My first month since I moved to Chicago in the dead of winter during a pandemic

I remember the first moment it happened. The moment I liked it here. Reluctantly, I was at the grocery store scanning the aisles for necessary items. I’m not too fond of grocery shopping, and I always put it off until the last minute. The day was coming to an end. I was exhausted. At checkout, the cashier prices my 27 items. I pay and walk towards the exit. I step outside, and it hits me. It’s snowing and just like the water droplets raining from the sky, my body freezes.

For a moment in time, I stood there in nirvana. The first snow is so quiet, so innocent, so lovely. I feel like I was in 6th grade again hearing on the landline phone school is canceled due to inclement weather conditions, also known as snow. Growing up along the coastline of North Carolina, you don’t see snow often. When you do, schools, restaurants, and roads all close, and all the milk and bread is gone from the grocery store. However, in Barrington, a suburb just outside of Chicago, Illinois, that is not the case. Everything operates like normal. The relationship between Chicagoans and snow is typically nothing more than an annoyance. Life goes on as usual, but roads are dangerous, shoveling the driveway is a pain, and the nip in the air requires many clothing layers for comfort. I understand the annoyance, but I only moved to Illinois a month again, and at this moment, I am awestruck. The snow looks so pretty, and the world around me grows quiet. ‘I like it here‘, I think to myself. 

Driving in the snow

Driving in the snow, however, is a different story. I wouldn’t say I like it. If snow is an angel, then an icy road is the devil. One morning, my first morning driving in the snow, I slowly pull out of the driveway, terrified of skidding on the ice,I was not paying attention to the pile of snow at the end of the drive. I hear CRUNCH. It is the sound of snow and ice hitting rubber. The snowplow came through the neighborhood earlier that morning and had pushed snow to the end of our driveway. I rev my engine, the tires spin, but clearly, I am not going anywhere. I stay calm, but being a snow virgin, I had no idea how to get out.

Getting Stuck

I did the only thing I could think of doing. I get the snow shovel and start hacking away at the snow and ice underneath my tires. After a few minutes, I realize my efforts are not helping. I am thinking of what to do next when a neighbor pulled up beside me in her car. She offers help and promises to call her husband to come to help me. Then she left to drop her kids off at school. A minute later, a man approached me, and I assumed he was her husband. From there, it all happened so fast. He gets behind the wheel of my car and somehow drives it out of the pile of snow. I am shocked. I ask him to explain what he did so that I can remember for next time. He told me twice, but I still don’t remember. I didn’t get his name either, but I am so thankful for his help that morning. Without his help, I would probably still be stuck at the end of the driveway right now, but that’s not the worst of it. 

Too many close calls

On a different snowy morning, I almost crashed. This time I pulled out of the drive with ease. I start my morning commute by blasting Supercuts by Jeremy Zucker while sipping on hot coffee. By this time, I have driven in the snow enough to feel confident, maybe too confident. All is going well until it isn’t. The road is not too snowy and is mostly clear. All except turn lanes, which I didn’t realize. I turn on my turn signal, pull the steering wheel to the left, and suddenly I start skidding in the snow. I panic. Pulling the wheel this way, then pulling the wheel the other way in quick jerky movements. If there had been another car, I would have crashed, but thankfully, there wasn’t. 

Walking in a winter wonderland

Even with stress and danger, the snow excites me like a child. When a coworker sighed in relief that the winter months are almost over, my heart sank a little at the thought of no more snow. When it is snowing, things get a little quieter, a little cozier, and when the summer rolls around, I know I will miss my sweaters, cups of hot tea, and piles of snow on the lawn. It is all still new to me, Chicago and Illinois, that is. I grew up in a small town with five restaurants and no bars unless you count the one connected to the Mexican restaurant. Now, I live a short train ride away from the 3rd largest city in America. It has hundreds of restaurants, thousands of people, and an endless amount of opportunity for new experiences. Chicago is magical to me. I went to visit downtown Chicago when I was a young kid. Each time I saw my grandparents in Barrington, Illinois, I begged to go again.

Making my way downtown

We often did not go, but I remember vividly, especially the Chicago Art Museum, the few times we did. The museum had a scavenger hunt for children. My sister and I ran around the whole museum searching for Van Goghs, Rembrandts, and Botticellis. At the end of the hunt, you got a prize for completion. I don’t remember the award, but I remember the paintings. Afterward, two things became apparent. I loved art museums, and I wanted to go back to Chicago. A lot of time has passed since I rode the train into the city the first time, but I rode the train for the first time alone only a few weeks ago. 

Train mishaps

My first attempt was the 9:18. That did not happen. I drive the five-minute commute to the train station, and I am puzzled. There are no cars. I suspected with Covid there would be fewer commuters, or at least I hoped, but I never imagined there would be no one. I get out of my car, brave the cold, and yank on the station doors only to find them locked. Defeated, I get back in my car and drive the short distance home to try and figure out where I went wrong.

On their website, it was clear that the trains are running. So what was the problem? When I get home, I brew another cup of coffee and wait for the next train. I double-check the website to see if anything abnormal could have caused the trains not to run. There is not. When enough time had passed, I get back into my car and try again. Sure enough, no cars. I spot movement on the side of tracks. People are waiting. The station was still closed, but I was determined to find out if they were waiting for the train too. I stay my 6 feet distance with a face mask, and I approach a kind-looking woman to ask if the trains are running. She replies, it is. I inquired about where she purchased her ticket, and she pointed to her phone and showed me her app called Ventra. With all the information I need, I fumble around with my phone and quickly type in my credit card number to purchase a ticket, just in time. The train rumbles up to the station. I get on quickly. The train stopped for less than a minute before leaving again. If you are only a few minutes late, you get left behind.

That first ride alone is idyllic, like riding inside a snow globe. Everything glistens white. I sit alone in the train car and get a glimpse of the suburbs passing by. Each stop is getting closer and closer to the city. The train ride reminded me of the time I spent in Italy for a semester in college. I took the train ride from Certaldo to Florence every Tuesday for an art history class. I miss the trains in Italy, and for a moment, I pretend I am going back to Florence. The ride is so peaceful, besides the guy sitting behind me who insists on singing along to the music in his head and occasionally yelling “fuck” for no apparent reason. The hour and five minutes go by in a blink. When I get off the train things start to look vaguely familiar, or maybe it is nostalgia, from the trips when I was younger.

First photoshoot downtown

My first objective is to make my way to Cloud Gate, also known as ‘The Bean’. I am meeting another photographer there. The streets are empty. Too empty. It’s chilling. The buildings tower over me, and I feel so small. I can’t see faces, only eyes. All faces, covered by masks. There are only a few out braving the cold and covid by wandering around. Some are walking dogs, others begging for money, and a few in suits heading off to probably an important job. Up ahead, I see the Bean. It doesn’t make much sense to me, having a statue of a bean, but I like looking at it. When up close, I can see my reflection and the reflection of the city lights, which maybe was the artist’s intention. My new photographer friend takes me to the Riverwalk, Michigan Ave, and the S Curve (an iconic spot with a great view of the Chicago trains). We get to the parking garage, pressed number seven on the elevator, and look for the window with the best view overlooking the train tracks below. Several trains go by, and before my fingers go completely numb and we call it a day.

I knew that day, and I know today I am where I am supposed to be, frozen fingers and all, at least for now. 

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