Summer Smell: An Ode to Sheffield Ave.

There are two seasons in Chicago: winter and construction. The other day I discovered that my crumbling red brick, 6-family walkup with a cheap forest-green awning and splintered wooden stairs to the side entrance was constructed between 1899-1901. Twelve hours prior, I was in the backseat of an Uber whose driver’s heart breaks for the gentrification of Uptown but says nothing of the Section 8 row houses being torn down, nor reminisces of the Cabrini-Green projects.


The construction of my walls was fueled by bathtub gin and post-Chicago fire dreams. I’m sure there is no way to verify the age of the shared roofdeck, whose wooden slats resemble less of a place to relax in the summer, and more of an Atlantic City pier whose length you could not fathom walking down barefoot and surviving unsplintered. Burnt yellow inch-long remnants of countless midnight smokes find themselves wedged between the teeth-rattling passings by of the red, brown, and purple El lines. The only thing louder is the bend and groan of blanched and sun-scorched 2x4s under the weight of your sandaled feet.


When one looks over the equally dried-out wooden railing, the deep green silhouette of summer-full trees allows peepholes into the skyline of America’s third-largest city, and into countless windows of America’s best-run public transit system. There are a hundred and one things that this city has taught me, but perhaps the most enduring is how to be quiet. The cadence of rooftop conversations have taught me but a single thing: no matter how loud I yell over the train, the train will win. I’m still working on my rhythm.


Since they began construction work converting Mulligan School to luxury apartments, some nights the streetlights refuse to shine, and stepping outside means stepping inside of a midnight-hued tent of apprehension, when all you wanted was a pint of ice cream from the corner store. Ill-founded dread is a hefty price for a sweet-tooth.


There are mornings where it is possible to step into a breeze just on the precipice of acquiring a thick layer of humidity, but is holding off until you go back inside, mornings where a group of five sparrows–still somehow fat from the winter, or perhaps getting a head start on the fall–whose muffled pulsing of wings is the only sound. How simple it is to romanticize these mornings without the mid-July air whose inhalation feels like tepid steam, or the pale winter chill of early February light. This ode could not–would not–have been written then.


What of those 6am Chicago mornings, where the hum of industrial air conditioning units during the summertime is the only sound for the length of three city blocks? When we say it is the “only sound,” what we really mean is that its presence is at the forefront of our thoughts and attention, to the exclusion of sounds that have somehow receded into the background. Like a broken heart for gentrification, an opinion under construction.


These mornings are made of the kind of air you breathe in and try to imprint exactly what it smells like, because you do not know how long you will be here. You settle on dew, concrete, and overgrown weeds. A summer smell.


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