Editors' Note: This article originally ran on May 2, 2005.
The train ride into Chicago from Joliet, at 65 long minutes, provides ample time for any number of activities, the two most common being sleeping and reading, followed with mercifully less frequency by chattering with fellow riders and loudly talking business on a cellphone. The least common activity is the one I enjoy the most: simply looking out the window at the passing surroundings and, as an aspiring writer, recording my thoughts on paper.
Observe, reflect, inscribe. Over and over again.
This process of observing and recording has inevitably extended itself beyond my early morning arrival at Union Station to include the two-block walk up Riverside Plaza to my office as well as various other points in the immediate vicinity. The morning train ride doesn't really get interesting until Chicago's city limits are reached, when the scattered thickets and centerless clusters of suburban ranch houses give way to real neighborhoods and solid factories and, closer to the Loop, to individual people who are busy readying themselves for the day ahead.
The resulting narrative, I hope, imparts some inkling of the neighborhoods and people that have been encountered along the way.
6am, New Year's Eve, and for awhile I feel like I'm the only person in the world. Now that I'm on my train I see plenty of others, but on the way here every intersection was deserted. Fifteen minutes of driving and only one red light, at Six Corners. I turned south on Raynor, off my usual route, intrigued by illuminated neon in a storefront window half a block down. Proprietor must have left it on last night, I thought to myself, but as I approached I was surprised to see the neon read "OPEN," with the interior lights on and a middle-aged barber sitting in one of the chairs, reading a newspaper. What kind of person gets a haircut at 6am is a question better left to the sociologists, but presumably the barber is simply an early riser, and figures he might as well spend his early morning in his shop, on the off-chance that he'll have a customer.
In the empty station, a middle-aged man, bundled to the chin, shuffles along with a newspaper clutched to his chest like his first-born child. His staccato steps resound through the echoing corridor.
A lonely payphone rings and rings, and no one ever answers.
Chicago, Southwest Side
The view is subtly beautiful, although little can be seen. All is indigo, charcoal and black, trees barely seen as they cower in silent shadow and scattered porchlights illuminating little more than a few square feet of gray earth. In the distance, the overhead lights of the elevated expressway form an endless outstretched necklace of amber, but the neighborhoods stay hidden in the weak early light.
The reverence begins to dissolve upon reaching the thoroughfares of Western Avenue and Western Boulevard, twin streets which run just a few yards from each other, the tines of a tuning fork: ramrod straight, perfectly parallel, gleaming with reflected light and vibrating with a steady tone. The two streets travel together for over two miles coming out of Gage Park and Garfield Boulevard to the south, before merging into one just north of here. While two parallel streets may be an affordable luxury on land, two bridges over the Sanitary Canal would be an expensive redundancy.
Practical considerations begin to take shape here, just as the sky begins to lighten into gray, revealing more details of the surrounding area. Thoughts of the workday ahead mix readily with the sight of construction lots and rows of tidy new homes.
Another neighborhood, this one humbled and worn. Dozens of frame houses, once neat but now haggard, press together with mere inches of privacy separating them. Back porches are filled with clutter, accumulations in the process of being either relocated or discarded. The streets are littered with aluminum cans, empty boxes, random paper. Industrial buildings and a truck lot stand directly across the street, a far cry from the park view most would prefer, and freight trains rumble just overhead, outside the back door. The curbs are lined with 10-year-old parked cars, bumper to bumper; no room or budget for detached garages here.
An older couple squeezes sideways between two parked cars in the middle of the block, and crosses the street with barely a glance in either direction. Despite all the parked cars, there is little traffic to be concerned with. The only nearby traffic is the endless whirl of commuters on the expressway to the north, people traveling from green suburbs to downtown glass towers with little thought of what lies between.
Though the factories remain in protracted decline, there are a few signs of life. A factory hunches on South Rockwell, the oldest of the old, its ancient arched windows completely bricked up. It might otherwise seem abandoned. But a side door stands propped open, and the overhead lights inside are already glaring vibrantly, just after 7am, the door appearing as a bold rectangle of light against the drizzly gloom outside. Through the opening can be seen aluminum barrels, brand new but empty, their sides gleaming brilliantly in the harsh light, patiently awaiting their destined use.
Somebody must fill these barrels, use them for some unknown purpose, and draw a paycheck for doing so. A paycheck to be taken home to a young, scuffling family, putting sustenance on the table and a dry roof overhead, while they plot and strive to advance in this difficult world.
