I worked as a kitchen designer while I was completing my undergraduate degree, almost by accident. I started in the showroom selling high-end appliances, embarrassing my co-worker competition by the sheer volume of product and extended warranties I could sell, even though I worked part-time. A customer once told me that I have the sort of face that could sell anything, there’s a real honesty in my eyes, and I suppose I have no reason not to believe him. In an attempt to boost sales, the manager decided I would attend the training classes to become certified in design, and that I’d no longer be polishing the stainless on the showroom floor.
I already had a love of real estate and architecture, which would later manifest itself in a career in real estate finance and development, and this job was an exercise in designing dream kitchens on any budget: matching paint colors, selecting subway tiles, explaining the purpose of a toe-kick, and working with AutoCAD, making perfect sense of gridlines and building standards to create renderings, blueprints, of what the path to a complete kitchen would look like.
In a consult, I’d make a rough sketch by hand, trying to capture the feel of the space, sometimes grabbing style magazines with dog-eared pages to belabor the design point I was trying to make to an ignorant consumer. When they left, I’d spend hours in front of the computer working to arrange the boxes on the computer screen, knowing all the tricks of a veteran like remembering heat-shields on cabinets next to stoves, the right side cabinet for a micro-hood, and that no matter how much customers resisted the price, kitchen organization is much better with sliding shelves.
I was good at sales, I could justify any expense by looking someone directly in the eye and saying, “…but this is your dream kitchen. You’re only doing this once in your life, and you’re worth it.” They’d sign the checks and I’d collect my commission the following month, which resulted in enviable purchases for an undergrad, like a motorcycle, a spring break trip, and a collection of sipping bourbons, none of the Jim Beam bullshit.
I was successful because of my organization skills, because without them these projects tend to go poorly. Equipped with Gantt charts and two voices (the sweet voice you use when you need a contractor to do something for you and the mean one you use when the contractor didn’t do something for you), I worked tirelessly on these projects because I wanted to rush to the finish and see the final product. It’s a unique skill to take an entirely abstract concept (like saying you want to re-design a kitchen) to execution of details for the finished project to come together without a headache and extra expenses, and I was not only good at it, I was paid to do it.
That’s why the move back to Chicago has resulted in me being largely silent about the process and my experience, because even though I’m equipped with a vivid imagination and a dose of wanderlust, even as it was happening, I couldn’t conceive the move back to Chicago, which might have been a hangover for how negative DC felt.
I walked as hurriedly as my heeled feet would carry me to a bench in the park that is situated by the US Treasury, where I’d spent many lunch breaks reading books or catching fresh air after negative interactions with my always confrontational boss, and accepted the new job in Chicago. Later, I’d return to the office to fax them the pertinent documentation, but I sat there with trepidation that felt inexplicably negative.
It might have been the fact that the whole process from interview to acceptance had taken so long, or perhaps the truncated timeline for return, which was reminiscent of the days when angry customers would call me and demand that I produce their custom-ordered sink or faucet from a warehouse in Italy faster, because it was delaying their process. It might have been the fact that I had a lot of coordinating to do to tie up all the loose ends of moving half-way across the country, but I got too lost in the process to be excited.
I hoped leaving DC and taking a mini-vacation in Michigan before arriving would offer clarity, but it raised more concerns about failures, expenses, and upheaval. I knew I had plans on the evening I arrived with old friends in one of our favorite restaurants, but my vivid memories were so muddled that I couldn’t even remember the cross-streets. Everything felt unsettled until I saw the signs for the Chicago Skyway, and it’s as though my brain had been jump-started to start thinking, feeling, and processing that things was, in fact, real and happening. I took the on-ramp to the highway and instinctively started humming “Skyway” by the Replacements, something I’d started doing on the frequent car-trips to Michigan for work and pleasure, as a signal that I was close to re-entering the city. As I approached 35th street on the highway, I let out an audible sigh of relief—the Loop in front of me, the ballpark beside me, and cars backed up in the Express Lane (it’s rarely faster, as only a local would know), and finally realized that things were going to work out.
The last 10 days have been about learning new tricks and remembering old ones. There have been highlights and stressors, but the real task now is finding a way to re-kindle old memories, while building new ones.
There’s been tapas at tables for ten with twelve dollars pitchers of Sangria as we’d always done, but there’s been apartment hunting in a new neighborhood that will offer a completely different experience, seeing a different side of the Sears Tower, so to speak. We had beers at a bar we frequented for darts and Nintendo (and $1 PBR) in our fixed income days, but there’s been bourbon on a rooftop that faces an area of the city I’d never seen before. The new neighborhood, the new life, is an advantage to work towards growth instead of regressing into some of the more negative aspects of my previous life here—but all of those things, both the temptations and the positives (like the best mint chocolate chip in the city and the park where I taught Lola to play fetch)—aren’t too far away.
There’s a Wednesday tradition among my circle of playing pub trivia at a bar, surrounded by television sets playing Cubs and White Sox baseball, with towers of cheap domestics, and I always show up to fulfill my role as the ringer in the music round. Last week as we caught up on the last nine months, we stayed current on our answer sheets, and in between rounds we quizzed each other on baseball trivia we’d googled to pass the time. The best part of a homecoming is sitting at a table with people who not only love you, but people who can answer questions about Hall of Fame pitchers who never won a Cy Young award. That feeling of security is nothing that you can envision or plan—at least not with your eyes open.