Andersen: Country boy dazed by city lights |

Andersen: Country boy dazed by city lights

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

The atmosphere glows a metallic shade of yellow as city lights reflect on an overcast sky. Beneath the glow thrums the metropolis where I took my first breath.

This country boy was city-born in Chicago, where an urban aura emanates skyward on a cold, winter night, where arterioles of highways and byways pulse with the protoplasmic flow of headlights and taillights.

An old friend picks me up at the airport amid the roar of buses, the honking of cabs. I don’t recognize him until the car he drives swerves toward the curb. Scott knows the route home blindfolded, working his car expertly through a network of clogged streets.

I stare out the window at a blur of middle-class homes, many bedecked with brightly colored lights and plastic Christmas icons. It’s the season of Santa clones in America.

Later, on Scott’s suburban back porch, I hear the constant drone of the freeway and watch the waxing moon struggle up into the orange glow, its white orb absorbed by the mercury-vapor haze.

How alien I feel in this familiar, man-made world, far from my haven on the beautiful Frying Pan where bighorn sheep bed down on our lawn, and the murmur of the river or the hoot of an owl are the only night sounds. I feel it as a soul ache.

The next morning we awaken to fresh snow and light flakes drifting from the gray sky. I grab a shovel and start in on the driveway. Scott fires up the snowblower. “Where’s your sense of esthetics?” I goad him. He shrugs it off with a dismissive shake of his head and throttles up.

Later we’re joined by Brad, my oldest friend since pre-kindergarten. The three of us walk a snowy path in the nearby forest preserve. Oaks, ashes, elms and maples are bare-limbed and black against the snow, their branches forming interstices against a pale sky.

There are deer tracks along the ebony course of a slow-moving river where Brad and I played as children. How these deer survive is a wonder of nature’s resilience, a comfort in the midst of tame suburbia.

We walk the old neighborhood, a post-war haven for our parents, city-weary transplants who in the summer mowed their lawns, trimmed their hedges, sipped their cocktails on screened porches and listened to the cicadas sing. Brad and I reminisce with contrapuntal memories.

Here our lives were formed with childhood antics that smack of “Lord of the Flies.” As we walk the streets and call out the names of long-gone neighbors the years crowd back on us. We grew up here in a sheltered, suburban life of good schools, iconic TV shows, and troubled undercurrents of life that we somehow came through intact.

At dusk Brad drives me into the city on slushy, urban streets hemmed in by low, dark brick buildings. He drops me at the care residence where my aged aunt is passing her final years. It’s called a “village,” but there are no children, only old people hunched over walkers or set into wheelchairs.

A holiday celebration features a children’s choir and a carillon of bell ringers. Lips form silently the words of popular carols and smiles beam across the room. The children are adored. Youth is contagious. Children are a joyous Christmas gift to the infirm.

At my cousin’s house the next morning, the TV bubbles with animation as grinning news anchors and sexy weather girls pep up America for another day in life. A formulaic morning show colors the national mood with crime, fear and weather auguries.

Later, at O’Hare International Airport, I pass security and wander the concourses hoping my plane leaves on time. Belted into my seat I’m launched into the friendly skies and force fed video snippets of sex, violence and sitcoms.

On the approach to Denver I crane for a look at the mountains. They stand white against the darkening December sky, beseeching.

Home again, the city seems like an unsettling dream from which I gladly awake. I step outside to listen, to taste the air. I breathe deeply, knowing this is my home.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at