At the Ashland Avenue El stop, a young man stands facing the southwest, awaiting his train, brightly illuminated by an overhead light. Dressed neatly in all black, tailored slacks, impeccable wool coat; austere, rigid, and self-consciously cool. For him, this world seems less than difficult. Further down the platform are two shadowed, unlit figures, one standing and the other seated.
Glancing up from my reading, I'm struck by the sight of a large flock of pigeons racing alongside the train, seemingly in escort. I didn't know wild pigeons ever flew in such large numbers, and as they fight their way bravely against the wind up the railyard, I find myself silently cheering them on. Scattered pigeons here and there fight for the lead, inevitably falling back and being replaced by other strivers, but one dark gray and determined bird strongly holds the forefront, enjoying no drafting from other birds and yet staying far ahead.
I sit mesmerized, in wonderment. Sensing the approaching expressway overpass which I know will disperse the flock, I stare transfixed, knowing the sight will soon be gone. And it is; the overpass forces them to scatter, a few venturing over the teeming lanes but most turning back, even their dark gray leader. I am glad, ever so briefly, to have shared the moment with them.
The train rolls on, past Cermak Road, where last year a homeless man's squat sat silently underneath the concrete pillars of the El. Scavenged garbage bins lined a humble promenade leading to a humbler shelter of plywood sheets and a roof of discarded silver-colored tarpaulin. The man was nowhere to be seen. Two decrepit bicycles laid alongside, waiting, vying to transport him to wherever it was that he unhurriedly needed to go.
But months later, the homeless man's squat was purged, desolate, burned out, the promenade of garbage bins scattered and possibly returned to their grateful owners, and the lonely inhabitant rousted elsewhere.
Yet this year he has returned to this same spot, as he will next year and the year after that, battling the bitter elements�the physical which freeze and soak, the social which ignore and disdain�as helplessly as in Algren's day, and Sandburg's before that. The squalor, hopelessness and defeat, and society's indifference, never seem to change. Today, for now, he struggles to sleep in his makeshift hovel atop a once-white couch that has become dingy with grime and soaked with rain, surprisingly complemented by a matching loveseat in similarly deplorable condition. He essentially has a discarded family room all his own, one which would be abhorred by you and me but at least keeps him off the cold, damp ground at night.
All that has seemingly changed since Algren is the distance between top and bottom, and the quality of what the top throws away.
The work crew stands idly, all five dressed identically: neon orange vests with yellow striping, hardhats, jeans, heavy leather boots. They face in several different directions, staring at the indeterminate distance, their conversations apparently of little interest to each other. They wait for something — 7:30? — and their motivations seem as suppressed as the morning's energy is by the thick fog. The fog hangs like a heavy blanket, undented by the sun that rises invisibly behind it. Few are working today, a Friday one day after New Year's, and the work crew's lethargy perfectly reflects the spirit, or non-spirit, of the day.
Chicago, Union Station
Hemmed in on the narrow platform by the steel wall of the train on one side and the void of trainless track on the other, the crowd moves slowly, eyes only half-raised through the dim light, and with nervous patience. All of them wanting to strike out ahead, but knowing that just beyond the commuter ahead is another shuffling commuter, and making the dodge would only gain a few feet and insignificant progress towards liberty.
A commuter walks just ahead of me, one hand clenched into a fist, holding something I can't quite identify�silvery, possibly metallic, possibly the foil of a candy wrapper. He appears intent on being the good citizen, on the ready for the first trashbin. The Amtrak train on the opposite side has just begun to be unloaded, the only items on the platform so far being several black plastic crates, like the ones milk is delivered in, each one carrying a coffee urn. I automatically remember the old rituals of fellowship hour, right after church, so long ago.
Walking through the train concourses later on, during the empty time of mid-morning, is a rather ominous experience. Empty, rather than quiet, because that time is anything but quiet. Take away the shuffle and murmur of hundreds of commuters that drowns out all ambient noise, and all one hears is twenty different loudspeakers echoing, in a cold and mechanical voice, "Track number five," "Track number 12" and so on. The identical voices repeat in endless and unsynchronized loops, at first seemingly random but ultimately blending as one into a unified, though stuttering, chorus.
A tired family of five, clearly from out of town, walks aimlessly up the sidewalk. A mostly empty McDonald's bag clutched at the mother's side reveals the extent of their city exploration. They are likely here only to change Amtrak trains on their long way home.
"Did he expect me drive, all the way in? From Hinsdale, in all that traffic?"
He gestures extravagantly to his companion with a westward sweep of his arm, his fingertips brushing my sleeve as I walk past, too focused on his narrative to realize either his affront or any need to apologize.
