Chicago in Autumn


Autumn is the cruelest month. T.S. Eliot said April is the cruelest month, but he was wrong because in Chicago, autumn is the cruelest month.

Autumn is technically a season. But here, in this city, is it really? Is autumn a season when it is counted by the day between summer and winter? Is it a season when it is 75 degrees and sunny on Monday and 45 degrees and cloudy on Friday? That doesn’t sound like a season. But it does sound like a month.

On the one hand, autumn is a beautiful month. The later sunrises let even night owls take them in. The early sunsets still produce a golden hour for everyone to bask in after work. And the cool, fresh air doesn’t cut the way it does in winter, sag under the weight of humidity as it does in summer, or perspire as it does spring. Being outdoors is actually pleasant and enjoyable, without conditions.

Chicago is the ultimate summer city, but it is also, arguably, the ultimate autumn city. Bundling up for a walk through the Bungalow Belt — over the leaves, through the breeze, under the technicolor canopy — is something wholly unique to this city. There is something to be said, although I am not sure what, for the feeling you get walking past those homes, knowing the warmth inside and taking the time to examine their detail. It is nostalgic, in a way, but not completely. Or maybe it is romantic. Or comforting.

And the smells. Autumn has the greatest smells (except, maybe, for summer, what with its freshly cut grass and all). Here is a brief list of the smells autumn produces: leaves, dew, the harvest, pumpkins, cider, radiators, and woodfired ovens. It is those latter two, especially, that stand out in the autumn.

Radiator heat is the best heat. It may not be the most efficient way to heat a home or apartment. But it is by far the best way to heat a space. And when it comes on for the season — in Chicago, that usually happens around mid-October — the radiator makes its presence known. The clinks and clacks and pings of the system turning on mean two things: the apartment is about to get very, very warm. And this will be the way things are until March. In the dead of winter (say, January) walking into a radiator-heated space is like getting taken by an ocean wave: it hits you all at once. And it feels great.

The woodfire ovens that waft through the autumn air are a little more subtle to pick up on than the radiators. But they are there. Walk down Randolph street west of the highway, or Halsted around Armitage, or any other area with some restaurants and a lot of old buildings, and they stand out. The smell of wood burning brings out a sort of Old World feel to the area and provides the groundedness that, despite being in a city, nature and is never too far away.

But despite all this — despite the sunrises, the fresh air, the radiators, and the smells — autumn is the cruelest month. It is cruel because it is just short enough to lure you in, only for winter to arrive as soon as you get comfortable. It is cruel because the bridge between summer and winter is painfully, desperately short. It is cruel because it is so beautiful and so fleeting.

In Chicago, autumn is not a season. It is a month — the cruelest month.