Michael Johnson

Transcription of Michael Johnson
Interviewee: Michael Johnson
Interviewer: Sarah Altinbasak
Date: February 22, 2014
Place: Edgewater Library, 6000 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL.
Transcriber: Sarah Altinbasak
Total time: 27:00

Copyright © 2014 Edgewater Historical Society

SA: So, can you tell me a little bit about Scotland?

MJ: Sure. It’s a wonderfully fun and welcoming country. I grew up there I was born in a town called Sterling, which is kind of smack right in the middle of Scotland and grew up there from zero to twenty four years old, which is when I came here. And a lot of people ask me, is it…. I think a lot of people end up in the states because the country where they came from isn’t so good, for whatever reason. There’s war. Life just isn’t good, but life in Scotland is great. My entire family and pretty much all my friends are still there. It’s just a wonderful place for young and old people to make their lives and to have kids and it’s a beautiful country. There’s a lot to see and a lot of history. It’s just a wonderful place.

SA: Sounds wonderful.

MJ: Yeah.

SA: So then why did you come here if it wasn’t to escape?

MJ: So, I’m actually a teacher now-a-days. Both of my parents are teachers, and growing up as a teenager I really didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I know I didn’t want to be a teacher. That was the whole deal.

SA: Ok.

MJ: Because being the son of two teachers is not easy. And I actually went into audio-engineering at the University in Glasgow, studied audio-engineering for four years, and electronics, and all the while I was working at a summer camp in the state of Maine called Camp Wigwam where I continue to work now-a-days. At the time I was just a counselor but every summer I would come work for the States, work as a summer camp counselor and go back to Scotland, continue studying and/or working. And at some point I kind of realized that, that I needed to be a teacher, I needed to teach, and I was going to do that in Scotland and kind of follow in my dad’s footsteps. And a family that I had gotten to know pretty well at the summer camps said, “Well, why don’t you come live with us in Chicago for a year, and stay with us. We live in Glen Cove Illinois, and you could go, there’s a great graduate school down the street called (unintelligible) University where you could get your masters in teaching? And after that you know, you could stay, you could go….” And I kind of took a shot at it and moved over here, went to school, managed to get a teaching job and a work visa, and recently just got married to an American girl.


SA: Congratulations.

MJ: And we bought our first house right here in Edgewater.

SA: Very cool. So what do you teach?

MJ: I teach primary science, so kindergarten, first, second, third, and fourth graders: kids between like five and ten years old. Hands on, inquiry based science, messy, you know. It’s messy. It’s fun, and the kids love it.

SA: Sure.

MJ: And it’s also exhausting, there’s a lot of cleanup. But it’s good. The kids really get it, a kick out of it. You know, our school is up in Skokie actually.

SA: Ok. So what do your parents teach?

MJ: My mother is a… she teaches a number of things; aroma therapy, reflexology, an, a couple of other things at a college level. It would be the equivalent of a community college over here. So she teaches that in Scotland and my dad was actually my teacher for many years. He’s a high school technical drawing and graphic design teacher which over here has a number of names, I think shop is something you guys call it.

SA: Ok.

MJ: Metal work, wood-work, graphic design on the computer, product design, things like that, and so he’s….He was my teacher as well in high school.

SA: That must have been interesting.

MJ: It was very interesting, and there’s a lot of pros and cons to that.

SA: Sure.

MJ: If you don’t have any money you need money it’s great. If you have a girlfriend and you want to keep your girlfriend it’s not so great.

SA: Sure.

MJ: But there was also a defining moment when I was in my sophomore year. No. It must have been my freshman year of high school, and we were going through sex education, and he just happened to be our guidance counselor, that’s it. He was the guy in front of the class pressing play on the video with the naked man and the naked woman, so it was just terrifying. All my friends thought it was great and to this day they still think it’s great. So….

SA: That must have been very difficult to get through. So how long have you been in Chicago now?

MJ: I lived in Glen Cove for the first 2 years so that would be 2000, , 2006, 2007 and then I …actually 2006, 2007, 2008 in Glen Cove Illinois and then I moved to Chicago in 2009 when I got this job at this school and moved…. I originally lived in Wicker Park.

SA: Uh huh.

MJ: For three years, and then Ravenswood for about 6 months and then ultimately we chose Edgewater because it just offered a lot more than other neighborhoods offered us. There’s just more to do with slightly less… slightly smaller price tag compared to some other places. It was close to the beach. We have dogs. We like to go out to the waterfront, and there was just nice people. It’s almost like a town, a small town feel on the edge of a city. You know, you kind of get the best of both worlds. So we decided to move to Edgewater and it’s been a great decision. We love it here.


SA: So how long have you been in Edgewater?

MJ: Since about a year and a half. It’ll be two years in October.

SA: And you love it.

