Once a year my husband and I go see the tax guy in Rogers Park and then have lunch at a restaurant in our old neighborhood of Andersonville. We drive by our old apartment and look for ways the neighborhood has changed and ways it has stayed the same.
We usually have a conversation about how our lives would be different if we had bought one of the places we looked at in the city. I always mention the suburban joy of neighborhood schools and affordable park programs that don’t require me to wait in line for hours. He always mentions the joys of having grown up in the city, the exposure to diversity and learning to navigate the streets and public transportation. A few years ago when it looked like we might move to New York I heard this line of thought a lot. Not just from my husband, but from my New York friends as well. “You learn a lot living in the city” is what people say.
Today, my husband had a meeting after our lunch and so he dropped me off at the EL to make my way home. On the platform was a young man full of nervous energy. He was carrying a bag from Neiman Marcus. The CTA workers were joking with each other and one woman said something about getting drunk on Tuesday just so she wouldn’t have to get up on Wednesday.
The guy and I looked at each other and laughed. We got on the EL and sat across from each other. “I just bought a $1,000 pair of shoes,” he said. “It’s my birthday next week.”
“Really?” I asked, “Can I see them?”
“Sure,” he said.
I moved next to him and he took the shoes out of the box. They were hideous. Some sort of black leather high top with zippers. When you unzipped them, there were crystals. I have no idea where you would wear shoes like that, but then again, I’m a middle-age suburban woman.
“Do you wear them with the zippers undone?” I asked.
“Yeah. That’s how I’ll do it,” he said. “OK, I’m going to take the sticker off the box now, I’m not returning them.”
“Why don’t you just leave it there for a little while longer, ” I cautioned “Just sit with it, make sure you’re OK with them.”
An older man sitting across from us said, “I just bought these boots on sale and they’re the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever worn.”
“Yeah,” said the young guy “The boots I’m wearing were $500 but I haven’t taken them off in four months.”
“You spend a lot of money on shoes.” I commented.
“Why don’t you buy a car or something?” The older guy asked.
“I got a car, but you know, you can’t drive in downtown Chicago. Look, I don’t mind walking, I’m not lazy.”
“What kind of work do you do?” The older guy asked.
“I’m in school, but you know, I do some construction work. But you know what I do mainly, I go to banks and I ask for their list of foreclosures and then they’ll pay you like $600 a property to go in and fix it up, mow the lawn, shovel the snow, make it look like someone lives there. It’s great, totally legit. I don’t know why anyone would spend time selling drugs on the street corner, risk going to jail or get killed. You can make totally legal money but you just got to know where to look for it. I’m 21, I’m online all day, I might as well look for ways to make money online. Anyone can do it, you just go and ask the bank for the list, then once they know you, they call you. I’m never going anywhere near a jail, I can tell you that.”
“Where do you go to school?” I asked him.
“Northern, you know in DeKalb.”
“Isn’t that kind of far?”
“No, I live there now, but I finished classes for the day, so I came to get my shoes and see my mom. I’m graduating soon, then I’m going to Howard University in D.C. for graduate school.”
“You know you won’t be able to buy thousand dollar shoes when you’re in grad school,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s why I got them now. I’m getting off now, you be safe.”
“Happy birthday,” I said.
“God bless you little brother. You take care of yourself,” said the older man.
I think you can learn things whether you live in the city or the suburbs. The trick is that when a young man tells you he bought a pair of shoes for a thousand dollars, you have to ask to see them.