"My first day in Chicago, September 4, 1983. I set foot in this city, and just walking down the street, it was like roots, like the motherland. I knew I belonged here ..."
There are a lot of cool things about my new life, but one thing in particular trumps them all.
It's not that I live in a world-class city, or that I'm near loved ones, or even that I have a sweet three-bedroom loft all to myself.
Nope. Boring, boring, boring.
In my reality (warped though it may be), nothing seems quite as significant as the fact that I live a mere stone's throw from the most famous billionaire any middle-age, celeb-obsessed, emotionally volatile homemaker could ask for.
That's right, America -- Oprah and I are neighbors.
I discovered this unexpected stroke of fortune only a few weeks ago. Weighed down with bags full of frozen fish sticks and Diet Coke, I decided to take a different way home from the grocery store one afternoon. You can imagine my shock when I stumbled upon a small, inconspicuous building emblazoned with the words "Harpo Studios." It was a name I recognized immediately.
As Paulina will attest with a roll of her eyes, I tend to get star-struck at any encounter with even a minor celebrity, so this discovery was a big moment in my life. Suddenly, I felt like I was somewhere. The fact that Oprah's studio is a five-minute walk away somehow validated my move from Ithaca and gave me all new purpose.
At the very least, it's a draw for potential visitors. I told my Aunt Linda about my discovery, and she freaked out and drove up the next weekend, asking me how to get tickets. I told my friends Emma and Eric from Ithaca, and they promptly announced their plans to come and stay during their fall break.
Staying with me, by the way, is an amazing experience. I managed to schmooze management to open up the two vacant rooms in my unit (though I was prepared with the skills to pick the locks if necessary -- thanks again, YouTube), so now visitors get their own fully furnished bedrooms and their own bathroom completely free.
And as a bonus, they also get me as a host, and I will fall all over myself to show guests a good time (that includes cooking, cleaning, giving walking tours of the city and even using my retail discount at the mall, much to the peril of my employment).
But I knew exactly what Emma wanted to do most. She and Eric took the train from Syracuse last weekend, and on Friday, I took them on the walking tour (which included a commentary laced with the "facts" I gleaned from O's Wikipedia profile the night before) up Morgan Street to see "where all the magic happens."
The building, of course, is inaccessible for tourists, but that didn't stop us from climbing all over the Harpo sign and striking our best "Oprah moment" poses ("YOU'RE getting a car! And YOU'RE getting a car!). We even staked out a mysterious limo that was waiting by what we swore must be the celebrities-only VIP entrance, hoping to catch a glimpse of part of Brangelina or something.
Surprisingly, no such luck.
But, as I said earlier, insecurity will drive me to do anything to show my guests some fun (or at least a few cheap thrills that will fool them later on into mistaking the adrenaline for joy).
About two years ago, I wrote a column depicting a particularly perilous trip on the Ferris wheel at Chicago's famous Navy Pier. The wind had almost blown Paulina's and my compartment into Lake Michigan, and I remember having almost wet myself with terror. But somehow, it just seemed like an exciting way to show my visitors the city.
So up the wheel we climbed, and much to my horror, the wind started to gust, and the compartment started to rattle, and that glossy veneer shattered, revealing my true memory of my last spin on that wheel of doom ...
The wind hit hard. It shook our little compartment to and fro and screamed through the holes in the plastic windows. More than the signs were rattling now. The whole frame of the box seemed to be giving under pressure. "We're going to die!" Paulina exclaimed frantically, throwing her arms around me and gripping me tightly. "What did you make me do, Thomas?!"
"It will be OK!" I screamed back, unconvincingly, as the wind continued to batter our compartment. "It's normal! It always does this! We'll be fine!"
"Why have we stopped?! Oh, God, were stuck up here!" she said, scared completely out of her mind.
"If we die, remember, I love you!" I screamed, which didn't exactly help things. She started wailing in terror, and I followed suit.
We did survive that ride, though. Both times. Emma reacted much the same way Paulina had, and Eric just sort of froze. And somehow, though it's only been a few days since the most recent "near-death- by-gruesome-Ferris-wheel- accident" experience, I'd do it again today if an expectant guest were to knock on my door.
But it's times like these, when all the guests are gone and it's just me all alone in this big, bright apartment, that I wonder whether Oprah's presence means more than even I give it credit for. Like she did that day 24 years ago, I'm laying some important tracks here in Chicago, tracks that are going to mean something as I build my own empire.
I may never start my own book club, or give Christmas presents to 50,000 kids in South Africa, or write a $10 million check to hurricane relief efforts.
But I'll cook my guests breakfast, call in sick to work to take them sightseeing, and always look to my famous neighbor (or at least her Wikipedia profile) for guidance as I begin my steady rise to the top. And if none of that works, there's always the Ferris wheel.
Davis High School graduate Thomas Pardee, a member of the Teens in the Newsroom journalism program, is a sophomore at Columbia College Chicago.