Sunday, January 14, 2007

Jacket Weather

It's gotten cold. A little more then chilly, definitely near winter, though not quite yet. That means it's time for the jacket. I pulled the jacket out about a month ago and got it washed up and ready, thinking about it, thinking about weather. But then we had a long extension of summer in Korea and so it was the end of October and still not jacket weather. Summer bled only slightly into November so that now, in the second week of November in the year of someone's lord 2006, it is finally cold enough to need the jacket.

I can't help but to pick up my jacket and think of Chicago. I think of home and all the things at home that are left behind. That are waiting and wondering when in the world return will come. I don't know. Who can know? I have the jacket anyway, and that serves as a reminder of home no matter how far away it is.

The jacket is a big oversized men's denim jacket. It came to me in the winter of 2000 and has been with me ever since, making the long trek across the ocean in a box with some other odd ends for winter that would be needed after I came to Korea. From all of this it might be difficult to see exactly why the jacket reminds me of home, but it does, and if you will allow me but a moment to digress hard I shall take a stroll down memory lane to Chicago, home sweet home.

At the time I was working at the Settlement. This was about midway through my second contract with Americorps and I was enjoying it. No, that's not quite right. I didn't enjoy the Settlement. I loved the Settlement. I still loved the Settlement. I love the place, the creaky old front building that faced out on Augusta, the new charter school on the other side. I like the way the boards and the doors warped in the summer time and the way the wind ripped through in the winter. I loved the smells of food, the bustle and rush of people and children and students, and everyone. I loved Ms. Teresa who never met a cup of coffee she didn't like, Ms. Martha and her huge and happy family, Mr. Jose who managed with an ever present dignity to manage all the ramshackled people that assembled to work within. I loved working there. I miss it all the time. The kids, the people, the giant community that became a second home and in reality probably kept me out of as much trouble as I helped to keep kids out of. It was learning, growing, working, and healing in a happy bundle just off downtown Chicago. You could sit on the front steps and admire the rising city skyline and the long lines of traffic on the Ryan. All of this comfortable and home.

Being that this was my second contract with Americorps I can not claim to have been doing well fiscally, but well enough anyway to keep the VW Fox running, and help keep a roof over the heads of the maudlin crew living at 5524 Walter Ave. I did lack a few things and this was becoming increasingly apparent as winter got colder. Even with the extra job at the Catholic school I was coming up short on money for clothes. I had to abandon my Shimer winter wear as both threadbare and unsuitable for another season and with nothing else developed a plan. This was necessary particularly for the cold nights as a camp counselor at House in the Woods. The plan was layering. Or more accurately, I would put on everything I own and remove it as comfort dictated throughout the day, replacing it before commuting home in the cranky and occasionally heatless Fox.

If you have ever tried to survive a winter by layering alone then you might agree that it does not really provide adequate protection from the elements but can be effective. I would always change the layer on top or bottom so that it would at least look like I wasn't wearing the same clothes everyday, but in reality there was nothing else to be done.

One night as I prepared to finish another long night at the Settlement I was signing out at the desk when Big Tony came up to me. I loved Big Tony. He reminded me of my father, caring, outgoing, willing to help everybody, talker. In reality having not seen my real family in over five years it was hard not to project family onto the people I worked with. Tony reminded me of my Dad. I didn't question it. I just enjoyed it and appreciated his help and camaraderie. I also enjoyed his skill with tying balloon animals and his willingness to teach me a few new animals to add to my ever growing repertoire of circus worthy talents (at the moment we have balloon animals, an uncanny knowledge of weird science experiments, voices, acting, bending over backwards, musical and artistic talents. Oh, and I play a mean board game).
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As I was preparing to exit the settlement Tony stopped me and asked me wear my coat was. The temperature in Chicago was slightly above that in hell had Al Gore been elected and I was all done up in layers of clothes and preparing the dash to the Fox and working up the prayer that the heat would work to the VW gods. I made some fast talk one hundred word a minute excuse which ended with "I don't have one."

"You need a coat."

"Yeah, I know, but I can't really get one yet, but soon."

This was my way of trying to get around the fact that after rent the meager amount of income that was coming in was going to heat for the propane furnace that kept the apartment warm in a one cubic square area. The rest went for internet access. Somehow food was always found, but I'm still not sure where that money came from.

I smiled and appreciated Tony's concern and I think it may well have kept me warm on the ride home. I miss that kind of care. That big family, we are all responsible for one another sort of attention you get when you work at a place like the Settlement. The extended family there becomes about four hundred children, parents, and adults that you meet and know for two years. It was hard to leave. In Korea you get maybe an nth of that but always with the strain of trying to make it work across the cultural divide.

It was a few days later that I bumped into Tony again late at night. I'm pretty sure it was a Wednesday as I stayed after 7:30 on those nights. Tony stopped me and pulled me aside and said "I got something for ya." I'm pretty sure the full story was that he had mentioned my coatlessness to his girlfriend who had dug up a jacket out of somewhere with instructions that it be given to me. A big, gigantic extended happy family we all were. I was surprised, I was pleased, I was amused. The big denim jacket with gigantic pockets fit easily over the layers of clothing with room to spare. I loved it.

I still do. When I pulled it out of the closet this year I realized it's gotten much to big, much to old (being used when I got it) and much to threadbare to go through to many more winters. I have a proper winter coat now and I could abandon it, but I keep it for the early fall not quite too cold. Yet, when I pulled it out of the closet this year I cried. I cried because I thought of home and how this jacket had been keeping me warm and safer for the last six years, and would probably do so for seven more no matter how big or threadbare it got. It's my own personal ruby slipper, a piece of home that I can take with me, close my eyes and I can be there. I miss Chicago. I'm homesick sometimes. But when I pull on the jacket to walk down the streets of Korea amid the sameness of faces the chill bite of wind, I'm surrounded by home.

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