Sitting on the low wall normally reserved for evening newspaper hawkers are five men striking in the similarity. Young, white, hair gelled, long on top and spiky, wearing goldenrod-colored jackets emblematic of the Mercantile Exchange, smoking cigarettes with an air of self-important seriousness. Five runners, too young to be full-blown traders, all exactly alike. Bing, bing, bing, bing, bing, right down the line. Were they asked, they would undoubtedly call themselves rebels, even with all their outward signs of conformity.
Nowhere is the herd mentality more pervasive than the commodities markets, where fortunes are made and lost instantly, merely on the basis of group psychology. These young footsoldiers are merely the latest recruits to the cause of popular delusions and the madness of crowds.
Stern of visage, dark hair pulled back tightly and lips set grimly, she could easily pass for a beleaguered 19th Century Montana farm wife — despondent over a fifth consecutive harvest withering and blowing away in the relentless dry wind — were it not for her white Nikes, fashionable sweater and rollaway suitcase. She waits on the corner, perhaps forever, for the ride that may never arrive. She is by all measures outwardly modern, and yet the blackness of mind of the Montana homesteader is all too apparent. Clearly, someone will be paying dearly for his late arrival.
Chicago, Riverside Plaza
The pigeons alight suddenly, rising to hover in a confused cloud above the pedestrians and the halted traffic, returning just as inexplicably to their roosts on the bridgetender's house, the sidewalk, and the railings.
A lone cigarette smolders in a sidewalk ashtray, just recently discarded by a smoker no longer near.
Steam glides scatteredly across the river's surface, for even as frigid as the water is, the air above is fractionally more so. The steam wavers to and fro, as aimlessly as schoolchildren at noon recess.
The river, which in pioneer days was a marshy trickle on the table-flat prairie, now flows through a canyon whose walls draw all attention away from the river itself. The towering buildings and concreted riverbanks rise precipitously above the water's surface, housing the office workers and transporting pedestrians who are too preoccupied to give the river any notice. The river which is, of course, the reason the great city rose on this formerly desolate stretch of lakefront in the first place.
Once the hub of the city's perpetual bustle, heavy barge traffic going to and fro from the wharves that once lined the banks, taking in all manner of goods to be sold on the unpaved chaos of South Water Street, the river now flows quietly. The rare barge comes through, loaded with gravel or scrap metal from either the north or south branches, its pushboat providing an inkling of long-lost river life. But more common than barges are the pleasure boats bound for the more affordable inland marinas, or the tourist-laden excursion liners offering rote, superficial lectures to listeners who are mostly there to enjoy the sun.
The river, once so incomparably vital, is now just another part of the scenery, and a minor one compared to the soaring towers that remain forever in its debt.
The pigeons and seagulls hungrily attack the food piled up for them at the edges of sidewalk, so aggressively that one might forget they are already the best-fed scavengers in the entire city.
From a distance, the great multi-paned window wall which rises above the southwest exit doors of the Civic Opera House appears to be shattered. But with a few more steps the cracks seem to move, and the cracks are revealed to be the thin, bare limbs of a pathetic little tree which stands directly across the street from the building.
A man walks along in the opposite direction, as he does every day, wearing a pricey weekend-woodsman coat, jeans and hikers. His beard is long, full and going gray, his piercing eyes staring out through wire-rimmed glasses. The first impression is of a Methodist minister, a thoughtful ascetic mentally composing the week's sermon, were it not obvious that he is just another commuter on the way to his office. Perhaps, instead, the director of a hard-pressed non-profit organization, trying to contemplate where the next round of funding will be found.
An actual conversation, overheard while waiting for the Walk light at Monroe Street:
"I'll have to ask my one brother to help me move."
"Your other brother won't help?"
"I don't want to ask him. I don't want to owe him anything."
Down the plaza walks another man who could have easily passed for my father, 35 years ago. Neat, brown suit; brown fedora with a plain brown band; sturdy but unflashy black dress shoes; leather attach� case; and an old-fashioned, non-retractable umbrella hanging on his forearm. The only thing missing was a London Fog trenchcoat. He certainly wouldn't be grabbing a latt� at Starbucks; he drinks his coffee black, bitter and scorching, served by a fireball named Rosie along with his bacon and eggs.
