Come on, baby don't you want to go?
To that same old place — sweet home Chicago ...
— Robert Johnson, 'Sweet Home Chicago', 1936

The Boy from Chicago

While driving the Green Tortoise across the country one summer we were stopped for the evening in Chicago. The bus sat at Oz Park, a small patch of green grass just off Lincoln and Halstead. Now that it was midnight the passengers were filtering back to the bus for our short drive to the Indiana Dunes where we would camp for the night.

Like most large cities Chicago has a flavor all its own, and I was enjoying the feel of the place while standing on the curb outside the bus and casually noting the number of passengers still unaccounted for at The House of Blues or Kingston Mines — the local bars near our stop. I was passing the time talking with one of the passengers; a Dutch woman from the bus. She was telling me about her evening, her feelings on Chicago (she had enjoyed it), and how it compared to Amsterdam where she was from.

As we stood talking I noticed a group of 3 or 4 local boys eyeing the bus from the shadows of a vacant lot about 30 yards away. They were in their early teens and trying hard to look tough, but at the same time clearly curious about this strange bus full of people that had appeared in their neighborhood. I was hoping they would come over as I generally enjoyed having local people take a look at the bus and meet the passengers — it was close, unplanned meetings like that which made traveling so fun. The boys kept their distance though, clearly interested in who we were and what we were doing, but also apprehensive.

By now the rest of the missing passengers had shown up and stumbled onto the bus to pass out for the evening, so it was about time to go. The Dutch woman had noticed the boys as well and we were both curious if they would come over. Still they kept their distance, talking among themselves and clearly trying to decide what to do. There was a slightly taller one that appeared to be the leader and he didn't seem interested in talking to us. Two of the younger boys were on bicycles and it was one of these who seemed to be lobbying for something different. The boys on bikes were interesting to me; they seemed to be straddling that line between older boyhood and younger manhood, not really fitting in either one, but interested in both.

Finally, as the last of the passengers was on the bus and the Dutch girl and I were moving toward the door they seemed to sense that the opportunity had passed and began moving up the block, led by the taller boy. The boy on the bicycle sat looking at us though. With his friends already moving on he leaned his head back slightly and called out one word into the quiet of the night, accenting each syllable clearly:

"CHI - CA - GO!"

The Dutch woman stopped mid step and spun around. His words hung in the air while we looked at each other across 30 yards of concrete that seemed both much farther and much nearer. His call had something of an incantation in it, called out in celebration of his home, but also as a means of sharing it with us. There was also an element of challenge in his call: where he had sat on the edge, clearly interested in what we were doing now we stood on the edge of his world, curious about what he possessed. He'd evened the playing field. His call seemed to have that effect on the woman I was talking to. She looked the boy searchingly, as if he had access to some secret knowledge. I suppose in a way he did. For that brief moment he stood for and spoke for the Spirit of the City. Perhaps he could tell that the bus was full of foreigners to his home, but he threw out the word that spoke of what they had come seeking: the one night soul of Chicago.

After looking for a few moments longer he turned and slowly rode off after his friends, disappearing into the dark. The Dutch woman went in and found a seat on the bus and I followed and started the engine.