Summer Summaries: Snippets of the large patchwork of summer experiences

What makes summer resonate so strongly? Just the recitation of those syllables–sum-mer–conjures feelings tinged with lightness and possibility. Whatever it is, summer contains all the opportunity in the world for hijinks, mishaps, and lessons. Here are a few stories from our staff that reflect the grandeur, triviality, and scope of summer.

The cold equation

The summer after my first year at the University of Chicago, the prospect of going home to the Ohio suburbs was horrifying and thus I decided to stick around Hyde Park. I was hired at and quit three jobs in the same number of weeks and I lived in a basement with no air conditioning and $350 per month rent. My best bet was a clerical job at the UofC Hospitals that involved me looking at photos of the interior of abnormal colons all day. Every day after coming home, I would pass out on my bed with fans on each side and one on the ceiling, naked, until the sun would set and the oppressive humidity would let up enough for me to go sit on someone’s porch and drink away my intimate knowledge of therapeutic colonoscopies. Oh, glorious summer.

The Chicago summer made it so that I had no desire to ever see the sun again, and so the next year I made a radical decision: summer can bugger off–I’m going to the Southern Hemisphere. At the time, I vaguely realized that this would mean going through one Chicago winter, then a Chilean winter, then another Chicago winter, but I did not stop to ponder its effects on my mental health (or skin tone). The Chilean winters were supposed to be “mild,” anyway–or so proclaimed every guidebook. As a result, I didn’t even bring a real coat. After a Chicago winter, I felt I could handle anything Chile could throw at me.

Two weeks later, I was in a department store trying to figure out exchange rates and find a parka that did not have a furry hood.* I was tricked by the evil tourismo-industrial complex. Someone along the way had failed to inform me that Chile mostly lacked internal heating systems because they had no natural gas reserves themselves and the cost for shipping across the Andes was prohibitively high. My host family zealously rationed their gas and never explained to me how to use the heater, so when I was home alone I simply had to bundle up. The website of my language school said that it was “comfortable and climate-controlled year round,” but that translated into “teeny space heaters that we won’t turn on until the entire class begs us at least three times, and then it won’t really work anyway.” I bought fingerless gloves for taking notes or else my hands would go numb. “There is a culture of saving energy here in Chile,” the director of the school explained to me when I complained about the website’s web of lies. Great. Awesome. And thus began my summer/winter as the Pillsbury Doughgirl, waddling under the weight of her layers and coughing constantly under the cloud of pollution that settles over Santiago when the air gets cold.

As another summer rolls around, I will not be so presumptuous as to assume that I am above the need for four balanced seasons. I am staying in Chicago where the air is clear, the skies are blue, and it is hot as balls. I need it to psychologically balance out my binge on winters–perhaps the intensity of the sun will eliminate the last vestiges of my Seasonal Affective Disorder hangover. But this time, I’m buying an air conditioner. (Katie Buitrago)

*Verdict: impossible. I eventually settled on one that looked like a fox that had died in an oil slick. The upside was that people regularly mistook me for a native.

Jumping right in

Like many a University of Chicago student, I intended to make Hyde Park my home for the summer. The trouble was, in June of 2006, I wasn’t yet a student of the UofC. Still living in California, studying for my AP exams, I went straight to the online UofC marketplace to begin my apartment search, and got a sublet from the first person I emailed. It was May of 2006, summer loomed, and I was a senior in high school.

I didn’t really have any plans for that summer, only the burning itch to get out of my parents’ home. Fresh out of high school, I figured I’d get an internship somewhere or work at Starbucks in Chicago–it didn’t really matter, because I figured that anything would be more rewarding than living in Pleasanton, California. The apartment was a cool $300 per month, which I could cover through savings.

On July 1st, I hopped off my airport cab at the intersection of 55th and South Hyde Park Blvd. I found my address, and made my way into the crumbling K&G building. Emil, who was to be one of my roommates, greeted me at the door, and a look inside the apartment revealed shelves of trophies, wooden paddles hanging on the walls, and a flag with greek letters. Sigma Phi Epsilon.

I had moved into a frat house by mistake.

The guy who advertised the apartment definitely didn’t mention this detail. It was true that this wasn’t officially a frat house; it was owned by K&G (now MAC) Management and SigEp members simply happened to live in it–since the early ‘90s. Emil took me to the dank, dusty basement, where my room was. At least it’s big, I reassured myself. A look at the kitchen revealed many bottles of spirits, and little food.

I ended up not doing very much of note during that summer. I biked a bit, watched a lot of TV, and pursued about three internship opportunities that quickly fizzled. But mostly, I spent most of my summer hunched over my computer, wondering what this school would be for us, like all the other little first-years online.

I did have my first prolonged experiences with alcohol, and learned what fourth-year frat boys thought of this school (they hated it), why they were in a frat (all the people they hang out with were in it), and how to mix a killer gin and tonic. All the frat boys became my friends. All of which, in retrospect, was decent preparation for orientation week. (Lisa Bang)

Gotta have my pops

I’m a native Chicagoan, though usually I forget. At home in Boston, I navigate by restaurants instead of landmarks or (nonexistent in New England) street signs; I give directions with reference to the closest ice cream shops. Local restaurants remind me that I’m home. In Chicago, though, everything has changed since I last lived here. Many of the shops on Argyle Street where I grew up have since boarded up their windows, and the pub where my father accidentally dropped me on my head as a baby is now gone. Since my childhood memories of Chicago are fuzzy at best anyway, I haven’t yet felt culturally and culinarily rooted here. Though I moved out of student housing and into my first Chicago apartment last week, it still doesn’t feel like I’m living in my ancestral home.

