Looking at albums in the nostalgia store in Del Norte the other day made me think of one in particular — Janis Ian’s self-titled album. When I first heard it (on my own turntable in my very living room in my very apartment in Denver in 1981) I fell in love with it. One song spoke especially to me at that moment. I had recently returned from my first ever trip to a big city by myself. I went to talk to a man, a long-time lover, who wanted us to get married. It was problematic because he was gay(ish). Many letters and phone calls persuaded me to take a flight over Labor Day weekend to Chicago where he had moved with his, yes, boyfriend. Suffice it to say, the love aspect of that journey didn’t go well. Among the less surreal adventures, I took the El to downtown Chicago and spent hours in the Chicago Art Institute. It was my first venture out like that, on my own, looking at art, and experiencing a big city.
Completely filled with incredible images, I left and walked down the street looking for lunch. I walked into a restaurant that looked as if it had come out of Sister Carrie, took a table and looked at the menu. A girl at the table next to mine (the booths were separated by low dividers) said, “I’m having pizza. You want to share?” Sure, why not? She walked around to my table, sat down, I said I’d get dessert and we shared a pizza and talked. She was from Poland.
A few months later I was in Washington, DC for the Foreign Service Exam. Again I found myself alone on the streets of a major city with one day to see things. I knew all the things there were to see in the nation’s capitol and I just figured I’d go to the mall area and look. I went into the capitol building which didn’t do much for me, then out again to the row of museums. Remembering Chicago, I entered the National Gallery where my life changed, my eyes were opened, the world exploded and I saw Picasso’s linoleum cuts. I saw much, much more, but now, 40 years later, that’s what I remember. The next day I flew back to Denver a changed woman. I didn’t know how, or even that, I had changed, but I had.
I waited for the results of the exam, pondered life without the long-term (five years!) lover-like-man (who was spectacular and we were eminently compatible except for the obvious), and fretted about leaving the country for a great adventure. When? How? Would I ever? I learned to X-country ski, skied a lot — downhill and X-country, bungled a relationship with a good guy, had a one-woman show of my paintings, met the Good X, had my appendix out, did linoleum cuts (learning from Picasso) and and and and and and listened to Janis Ian. Let it be known I didn’t like any of her popular songs and still don’t. At 17? Pulease….We’re all ugly teenagers.
So…after a little chat here on my blog with a reader about old albums, I looked for the song.
At the time I owned this album, I lived in an urban neighborhood in Denver, Capitol Hill. I am 100% sure I didn’t imagine then that I would live in the back-of-beyond as a 70 year old woman. But I also didn’t imagine the magnificent cities that I would meet — and in some cases get to know well — over the intervening years or all the experiences that would make this song a completely different song in 2022 than it was in 1981.
As I listened to it Sunday night, I saw Milan where I spent ten days wandering around on foot looking at art. Venice which, even after 3 visits, is incomprehensible to me. Verona where I lived for a month doing a close study of 13th century frescoes and studying Italian. Beijing where I felt so strangely at home. Shanghai which is? Good God, I have no words. Most of all, Guangzhou, that ancient wonder that I navigated by bicycle, and Zürich where, for a few years, I had a family, a city once described to me as “the crossroads of Western Civilization.” I scoffed at that because I was ignorant, but now? Zürich gave me the inspiration to realize one of my life’s biggest dreams.
There are other cities I’ve loved, but images of these cities went through my mind as I listened to this song, images I wanted to show that young restless woman in Denver in 1981 to show her that she was completely right to want to go, and that she would go, much sooner than she knew. ❤
The featured photo is a painting I did after I returned from Chicago, an expurgation of that whole adventure. I think it’s one of the best paintings I’ve ever done.