by Geoff Martin
“Hear me out,” she whispers to me as our students shuffle out on break. “When Manhattan’s flooding and California’s aquifers run dry, you know where I’m going to be?” The Chair of Earth Sciences has been chalk deep in carbon science for the past hour. I’m up next with an English composition lesson that foregrounds the power of a person’s written voice, but the scientist is getting ahead of me, getting personal.
“I’m staying right here,” she declares, pointing emphatically at the third-floor linoleum. She means Chicago. “Those long-term global climate trends are frightening, but I’m betting on this interior city by a freshwater lake.” She’s not thinking abstractly. She went carless a few years ago and now tends a teeming backyard garden. “Climate refugees are going to be moving here,” she predicts.
But I’m not from here, and I’m making plans to move again. Her level of preparedness makes me feel adrift already in the coming storms.
Of all places for my wife C. to get the call, it happened to be at the Brubacher House on the campus of the University of Waterloo, near my Canadian hometown. A high school friend and his wife, the live-in curators at this Pennsylvania German Mennonite museum, invited us in for an evening’s contest of Trivial Pursuit, like old times. Only this time, our rivalry played out at a rough-hewn table by a fieldstone hearth. Which is why in 2010 we were playing 1980s trivia in an 1850s farmhouse when C. took the call from the Chair of Graduate Studies.
I heard only her end of the conversation, but her voice was all relief somersaulting to excitement. She hung up and turned to me, eyes aglow: “You want to move to Chicago?”
For one with such a rooted childhood in southwestern Ontario, my adult life has been unexpectedly nomadic. Moving is equal parts opportunity and displacement. It means continuously defining home as both here and not-here.
While teaching English in South Korea, I was called a Canadian expat. In the United States, I’ve been calling myself a transplant, but after eight years and counting, that’s likely just a way of distancing myself from the more freighted and permanent-sounding word: immigrant.
Even so, I feel temporary here and think I’m more accurately described as a migrant. The U.S. government, however, is not so confused about terminology. They tell me I am a Nonresident Legal Alien, bureaucratic-speak for the in-between.
Before the puck drops at my first Blackhawks game, a friend asks with a snicker, “You know the tradition, right?” I’m a Maple Leafs fan with nostalgia for the Gilmour era, so I have no idea what he’s talking about. I’m just cheering on my new home team.
As we rise and remove our hats, this friend, an actor with a penchant for public comedy, startles me with a shout from the nosebleeds. His voice kicks off a sudden groundswell roar of 20,000 tonsils that bellow loud, throats agape, throughout the entirety of “The Star Spangled Banner.” My friend’s knowing wink and laughter amidst all that hollering made this version of the anthem seem satiric, a sports burlesque. It was as though this packed bowl of majority white suburbanites, descendants—thousands of them—of Eastern European meatpackers and foundry workers, was mocking an exaggerated American nationalism.
The next day, I say as much to another friend, a child of the western suburbs. “No way,” he exclaims. “That cheering’s for real.”
I disputed this until my argument ran aground, and I conceded the point. I was embarrassed. At the arena, I had followed my friend’s lead: baying my voice to the rafters, slapping my hands red, and howling out the penultimate line (“Oh Say!”). I thought I was making myself at home, ironic feather in the cap, in the land of the free.
“Are you kidding me?” my landlord says later. “At my first Hawks game, I thought I was at a fascist rally. It scared the hell out of me.”
Five months after driving our U-Haul across the mitt of Michigan, I land a job in Chicago teaching Intermediate English to adults. They’re all recent immigrants or conflict refugees. There is not an American citizen within our four walls, which seems to build camaraderie. We all ask our way around the same question: how did we come to be here?
One week in, I write three prompts on the board: I am… I like… I hope…. I ask the class to prepare their sentences as a short speech. Adisu, a young East African taxi driver, volunteers to go first. His cab, I know by this point, is parked out front after a full morning’s work. I soon learn that he drives the urban prairie grid all night, too.
“I am an immigrant to this country,” he begins, swaying on his feet as he talks. “This country, right now, is everything to me. I like to drive taxi because I make good money.” He smiles at the room, nervous about what needs saying next, and then states quickly: “I hope my family will not be kidnapped again so I can stop paying ransom.”
Adisu moves to sit down, but I urge him to clarify: ransom? I inquire. He tells us that in the past year several of his cousins have been kidnapped and family had routed the thousand-dollar demands to him. “They think I am rich in America,” he laments.
When I ask if he pays up, he stares back at me like I’m callous. “Of course,” he exclaims, “or they will die.” Then he catches himself, smiles again, and pivots: “But really, truly, I am so happy here. This country is a new life to me.”
Hamid, an older immigrant from the Middle East, wasn’t buying Adisu’s optimism. He speaks up from his seat by the door: “In this country, I have nothing,” he laments with a sweep of hand across his desk. “I lost everything. I was famous in my country. An actor on TV, dinner parties, friends in many places. Now, what? I live with my mother and go to some classes. Same thing for five years. I am nothing here.”
The rest of us could only sit together in silence, looking back and forth and back between the constancy of sadness in Hamid’s eyes and the frenetic optimism of Adisu’s smile—these two poles of immigrant feeling, mooring us to the edge of Lake Michigan.
