Do you want to go to Chicago for a conference? I was asked this question a few months prior by my boss while sitting in my rolling office chair, under florescent lights. Yes, I proclaimed. I had never been to Chicago before, except the airport, but I don’t count that as an authentic experience by any means. I also love to travel, so I thought this work trip would be a fun way to challenge myself professionally and also a good opportunity to take my husband along to explore the city.
I immediately started day dreaming about all of the things I wanted to see and do while in Chicago. Once I was out of the conference I planned to take an architecture boat tour down the Chicago River, walk on the glass floor of the Willis Tower, (formerly the Sears Tower), eat deep dish pizza and check out Navy Pier.
Let’s just say that the trip did not turn out exactly how I had expected. It was the first weekend of June 2019 and that became the deadliest weekend of the year thus far in Chicago. USA Today reports that 52 people were shot that weekend, leaving 10 dead.
I did not find out that staggering statistic until I had returned home to Oregon. Then I thought back about my time in the city. I was staying in a nice part of downtown, right across the street from Millennium Park. I remember hearing constant police sirens, but that didn’t faze me. It’s a city, I thought to myself. Crime happens, fires happen, this is normal. Little did I realize; those sirens could have been racing across town to attend to one of those shootings.
During my time in Chicago, I never wound up standing on the glass floor of the Willis Tower or floating down the Chicago River. You see, my husband had come down with a terrible virus. The morning we had left Oregon to fly to Chicago he got sick. But he thought it was just one of those 24-hour bugs. He decided to push through, thinking he would feel better, and that he would be kicking himself of a missed opportunity to see Chicago if he stayed home.
Unfortunately, he continued to get sick the entire weekend. I was so worried he had appendicitis or kidney stones. He couldn’t keep food down, and was feeling really weak. Should we go to the emergency room? I asked him. No, he replied. He didn’t want to go to an emergency room in a city out of state in fear of an enormous bill.
When I returned to the hotel on Saturday, after day one of the conference, I went straight up to the room to find him lying on the bed, not feeling an ounce better. I told him he needed to try and eat. I thought some chicken soup might do the trick. I convinced him to let me go out and get him some soup.
As I walked the five blocks south down the bustling Chicago streets to Panera Bread, (I know, not exactly your local cuisine of Chicago…) I walked by a man sitting on the street asking for money, another passed out on the sidewalk. As I walked by, I thought to myself, this isn’t right. It doesn’t feel right to literally step past our fellow citizens in this way acting like they don’t exist. Yet, I had a mission to get soup, so I continued on my journey to Panera Bread.
That night the soup sat well with my husband. I was delighted and thought this would be the turning point of his nausea. The next day, Sunday, I left for the second and last day of the conference and returned back to the hotel that evening to find that he was not still not better.
At this point it had been nearly three days straight of feeling absolutely terrible. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I asked Google things like “is it normal to be throwing up for three days in a row?” and “how long should you wait to go to the hospital after being nauseous?” Google returned many conflicting results. Some seemed emergent, others indicating it was normal.
We had planned to fly out of Chicago the next day at 7:00PM. We had booked a late flight thinking we would have the whole day to sight see, but because of my husband’s illness there was no point in waiting, we decided we would leave at checkout time and head straight to O’Hare airport.
That night, I walked back to Panera Bread to get some more chicken soup for my husband. This time, I took a different parallel street. My thought being that I would see a bit more of the city. On my way back to the hotel, soup in hand, I walked by a man sitting alone on the sidewalk. I walked past and heard. “You have a beautiful smile.” He was giving out nice compliments to strangers as they passed by. Next to him, a bucket for donations.
I never have cash on me. But for some reason had a dollar left over from somewhere. I turned back, and gave him the dollar. He thanked me, said his name was Leon, and told me to have a good day. I said you too, and carried on. For that one moment, I felt that maybe I had helped him a little. Although who knows. What would a dollar do for him? Not much in the long term, but perhaps something to eat in the short term. I continued walking, wondering what else I could have done.
Monday morning came, and my husband didn’t have much of an appetite, but wanted me to get eat breakfast, his only request was that I not eat in the room as the sight of food made him feel queasy. I obliged and set out to find a breakfast spot on my own.
I walked north this time, and got a glimpse of that Chicago River I had wished to take a tour on. I snapped a photo and headed into a cozy breakfast spot in the lobby of a nearby hotel. After breakfast, as I walked back to my hotel, I was stopped at a crosswalk with a group of morning commuters. A man sitting on the sidewalk was shouting at all of us, proclaiming “We are all human!” “Some of us just have a lot of money, some don’t…we are all human.”
As the crosswalk changed, and I walked across the street, I didn’t make eye contact, but I received goosebumps on my skin. We-are-all-human. Hmm. Just as I had thought the day prior when I walked to Panera Bread. We need to take care of each other.
Before traveling to Chicago, I had heard the devastating statistics about the city’s homicide rate. I can’t say that it didn’t worry me. In the back of my mind I thought that I would just need to be smart about where I went and what I did.
Looking back at the weekend, while the work portion went as planned and without a hitch, the other portion of the trip turned out to be more of a lesson in the human condition than an exploration of local cuisine and architecture.
I witnessed the closest person to me in a weakened state and took care of him as best I could. I witnessed homelessness on the streets of Chicago that made me want to do more. And although it turned out to be one of the highest shooting catastrophes in Chicago for 2019, the rate of gun violence in the city has dropped by 10% from its peak in 2016 according to a CNN report. Maybe things are getting better in some ways.