Saturday, July 16, 2016

Talking to Myself

This is the third and final installment in a series about my years living in the city of Chicago.

We didn't know it at the time, but legendary author Studs Terkel lived in our immediate neighborhood in Chicago, a couple of blocks south of our apartment on West Castlewood Terrace. One of Studs' bestsellers was his autobiographical "Talking to Myself," and today's post borrows from that title.

In my previous post, "Steps to Lake," I described the adventure of finding our city apartment. Once we had settled into the neighborhood, we began to appreciate its cadence. We observed a regular cast of people coming and going every day, which may seem unusual in a metropolis the size of Chicago, but the city is, after all, a patchwork quilt of smaller neighborhoods. People tend to go to the same stores and restaurants, and they typically take the same buses and trains to and from work.

Fairly soon after arriving in the city, we noticed that a significant number of said people seemed to carry on conversations with themselves. Now, I realize that this is something almost all of us do from time to time, but in Chicago, we saw it elevated to an art form. We began to think absolutely nothing of people talking to themselves on public transportation or while walking down the street. You might not see it at a Chicago Symphony concert, but darned tootin' you were going to see it on the El trains.

Most of the time, when people talked to themselves, they didn't appear to be waiting for responses; rather, they would engage in diatribes about this or the other thing, which was often something quite mundane. I wondered if they were trying to burn neural pathways to memorize events or just create imaginary companions for themselves, because it is true that we observed a lot of loneliness in the city. But overall, these people didn't appear to be in the least concerned or upset about their topics of conversation (as it were) or the fact that others were trying to avoid staring in their direction, and I had to hand it to them for that. But one morning, we observed a self-directed conversation which was like no other.

The temperature that morning was between zero and ten degrees (not unusual for a winter day in Chicago), and we were waiting for the bus which ran north up Sheridan Road to connect with an El train at Howard Street. The bus was taking forever, so we ducked into the McDonald's at the corner of Foster Avenue and Sheridan for some breakfast. There, along a wall of windows, sat a late middle-aged woman facing the wall and carrying on a conversation with an imaginary friend. She was quite animated, talking and gesturing with her hands all the while. We ordered our breakfast and then took a seat to silently observe.

This was back in the day when people could smoke anywhere, and presently, a young man walked up to the lady and asked her for a light for his cigarette. She turned to him and answered, "Why, yes." She then looked back at the wall, pulled out her lighter, and said to her imaginary companion, "Excuse me." When she had finished lighting the young man's cigarette, she turned back to the wall and, without missing a beat, resumed her conversation: "Now, as I was saying...".

This tiny episode confirmed to me that I was indeed living in a place of wonder and amusement. There would be many other such stories throughout our time in the city, but I found that one memorable for the woman's spontaneity and impartial sense of common courtesy. In fact, the whole thing gave me pause for thought and also affirmed to me that it was all right if I occasionally talked to myself, which has since come in handy on many occasions.

I recently read an article that claimed scientists now believe that talking to ourselves actually might be a sign of genius. Supposedly, it helps by stimulating memory, keeping us mentally focused, and clarifying our thoughts in order to firm up decision making. If this is true, I encountered untold numbers of geniuses in Chicago without even knowing it. I wish I'd gotten some autographs.

Truly, living in the city was a learning experience. I could go on and on with these stories, but it's almost time for dinner, and I still have to call my friend. Speaking of, I wonder why he never says anything.