An older black gentleman, somewhat shabbily dressed, stands just inside the entrance to Two North Riverside. He is clearly out of place, simply idling while paler commuters stream past him and through the revolving doors into the street. On this bitterly cold morning he is obviously only here to quietly and illicitly escape the chill. It will do for now; the security guard at the other end of the landing won't even see him until the crowds began to dissipate, affording him a temporary reprieve, a few minutes of warmth until the crowds slacken and he is inevitably shooed away.
The Otis elevator man is already having a hard morning, at only 8:15. He stands in the corner of the elevator, vivid in his green uniform shirt and matching pants, his hair and bristly moustache having long ago gone completely white. Ignoring the office workers nearby, he leans his forehead heavily into his forearm which rests high against the doorframe, and closes his eyes as the elevator begins to rise. It always rises, except for those rare moments when it balks and he suddenly becomes indispensable. He doesn't know if this will be one of his indispensable days. A rolled-up copy of the Sun-Times sticks out of his back pocket, just in case today isn't one of them.
Chicago, Loop Vicinity
The gaze is invariably drawn upward, following the sheer height of the towers which thrust out of the earth and, on foggy days, dissolve into the heavens. Masonry next to marble next to steel and glass, Art Deco melding into Bauhaus. The vertical riot of styles and materials faintly echoes the swarm of human activity at street level: men, women and indeterminate; suits, business casual, service uniforms, rough construction clothes; those with a sunny, warm aura and those grimly anticipating the upcoming day. Streaming through the downtown streets, with thousands upon thousands of varying destinations, all of them unique and ever-changing.
Tired eyes are one thing, but dulled eyes are something else entirely. Tired can be fixed; earlier to bed, more exercise, better diet, time away from routine responsibilities. But the dulled eyes are troubling. Face after face streams past, many completely blank, the eyes uncomfortably deadened. As if all enthusiasm, joy, energy has been drained away. As if their lives have become mechanical, obligatory, devoid of deeper meaning and offering no brighter dreams.
Grim-eyed, staring into the morning sun that they won't see again until the next day, flabby necks stuffed into tight starched collars. Flabby from too many sedentary years climbing the ladder, starched from the endless need for uniform and uniformity. They insist to themselves that they truly have something going, because to see the truth would invalidate decades of striving.
Traders trickle past, rainbows of bright blue and sky blue, red and yellow, many made of mesh straight from the 1970s, many with sleeves which end abruptly, awkwardly, far short of the wrist. Anything to grab the attention of someone on the other side of the trade, to identify the specific tribe, to mark the wearer as significant.
His rounded shoulders and thick neck fill the upper portions of his wool pea coat. He carries his frame risen up, as if about to pounce, as if compensating for his smallish stature. He is a tightly wound ball of muscle and tension, with a cigarette clenched in his left fist which he raises to his lips to inhale from far too frequently for his own good. His obvious tension is no doubt due, in part, to the nicotine, along with the possibility of other undisclosed substances.
Where he is heading is far from clear, but he is going there briskly and aggressively, crossing against the Don't Walk sign, weaving like a halfback seeking daylight. His pants are dark navy and plain, suggesting manual labor, and his shoes are black hightops, the workboots of the new millennium. In an earlier era he might have been heading to the docks, a childhood friend of Terry Malloy, his outfit today lacking only a grappling hook to perfect the image. But he is downtown, home to only white collars, its workingmen generally limited to busboys serving the office brigade and ironworkers tossing up another tower to house their papermoving crusades.
The two stand, towering in presence if not height over the tired, milling herd. Sharply dressed in perfect Italian suits, crisp white shirts, the latest silk ties, there is not even a hint of fatigue in their eager eyes. Twenty-five or 26 years old, at the peak of their lives, brimming with enthusiasm and an unwavering belief in their steep trajectories. The world is theirs for the taking. Or at least it seems that way, on this bright spring morning.
An old man coughs, and abruptly spits on the sidewalk, barely missing his own shoes.
A mildly agitated man sits at a shoeshine stand, impatiently paying for the task he has neither the time nor inclination to do himself at home.
A well-fed businessman steps out of the station, looking like a Greek tycoon with his full moustache and flowing salt-and-pepper hair, with salt gaining rapidly, and though he seems established enough to go business-casual and be dropped off late, he's more than comfortable in his crisp gray suits and early mornings.
A blue-shirted maintenance man stretches upward from a ladder, measuring an outlet for a new lighting fixture.
A pair of pumps sport slender heels that extend downward before tapering outward at the bottom, tap-tapping along the cement.
Window-washing drops fall gently, almost entirely unnoticed, to the sidewalk.
The river flows languidly, even slower than the pedestrians on their subconscious path.