Summer in the City

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It came to me, as it does every year, slowly at first, and then it jumps into my lap with more force than my sixty pound pit bull mix: summer isn’t going to last forever. In fact, it’s coming to an end. My feet propped up on the railing of my balcony, a Blue Moon sweating in one hand, my heart started pounding with the same regret and melancholy as last year. There is a list of summer activities I haven’t made time for yet. There are things I’ve wanted to do for several summers running and, yet again, I didn’t do them.

One thing I promise myself every year is I’ll use my balcony more. Few city folks have this luxury, or the cute yellow metal vintage patio sat I snagged, either. I’m living in the lap of luxury and I’m inside, in the central air, on Facebook. What’s wrong with me?

My first excuse is that I don’t have a grill. My condo board outlawed them due to apparent “fire hazards” or something inconsequential, whatever, I stopped listening after my dreams were dashed. Of course I didn’t own a grill to begin with and probably wouldn’t have taken the initiative to purchase one… but these slack-jawed yokels in my building, whoever they were, who could not handle open flame, had ruined it for everyone, including me and my dream world cookouts.

My second excuse is legitimate, mostly. I work nights. I’m not looking for sympathy. I’m just saying, if I had a grill, firing it up and inviting friends over for a cookout beginning at 3AM probably isn’t going to go over really well with anyone. My nights off are during the week, when normal, non-vampire humans have things like yoga class or kid-raising to do.

But this moment, this realization of the end, pushed me to action. Thankfully, the man in my life also works strange hours and we often find ourselves pre-heating the oven around 2, eating around 2:30 or 3, and starting a movie or Scrabble anytime between 3 and 4. Think about a normal person’s 6pm – 9pm and you have our 2-5. We’re creepy and irregular and mostly alright with it.

So last night we decided that, service industry schedules and fire codes be damned, we were going to enjoy our tiny slice of outdoor Chicago, our little balcony. I grew up in suburban Indianapolis. Like a lot suburban kids, I had a large backyard with a swing set, kiddie pool, and my father’s vegetable garden. You entered the yard by way of our enclosed sunroom, onto the deck with the hot tub and the grill. We also had a front yard shaded by a large oak tree, under which many pets have been laid to rest. As you know, dear Chicagoans, city life is a bit different. Some of us live in high rises with no outdoor space at all, essentially sealing us off from nature. My first Chicago apartment was as such and I remember waving my arms out of the bedroom windows, trying to determine if I needed a scarf that day. Parks became very important to me, and I’d subconsciously detour to walk through trees or near the lake, even in the worst weather.

When I moved out of the Loop to areas with more houses and less high-rises, I noticed a delightful desperation in my fellow city-dwellers: taking full advantage of any outdoor space accorded to them. These were “yards” smaller than my dad’s veggie garden. Yet, they were lovingly tended, artfully arranged, and every spare inch was exploited. When I began condo shopping three years ago, outdoor space was a bonus, and an expensive one at that. However, I was fortunate enough to find a home with a tiny deck, with a view of the L tracks. By view, I suppose what I really mean to say is that I can feel the red and purple lines rumble toward the Berwyn stop in my chest and hear the conductor yelling at drunk passengers on the PA system — though this is rare, it has happened and it was hilarious. I can no longer sleep without the white noise of the tracks when I leave town. And, to the amazement of out of town guests, I love it. Perhaps it wasn’t the best decision for resale value, but who’s going to be able to sell property in the next ten years anyway? I like my noisy patio, and I stand by it. Some of my most content and happy moments have been on my tiny patio set, writing with a Blue Moon sweating next to me, eating ice cream late at night with the boyfriend, or laughing with good friends as the sun sets behind the steeples of St. Ita’s, the bell towers marking off the half hours.

This cacophony provided the backdrop to our al fresco dining a few nights ago. Sans grill, we ordered food, broke out the nice plates, plugged in the Christmas lights, and enjoyed one of our fleeting summer nights. Perhaps suburbanites wouldn’t understand that hearing screeching train tracks in place of children splashing in a pool could be equally rejuvenating. But, this is my summer, my Chicago summer, that I will long for during our cold, long winter. When the alleyway is buried in slush and salt and the bright yellow metal of the patio set is too cold to touch, I’ll stare longingly at it all, counting the days until my next city summer night. I hope I learn to waste fewer and fewer each year.

Mary-Margaret McSweene

About Mary-Margaret McSweene

Mary-Margaret McSweene makes her home in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago with the love of her life, a pit bull/black lab mix, named Jake. Buying old things that no longer function but offer extreme aesthetic pleasure is her vice; typewriters and rotary phones are favorites. Mary-Margaret also believes that anything in life can be articulated by a Tom Petty song.

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