But I suspect that will all change soon, because summer brings the one food which sparks clear Chicago-specific memories: banana Popsicles. I think I am a Popsicle fiend. I say “think” because after all, it’s been fifteen years since my last Chicago summer, and in Boston we don’t need Popsicles with all the homemade ice cream around. But I remember walking into the shade of a Popsicle stand on a North Side beach and straining on my tip-toes to push 50 cents over the counter, then waiting eagerly for the smiling vendor to bring me my prize–always banana, and the old-fashioned kind: double-sticked, one half for me and one half for my father. Then we’d walk along the beach together and examine the piles of washed-up dead fish.

Summer will grant me many freedoms, not least of which is the freedom to finally explore this city properly. I might even exercise my freedom to choose flavors besides banana. Pilsen has chunky paletas made with mango and tamarind, and the Chinatown markets sell red bean and durian pops. I don’t want to stray too far, though, so I’ll need to carry something familiar. Since Popsicles are the ultimate portable summer sweet, I can feel at home wherever I go. (Helenmary Sheridan)

No apartment? No problem: How to spend a summer in Hyde Park without paying rent

After having finished my first year at the University of Chicago, I was looking forward to a summer spent in south-suburban comfort. Although only a mere half-hour away, the prospects of knowing that I was no longer walking distance from campus and that I could now (hopefully) channel my creative energies into making elaborate cups of coffee gave me an overwhelming sense of satisfaction. It was going to be a good summer, and I could feel it.

But Starbucks never called me back, and the UofC’s Regenstein Library gave me an offer in the acquisitions department that I couldn’t refuse. The good news was that I had managed to bag a 15 hour per week summer job without too much effort, but getting there was going to be an issue since I had no car or easy access to the CTA. However, I did have a mother who works in the UofC Hospitals, which was enough to jump-start my summer 2007 Hyde Park Couchfest.

Kicking off the event were my early-morning mother-daughter bonding experiences on our way to work. Because of the Dan Ryan Expressway’s unfinished construction and Mom’s 7am start-time, I spent my weekday mornings in the passenger seat of her car at 6am listening to radio shows with a cup of coffee in my hand and my head against the window; but, by the time we had reached our destination, two hours still stood between me and my own workday. Within the first week of my time on the job, I had made the acquaintance of one of the UofC’s best-kept secrets: the McCormick Tribune Lounge. Before long, I found myself settling into the couch in front of the fireplace comfortably. On the few occasions that I ran into friends on the street who’d ask me if I was living in Hyde Park that summer, I’d answer in the affirmative to save myself the burden of having to explain my situation.

Because I did manage to have a few close friends in Hyde Park last summer, I managed to land two sets of keys to two different apartments of two different friends who, in fact, had two different couches for me to roll all over. Despite my newfound love for the MTL, the ongoing construction on its outside walls was maddening enough for me to consider stepping foot into other people’s homes at the crack of dawn. Needless to say, couch-hopping introduced me to some memorable experiences–the first of which being the breakup with my first college boyfriend. Unable to go back to his place, I found my second set of keys to be quite handy, but before long I had managed to catch the attention of her roommates who apparently also had places to be in the early morning. Feeling out of place (and that there may have also been an animal living in the couch that I was sleeping on), I set off on my bike back to the closest place to home I could think of: the McCormick Tribune Lounge.

Since school resumed in the fall, I haven’t been back to make a visit to the Lounge. Whether it’s because I can’t admit to it that I’ve got my own couches this summer or that the memory of its stagnant summertime air is still giving me nightmares, I don’t necessarily plan on going back any time soon. Nevertheless, the Lounge still holds a dear place in my heart. So whether you’re exhausted from finals or just looking for a good place to take a nap, pay the Lounge a visit, and give it my regards. I recommend the couch in front of the fireplace. (Elise Biggers)

Figuring out the kids who figure out everything else

The real moment of clarity came when I found myself sitting in a parking lot, watching rebellious pre-teens try to flip their BMX bikes over a slippery makeshift ramp in hopes of entertaining a camp full of “smart kids,” who mostly stared horrified at the impending disaster. This was what the camp directors had so energetically set up to prove that an academic camp could be fun. But these kids clearly had a pretty different outlook on that subject. As a “smart camp” counselor last summer, I learned what really got them going–creating a fictitious family out of water-balloons, building functioning rockets out of construction paper, and staying up at night trying to decipher the intricacies of the daily word puzzle.

At first I approached the job with the idea that I might be able to help these young geniuses through the awkwardness of their adolescence, as much as that would even be possible. That lasted until I realized that ninety percent of the staff members and campers thought that I myself was a camper. I’ve always been painfully aware of my youthful appearance; it took on a whole new meaning when I was supposed to be in a visible position of authority. But in the process of fending off love letters from ninth graders, mediating arguments about flute-playing in the middle of the night, and teaching 4th grade girls how to stand by their algebra solutions regardless of what the boys said, I eventually became recognized as someone to look to for answers. This is not to say that I didn’t still receive glares when I insisted that everyone shower at night, relax about turning out a perfect assignment, or just try dancing to the rap music that they found so repulsive at the socials.

Summer can put you in uncomfortable experiences, maybe even right back into your uncomfortable childhood. Everyone there, both campers and staff, found the summer to be a sort of familiar nerd reunion. So in that moment of clarity as I sat watching the eXtreme pre-teens try to impress their uninterested, un-eXtreme counterparts, I realized that for a lot of us, that summer was a kind of accelerated replay of growing up, finding a way to integrate a lot of weirdness into a functioning social world. After all the tears, boogers, social ineptness, and strange odors, I guess it was all worth it. (Laura Harmon)