Hundreds of Somali refugees in the U.S. began running north across the Manitoba border in February 2017. Through the summer and fall, several thousand Haitians headed for Quebec. Worrying about a nativist backlash, the Canadian government dispatched two members of Parliament, immigrants themselves, to New York and Los Angeles. The envoys sought to clarify the risks people take by crossing illegally, and they pointed to a backlog of refugee claims in Canada. There is no guarantee you’ll be able to stay, they said.
Which may be true, but some risks are marginally less risky and therefore seemingly worth the risk. Some choices are really no choice at all. No one runs in the night on a whim.
“My interest in the Great Lakes,” writes Moheb Soliman, an Egypt-born, Ohio-raised, and now Minneapolis-based poet and performance artist, “comes from the mythic immigrant trials of assimilation and making home; to identify myself not only with a nation-state or an ethnicity, but with a land, and conceive of how diverse others do so, daily, commonly.” Most simply, he asks, “How big can a ‘place’ be, to be from?”
When I saw Soliman perform in the basement theatre of Silk Road Rising in Chicago, he did so with the aid of an overhead projector. He had circumnavigated the Great Lakes by car and now was layering his travelogue poetry with transparency maps of the region, slapping them down rhythmically, one atop the other. With each new shoreline outline, the bulb light grew murkier, the ink lines spreading like an algae bloom. It was as if to ask: who are we that circle these lakes? Are we there yet? Will we, as the five-lake acronym seems to suggest, be H.O.M.E.S. soon?
During that one semester teaching Intermediate ESL, I offer helpful tips, like clarifying the differences in meaning and pronunciation between the words thong and tongs. A student wanted to know; she had been embarrassed the previous day.
But my chalk drawing of a pair of tongs ends up looking quite a bit like a woman’s legs, which only adds to the general confusion. And the laughter. My attempts to fix the thing only render it worse. The Eritrean woman who asked the question begins slapping the top of her desk uproariously. Two Iraqi men at the back of the room are wiping tears from their eyes. The Latino teenager in the front row is shaking his head at me with a smile.
This place. This language. It undoes and remakes us all.
As Soliman circled the Great Lakes in search of poetry in 2015, he took up a photography project he called “TIDINGS,” gathering up some of the things he found along the way: a deflated birthday balloon, a Cave of the Winds sandal, the top ring of a can of coke. Then he carried them to other shores, creating new tidal formations out of this object migration.
Which is how he comes to find and to photograph a kids-sized Minecraft T-shirt laid out on Upper Peninsula dune grass, a defunct ore dock in the distance. And this is how it reappears in a second image, only this time wet in Superior surf and cut by a shaft of light. These are Great Lakes waters in summer, but the photograph is prophetic: it could just as easily be the infamous image of the drowned Syrian child, Alan Kurdi, taken on the coast of Turkey one month later.
These are the emergent meanings of our shorelines: the beach as wash-up and the water level—whether low or high—as worrying sign of the trouble to come. It’s true, what they say: if you tilt the earth, children will flow.
The stretch of distance between the Mediterranean and these Great Lakes, this international inland sea, is none too great. Neither is Chicago far from northern Mexico—just twenty-one hours due north in the back of a cube van. And the other direction, too: the city’s river reverse-engineered, spilling down into the Gulf, Chicago’s tap water mixing with the Rio Grande. We’ve reshaped the lay of these lands, turned the compass rose in on itself. The old maps are past their expiry dates.
I thought of this at O’Hare’s Terminal Five in late January 2017, where the spontaneous protests grew bigger by the second night. Over in New York, cab drivers refused to service JFK. The newspapers reported that a Seattle judge had stayed two deportations. In Ottawa, a human chain formed in front of the U.S. embassy.
When two friends and I walked up from the Blue Line, Muslim and Jewish men were hugging in solidarity. Christians held up signs with scripture that welcomed the stranger, the hungry, the heavy-laden. Women in hijabs waved American flags, while kids sat up on shoulders, joining the protest chants. It was a big-tent gathering, an overlapping consensus of older men and toddlers and pre-teens along with white women and black youth and queer folk and Latinx families and Occupy vets and groups of Arab friends and bearded white-guys and short grandmothers—all of us wrapped up in winter coats and scarves and hats like the huddled masses that we were those winter nights.
At the time, it felt powerful and cathartic. This broad coalition of immigrant feeling. We were a hundred airport protests backed by public outcry, policy confusion, and pro-bono lawyers hunched over laptops at the baggage claim. Over two years later, the feeling has shifted. Righteous anger at the “Muslim ban” has ground down into a quieter type of rage as oil money continues to fount like an uncapped well and the precise wounds of children pulled from their parents lie buried beneath wide, frightened eyes. There is now a gnawing unease, a growing sense of being cornered into begging for half the liveable world we want. No longer does any one place or its people seem immune to this climate crisis nor to its tide of displacements. And that is undoubtedly our one better chance—to at least acknowledge that we need each other.
Students’ names have been changed
The term “overlapping consensus” comes from the work of philosopher John Rawls
View the interdisciplinary project “Great Lakes” by poet Moheb Soliman here
View the interdisciplinary project “TIDINGS” by poet Moheb Soliman here
Geoff Martin grew up in Ontario, taught at Truman College, part of the City Colleges of Chicago, for seven years, and recently moved to San Francisco from Western Massachusetts. His recent place-based and environmental essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Boulevard, The Citron Review, The Drum, and The Common. Find him at geoff-martin.com or on Twitter @gmartin9.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 5 • September 2019
Header image by Carl Wycoff