The Quad-Cities passed the two most important litmus tests this week that I use to decide how much I like living in a new city.
The first test is the “Coming and Going” test. The second is the “First Guest” test.
Except for daytrips to Chicago, I haven’t really left the Quad-Cities since I moved here in early December. My world became the blocks of downtown that I walked every day, the couple miles of bike path between Credit Island and the I-74 bridge, the drive up Brady to get to a grocery store or meet someone at one of the many restaurants on 53rd or across the bridge to socialize in downtown Moline or Rock Island. The outside world quickly disappeared. I forgot the swamps of Southern Illinois or the Snake River of Idaho and settled into the Andalusia Slough as my home water for a weekend kayak.
I’ve learned that the moment to make a decision is when you see the sign that says, “Bridge Span Open,” and not when you are idling at the Government Bridge behind a line of taillights and people doing three-point turns to try a different route. I’ve learned that the kayak stays in storage when you hear the word “crest.” I have an opinion about which barbecue place has the best ribs and where to get a good taco. There are already a couple of bartenders who know to pour me a whiskey without saying a word when I walk in the door after work; a hair stylist who knows what no fuss haircut I like; and a restaurant owner who worries when I don’t walk through the door by 7 p.m. on Mondays. Those routines and familiarities make a place feel like home.
But here’s the test. Last week, I went back to Portland, Maine, to attend a send-off party for an old friend. It was emotionally confusing, like reuniting with an ex just as you are settling into a new relationship. I spent the most formative part of my 20s in Maine and all these years later I can still slip back into the pace and the social scene of the place the second I step off the plane.
As I left Maine, someone sang the Randy Newman lyric, “I’m looking at the river, but thinking of the sea.”
I worried he was right, that after a week of good friends, long walks on brick sidewalks and fresh oysters eaten next to the ocean, I would let down when my plane landed at the Moline airport.
My flight arrived in Moline long after dark. The parking lot was empty, just the sound of my luggage wheels on the sidewalk and a powerful wind grabbing at a piece of art I was carrying. It was a straight shot home to Davenport, 20 minutes. “You know the saying,” someone said, “everything in the Quad-Cities is 20 minutes away.”
The next day, I had visitors in town – editors from other parts of the country. It was warm as we walked and I found myself pointing proudly to new construction, as if I was a part of it somehow. See that sign? It’s the sight of the first chiropractic adjustment in history. See that silver building? You wouldn’t believe the art they have in that museum.
“This is really nice,” one of them said.
“It is, isn’t it?” I was surprised to hear the pride of place in my voice.
The wind picked up and the temperature dropped and the men wrapped their arms around themselves to stay warm. I reached into my bag and pulled out a sweater without thinking.
“Layers,” I said. “That’s one of the things you learn living here. Dress for any season, every day.”
“You seem to have really settled in here.”
“I guess I have,” I said.