MJ: Love it. Great place, good people, good restaurants, and bars and you know local. We like to stay local, shop local, there’s a farmers market or a CSA, you know, we live right across from. We live above a barber shop which, which is awesome. Those guys are awesome, and then across the street a Mexican place called Cookies and Carnitas, just opened, and when we got there, there, was really nothing there and within a year and a half all this stuff is happening around us. But everyone’s really friendly, I think that if we were down in say Wicker Park or Lincoln Park, you know you’re not gonna get the same level of interaction, among business owners. They are just there to make their money. They see so many people every day that they don’t really have that personal connection. But up here in Edgewater you can walk into a store, you can talk to a manager, you can talk to the owner, it’s just very friendly and welcoming, which is what we like.

SA: So…would you…do you feel at home here?

MJ: I would say that….We bought our house in December…

SA: Uh huh.

MJ: …just down the street here on Broadway and for the first time since I moved to the states I finally feel like I can call this place home, which is good. Before that I just felt very transient…


MJ: …not really knowing where we were gonna be or where we were gonna end up, and I think that also comes with home ownership. You know when you buy a home you’re obviously gonna call it home, but it really feels like home. We are great friends with our neighbors. We’re out walking the dog and there’s a number of people that we met that are also out walking their dogs. They’re on their front porch, and they just want to know you. They want to get to know you, and that’s really something you don’t see elsewhere in Chicago.

SA: That’s true, in any big city.

MJ: Yeah yeah. So yeah it does feel like home, which is nice. And it certainly feels like home when you’re paying 1200 dollars for a new hot water heater at the drop of a hat, but um….

SA: Sure.

MJ: …which is today’s project. But it’s just been great. We have a lot of friends. I’m 31 years old. My wife just turned 30. We have a lot of friends who are a looking to buy now, you know, who’ve lived in the city for a while and they’re in the same boat as us. And we’re recommending Edgewater all over the place. We have a number of friends that are thinking about moving over here. And you know I think initially people are like, that’s too far away, you know, I’ve never heard of it, but it’s really the best of all the worlds. You get to be in the city, you get to be close to the lakefront, it’s not congested in the same way that Lakeview is, you can find parking,. You have Andersonville on your back doorstep, and you can get in and out of the city pretty easily at Peterson and Lincoln. It’s just a nice community, nice bubble to live in.

SA: I agree.

MJ: So you live here too?

SA: I live in Lakeview but I have…. I really like Edgewater.

MJ: Yeah, yeah.

SA: I didn’t know Edgewater existed until like three months ago.

MJ: Yeah, yeah, we were the same, a couple of years ago we had no idea. But it was a nice move for us.

SA: So you, do you go back to Scotland?

MJ: I do. Yeah, I shoot for at least once a year. In the past years it’s been twice which is nice but normally as a teacher you get time off, which is great, you know over winter break spring break, that said, the time off you get is also the most expensive time to travel.


SA: Sure.

MJ: So it’s tricky but yeah, I get back normally for two, three, weeks around Christmas and New Year. And then like I said last year we actually got back over spring break in March which is where I proposed to my wife, and then we got married this past winter in Florida where her family is from.

SA: Nice.

MJ: So it was great, we had all these Scottish people come on over on the same plane pretty much, which was a little rowdy, but it was good, it was a great 2 weeks down there.

SA: Sounds great.

MJ: Yup.

SA: So are you the only one in your family who lives here now?

MJ: I am. And it’s hard sometimes umI think it’s not as hard as it used to be because of things like face-time or Skype. So I’m able to talk to my parents, and my brother, and aunts and uncles, fairly often. So that helps, but you’re not always there for family events, you know: christenings, or some weddings I’ve had to miss. But you know, it’s just part of what you sign up for. You know it is incredibly easy to stay in touch with people now-a-days. When I first moved here, Skype was available but not really. People weren’t really using it yet. So it was a phone call once every two weeks, once every month maybe. So that was harder I think, but now-a-days, you know, it’s not too bad. I feel connected with them in a way that I didn’t used to be. Yeah, so it can be hard, especially when you know -, down the road maybe in a year or two - you know there’s a possibility that we may have kids.

SA: Uh huh.

MJ: God willing and I think that can be hard when you don’t have immediate family around you.

SA: Sure, so how do they feel about you being here?

MJ: They’ve always been supportive you know since I can remember. My dad has always said to me, “You know I want you to do whatever you want to do. Don’t feel like you have to take any road just because you need to make money or you need to impress someone.” Another friend once said to me that, “You know the money. Do what you love and the money will follow, you know, it’ll figure itself out, don’t chase money.” And it’s really such a great piece of advice. That advice is what ultimately led me to teaching and it took (unintelligible). It really doesn’t pay well in many instances. And now we’re in a situation where it does pay well which is great. But that said, I wouldn’t have done that had I not had the support of my mom and dad to go ahead and do that and my brother. And you know to this day they’ve never regretted me leaving, or felt that they should’ve kept me there. You know they’re happy that I’m happy.

