tell me it is 5:30 in the morning. I figure my dad will be waiting until a reasonable hour (most likely 6:00 so I don’t complain too much) to wake me up, so I lay in my hotel bed, watching the clock until six. The Chicago lights are shining through a slight shimmer of smog, fluorescent but a tiny bit blurred through the window. I see the headlights of cars drive by, adding golden hues to the whites and blues of the city outside, which are a surprise after the reds and browns of the wilderness sunrise of my home.
At 5:45, I give up the pretense of sleep and get dressed to go to breakfast. Dad likes to wake up early enough for the free buffet so that no one is seated but us. I choose a table by the large window that is level with the headlights, pedestrians, and skyscraper lobbies across the street. I can see through the lower windows of the lobbies and into their main rooms, with golden walls and polished elevators. It looks just like the lobby of our hotel. I sit down with my chocolate milk and cinnamon roll and think about how different it is here than in my hometown.
Throughout the day, we take a personalized tour through alleys, side streets and adjoining hotels, trying our best not to look lost. Being lost is not something we are accustomed to, having lived in a small town all our lives. Even though we are only here for a night and a day, I can already feel myself lose the easy sense of direction you get from knowing where everything is. I catch myself smiling at people who don’t smile back, but that is just an old habit and I won’t be needing it here.
When the sky begins to turn gray with dusk, we set out again to find dinner. After having done some online research, Dad determined the best restaurant in town and, even better, he knew how to find it. We head down the stairs of the nearest subway station. To my surprise, it opens into a long tunnel with lights illuminating the darkness. In their cheap radiance there are close to one hundred people bustling by, a hundred voices mingling with that of the loudspeaker. Catching my attention, however, is a man with dreadlocks, a bandana and torn jeans. He holds a saxophone and a secondhand case. The latter is propped open at his feet, and I see the telltale green of his day’s collection inside.
Surrounding the man is a group of spectators. They’re either far away, wanting to watch but not feeling obligated to donate, watching appreciatively, or joining in enthusiastically by clapping or even singing. At the end of each song the performer makes eye contact with the people closest to him, smiles, and sneaks a look at the contents of his saxophone case before playing again. Still having twenty minutes before our train leaves, Dad leans against a wall nearby, watching but not wanting to feel obligated. I follow, enjoying the music. In Michigan, there aren’t any places near me large enough to have people like the man playing the saxophone. Even if there are, there are not enough people on the streets to perform for. When we leave I drop a dollar in his case, ducking away from my father’s disapproving glance.
After we are off the train, we walk the last block to our restaurant. It’s a four-star steakhouse, chosen by Dad. It’s designed like a tavern but with the bar in a separate room so as not to disturb the more snobby guests. Dishes clatter and people laugh, but not so loudly that we have to raise our voices. Our waiter appears, giving us water with professional grace. Dad waits until he leaves and turns to me. “He’s probably been at this job for years. It’s probably all he’s ever done,” he informs me with pride in the fact that everything has a cost, and our waiter isn’t on sale.
When we leave the lights, crowds, and polished lobbies of Chicago I watch its disappearing haze for as long as I can. I miss the creativity and clamor that only cities seem to have. Even though I live in the clear skies and uneven ground of Michigan, home is where the heart is.