Claude Walker | Bicentennial-By-Buttons

So long, Illinois! Leaving in the Time of COVID So long

I’m an Illinoisan - Chicago-born - and I’m gone. 

Time to leave the place where I’ve lived most of my years, Land of Lincoln, Greatest of American Cities. Nah, this isn’t some anti-tax screed, though I despise our widely-accepted “corruption taxes”. And despite being in the trenches fighting the “Ubi Est Mea” approach to public service for decades, it’s not of exasperation that I exit. 

I’ve seen Chicago’s grand panorama at ground-level, dating to Riverview and Maxwell Street excursions with my grandparents. I drove thousands of miles as a Chicago cabbie in the ‘70s, rode 150,000+ delightful miles on CTA, kayaked hundreds of miles on the Chicago River (before it was cool) and walked countless precincts. By working in great institutions - Chicago Daily News (its dying days), Common Cause, CUB, Art Institute, offices of both a Governor and Chicago Alderman - I had a front-row seat to our State’s richness. 

I’ll miss it. I’ll miss alleys, the first snow, hearing the El at 3 a.m. I’ll miss doing a Cubs or Loyola Ramblers game at a moment’s notice (but I saw them both at the mountaintop.) I’ll miss 16” softball, of which I’m reminded as I note my gnarly knucks. I’ll miss descending into Billy Goat’s for a quick double-cheese and Slitz Dark under that framed 1950s photo of my Dad inexplicably dressed as a Flapper. 

I’ll miss my jumpy Rogers Park neighborhood, home for 38 years. A portal for newcomers and celebrated for tolerance, Rogers Park is in the vanguard. Dozens of languages at our schools. Our immediate neighbors hailed from five continents. Within minutes, I could eat authentic Assyrian, Belizean, Senegalese, Pakistani, Viet/Cajun or kosher sushi. 

I’ll miss Clark Street on summer days: a sweaty symphony of sirens, reggaeton, bell-ringing pushcart vendors, merchants yelling in Korean-Spanglish, storefront boom-boxes blasting drill, mariachi and futbol, bathed in aromas from Romanian Kosher Sausage, panaderías and the Clark-22 bus. Maybe more mixed marriages than anywhere. Global culture pulses, a primal throb. Curious appetites and lusty loins trump division. Conventional metaphors - “melting pot”, “salad bowl” - don’t fit. Rogers Park is a high-speed evolutionary blender, a carnal prism, a Cosmic Milkshake. 

This urbanologist will miss the ‘burbs of my adolescence and yes, “Downstate”. As a political organizer, I was able to see all 102 Illinois counties, all 30 Cook County Townships and all 50 Chicago Wards, a broadening experience. 

Roaming Chicago before D-Day, I was pummeled by memories. I recalled exactly where I sat at my first Cubs game (June 1960: Glen Hobbie hammered by Clemente and Maz). Where I was during the ’69 Days of Rage, ’77 Humboldt Park riots, ’92 Tunnel Flood, Y2K. The day Harold died and night Barack won. A precinct I canvassed in ‘99 when a voter came to the door with a ferret on his head. The defunct punk club where I slam-danced the snot out of an NBA star. An apartment of a long-lost lover. Do memories like these dim faster if one moves far away with fewer cues? 

Leaving in the time of COVID challenges out-of-state moves. A proper disposition of books, t-shirts, tchotchkes? A final BBQ with pals, kayak voyage, pilgrimage to ancestral graves? Nope. Also not-gonna-happen: pedal the length of the 606 Trail, paddle out to the water intake crib, serve in the Illinois House like my namesake grandfather (I tried…twice), or buy legal pot (after advocating for it for decades; lousy system, stupid shortages). 

More exquisite timing. After quarantining four months in one of the Midwest’s hardest-hit zips, I saw the curve flatten (a tip o’ the hat to Mayor Lightfoot and Gov. Pritzker). I’m now in a new unmasked State with spiking stats and a Governor whose hero is that Mayor in “Jaws”. 

From the 3rd-largest media market to the 11th. As a campaign junkie and baseball fan, I know Illinois is graced with bare-knuckle yet lyrical local political and sports coverage. Now, instead of raspy reporters named “Bulldog”, I see 20-something anchors named “Caitlyn”. Will I ever hear the Voice of Pat Hughes again? Are weather forecasts without Tom Skilling or Cheryl Scott worth my time? (Oh. Hurricanes.) 

The 50th Anniversary of my high school graduation was May 31. Driscoll closed in 2009, the building razed. Thanks to COVID, we had no Reunion. So I trekked out to the ghost site of alma mater, saw my old pal Randy and we joked about Glory Days. I planted a time capsule and didn’t turn around as I left. Exits are hard enough. 

Leaving in the time of COVID. 

Author of “Drone Dogs”, “Seminole Smoke” and thousands of press releases, Claude Walker curates “Bicentennial by Buttons”, an online exhibit telling the 200-year story of Illinois through political memorabilia. He recently packed-up and moved 1,200 miles. 

ABE: Honest. Stay home. ERNIE: Let's stay, too!