SA: Uh huh.

MJ: It’s ok. They actually, they come over you know maybe once a year or once every two years, and stay with us, and so they get kind of a vacation out of it as well which they like. But my worry is, down the road as they become older what do you do? I mean there’s only so much you can do from 5000 miles away.

SA: Uh huh.

MJ: So there’s face-time and Skype and the phone. But there’s a lot…There’s big pressure on my brother who is younger to not leave - even if he wanted to - because I already did.

SA: Right.

MJ: Then he has the responsibility to stay and look after them as they get older. So you know, these are all big questions that I think about often that I really don’t have an answer for. We’ll just see what happens. And you know, thankfully they are healthy and happy, and they’re young still so, it’s good.


SA: Are there Scottish traditions or parts of your heritage that you think you still identify more with than here?

MJ: Yeah.

SA: Such as?

MJ: Well as a… as a primary teacher, my first year of teaching was very tough because I had a thick Scottish accent and these are young kids. And they would take every opportunity to let me know when I said something that was funny to them. But you know, when you’re teaching kids that young, you change how you, I mean you don’t even really think about it, you change. And one of my friends in Scotland made fun of me because I have this American accent which I don’t think I have but…

SA: I, I didn’t even realize until you said - I think one word - I can’t remember which word you said that, yeah I didn’t even know.

MJ: It’s terrible. I wish I still had that nice Scottish brogue that revisits after about 2 or 3 pints of beer and suddenly it’s just back which is good, but there’s …. I think once you’re born in Scotland you can go anywhere in the world and always identify as being Scottish, whether it’s culturally how you act, how you behave. I think that Scottish people are very community based. They will always help someone who needs help. They’re never gonna turn their back and over all just friendly. They’ll speak to someone they have never met before on the street, and that I think is really a cultural thing. I mean, you go to Glasgow in Scotland and you have…. You suddenly have 300,000 thousand people doing the same thing. Everyone is just happy. On the darkest, wettest, coldest days people are still happy to be alive and walking around, and it’s a nice thing.

SA: I can’t imagine that.

MJ: Yeah. It’s funny because before I moved to Chicago I actually had the opportunity to see most of the states.


MJ: Our university system doesn’t really start until the end of September, so I’d come over for this summer camp, and when all the American universities would go back into session, I still had a month before I had to go back to Scotland. And so I met a lot of friends at camp and then they would travel back to their universities, and travel around the country. So I got to see up and down the east coast, up and down the west coast and a lot of cities in between, including Chicago. And Chicago resonated with me even when I was eighteen years old because it reminded me so much of Glasgow and how friendly it was. It seems strange but in Glasgow you could walk up to a homeless person and say, “Hey I’m lost, how do you get to such and such?” And they’d be like, “Sure no problem. Go there. Go here. Good luck.” “Can you spare me a dollar or whatever?” “No problem. Of course.” And you can do the same here in Chicago for the most part. You could whether be downtown. There’s this kind of fear that doesn’t exist here that I think exists in other cities of people who don’t know or don’t associate with.

SA: Absolutely.

MJ: And here’s not. It’s just not as prevalent. So I can… off the bat I kind of had this connection with Chicago which I love, and it does feel like home. It’s really the only American city that I’ve visited that is kind of like Scotland, but I think it’s the Midwest. I think….

SA: Yeah.

MJ: But to go back to your question what do you identify with in terms of being Scottish, and you can’t let it go. There’s always stuff, whether it be sporting events….I’m a huge soccer fan. I still follow my team Glasgow Celtics, which actually has a following here in Chicago which is kind cool. There’s a group of people who that were all on a mailing list, and we watch soccer games together, while they are live in Scotland. So I mean we woke up this morning at like 6:45 a.m. and everyone just packs into this pub at AJ Hudson’s and watch the game.

SA: At 6:45 in the morning?

MJ: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.

SA: Oh my goodness.

MJ: We watch the game and drink beer and eat food and it’s great yeah, it’s good. But once you’re Scottish, you’re always Scottish, you can’t take it back.

SA: Sure. So if I were to ask how you would identify yourself culturally, you would say Scottish.

MJ: Yeah. I would say Scottish, not really British, but Scottish, from Scotland. A question I get quite often is someone would say, “Oh where are you from?” And I would say, “Scotland.” And their next question would be, “Oh, you mean you were born there? Or are you one of those people who are like, ‘Oh yeah I’m Scottish, but what I really mean is my great-great-grandfather was from Scotland.’” Or you know what I mean?

SA: Yes.

