November 22, 2007 by Allen George
“You sound buoyant today”
I lean back, shoulder blades sinking into the seat, hand drifting lazily against the garish orange frame. I am buoyant – I can hear it.
“It must be the euphoria from the trip”
There’s no must – it is – and though I know it’ll pass, I fill myself with it for as long as I can.
A silence laps against us, and as we settle into it I reconstruct a world I’d lived only days earlier, recall a moment when I’d turned around, and within the eddies of human motion found stillness and order along a river bank…
“Yes,” and a few frenzied minutes to pack my duffel – that’s how the trip to Chicago started. I’d last experienced it through plate glass – from a tour bus, then, an observation deck – but this time was different. I put miles on my shoes, crisscrossing the Magnificent Mile, the Loop, River North and part of Pilsen; I roved Millennium Park, and even encroached upon the bizarre, manufactured world of Navy Pier; I did all this, and wanted more.
Does Chicago evince an impression? It didn’t for me – our previous encounter was too brief, too disconnected. I returned expecting something reminiscent of Toronto; perhaps a city more assured of its place than Ontario’s perennially self-conscious capital, but not much more. Instead, I found a vibrant place that comfortably defined a space between the “It could only happen here” attitude of New York and the North American anonymity of Toronto. No overbearing attitude here, rather, a palpable sense of purpose, a quiet knowledge of being a place where things happen. It must be the city’s can-do, have-done history internalized, then projected for us visitors to devour.
It’s not simply in the air though. You can see it when you walk, written in the stone, concrete and glass of every downtown building. From the mountainous stolidity of Prudential Life, to the Gulliver-sized public art that demands our attention, to the brooding Gotham-bulk of the Carbon and Carbide building against a lint-grey sky, this is a city carved in the architecture of arrival. The buildings announce: “We do not simply exist – we want to be, and we mark our space, here, in this world.” And the city? It’ll take on anyone, do anything; raze airports, score canals, resurrect the waterfront, put its skyscrapers on display – reinvent, reinvent, reinvent. You arrive to find a place where the future holds only promise, where uncertainty engenders no fear.
But the past is here – and you don’t have to go far to find it. As you enter the Loop it is a constant presence, realized just overhead in the orange, rusting bulk of the EL train lines. Bare-bones stations, each steel girder exposed to the elements, heavy metal storm fencing to better contain the quivering masses, the electric blue sparks cascading outside the scratched Plexiglas at every bank on the track – these speak to an older, harsher start. The carriages running the Loop are smaller, tighter, their seats closer; its riders are tense, watchful – on a dark Sunday night their eyes dart panicky from one to another; the stations disconcert – some mirror buildings in height, while others reek of abandonment, their burnt-out lights spelling disuse. I felt nervous. I’ve traveled in many transit systems and it’s only here I’ve felt nervous.
This speaks to another Chicago – one not of power, authority or achievement, but a Chicago that appears as you walk south, and west of the Magnificent Mile. It is the Chicago of the low brick buildings on 18th, each blank-eyed to your fate; of the woman shuffling into the coffee shop, turning over rubber mats in her hope for pieces of copper; of the shiftless man who mouths “You motherfucker… you motherfucker” to the bill-counting proprietor as we fork up our pollo en mole, roll fajitas, and down our cervezas in watchful ambivalence; this is the Chicago that forces you to be alive – reminds you that you are alive, – that stirs the immediacy of being.
I believe that compelling cities always hold something back. That beneath their painted faces lies the promise of something older, freer; this … taste of an undercurrent that you must pursue – though one you may be unable to tame. Toronto doesn’t offer this. It lies open; invites you in; it is too nice, so stirs no deep feeling. But not Chicago…
I speak of this, each word a gentle ripple in that quiet room.
“You miss it, don’t you?”
Fingers beat a low tattoo against the wood, drummers to an unactualized rhythm. I do, I do.
“You should read this. Read this poem: Chicago, by Carl Sandburg. I think you’d like it – I think you’d smile.”
I read it a few days later, and my heart beat a little faster; walked to the window, stared out to midday gloom – and smiled.
Flickr photo page: Bower by the River
Flickr photo page: The EL
Flickr photo page: Chicago Waves