MJ: Which is fine. I don’t care. I think it’s great when people identify with being Scottish. So that’s fine. That’s good. I’ll always identify with, I’m proud to say I was born and bred there, and I’m happily here in the states but people, like I said, I mentioned before, some people always assume that you’re here because your life in your other country sucked, which just wasn’t the case.

SA: I think that’s a stereotype that a lot of Americans have. It’s so great here; everyone has to come here, which is false.

MJ: Yeah, and it’s tricky because I kind of feel, I think the states is great. I think it’s fun. I think there’s a lot to d. I mean you hear this thing about the American dream or you can come here or you know…


MJ: …you can own a house. You can own a car. You can have a family. You can have a great life. You can make money. But the same is also true in Scotland. And I’d be happy in either one. But I think your life takes a path… part of which you have control of and part of which you don’t. And as long as you keep looking…. I’m a firm believer in, if you go through life being a good person to the people you meet, that only good things can come of that. I mean there will be hard times. There will be tough times, but overall you will always have this community of people that you were good to in the past that will come to your rescue if you needed it.

SA: Karma?

MJ: Yeah. Totally, like karma. Right, and so far that’s strung true, until the hot water heater of course….But another thing that happens quite often is someone says, “Oh where are you from?” And I say, “Oh I’m from Scotland. “ “Oh, no way, I have a… I have a friend who lives in Poland.”…… And then they’ll give me the name and I’m like, “Do you realize how many people, how far apart those countries are?” I guess American geography is just not, in some cases not great. But that actually happens uh, all the time. I get mistaken for being Irish all the time and they’ll go, “Oh you’re from Scotland, no way!” You know, I was in France once. Oh, great. That’s lovely, you know?

SA: Well that just shows how little we know about geography?

MJ: Well yeah. It obviously helps when you grow up in Europe. You just get to know the countries. You get to know how it all works. I feel like where I grew up you’re kinda like in the middle. You have all this stuff to the east. You have all this stuff to the west, and it’s easier to have kind of a better foothold of where everything is in the world. Whereas here…

SA: We’re surrounded by ourselves.

MJ: Right, it’s hard. It’s such a huge country. I teach kids that have never seen the ocean, I mean it looks like, the majority of them have never seen the ocean let alone be outside the country. And it’s amazing to me because in Scotland you can drive an hour in any direction and you’re at an ocean. You’re there. The concept of just this huge country is just unbelievable to me. Here if you wanted to drive to say Indianapolis from Chicago people wouldn’t even think twice. You know it’s a four or five hour journey. You get a new car. You go down the highway and suddenly you’re in Indianapolis. Well a 4 or 5 hour car journey in the UK is huge. I mean people just don’t do that - a five hour drive. I mean no way I’m doing that. They don’t do that. It is just so far. But things are just so far apart here.


SA: Yeah.

MJ: You kind of don’t have a choice, you have to. It’s just a whole different ballgame but you drive five hours in the UK and you can basically go from the middle of Scotland to the middle of England. But I quite often drive from Chicago to Maine or to Florida. Florida is where Sarah’s parents are from, where she grew up, and then Maine is where the summer camp is where I work at, and that’s 1200 miles.

SA: Uh huh.

MJ: And again, it’s not a short distance but people do it here. Two day drive, whatever we can do that. People just do it. Gas is cheap, and there’s lots of places to stop along the way but if you did that in Scotland you could basically drive from my house in Scotland to the southern tip of Italy. You know? That’s the same distance.

SA: That’s true.

MJ: Which people just don’t do. It’s just unheard of, which is interesting, but…

SA: So was there anything that I didn’t ask that you think that people, the people of Edgewater would want to know? About you, or the whole immigration process, or anything?

MJ: I’m still very new to Edgewater. I feel like even though we’ve been here a year and a half, now that we’re home owners we kind of feel like we’re starting to connect with the community on a real basis and we’re starting to know people. But what I find very interesting about Edgewater is this sense of community, you know, kind of looking over your shoulder for someone else who lives in Edgewater which you just don’t see elsewhere. And this e-mail that you get, this Edgewater update that it’s like Edgewater Chamber of Commerce update, what’s happening in Edgewater which goes out weekly, I’ve never seen that before.

And there’s a ton of stuff going on, people just doing things together for the sake of doing things together; meetings, or introductions, or coffee mornings or fundraisers, or art projects or wine tastings, or, there’s just so much going on. There’s the theater district, ten theaters locally that everyone kind of participates in or goes to see and gives money to. And for me that…., I mean you asked me if it feels like home. That’s the kind of stuff that makes it feel like home to me. I grew up in a very small town, three thousand people. Everyone knows everyone else. The butcher is also the local police man. If you want to mail a letter you can do it from the pub. It’s just a great place and I’m very proud to say that I’m a resident of Edgewater now. It’s been very good to me and I look forward to many happy years here.

SA: Ok. Well thank you for sharing all that.

MJ: Thank you.