29 July 1999
A Day on the CTA
December 18, 1998
Paul's car breaks down on Pulaski. There in that wind
that doesn't let you forget, we board Pulaski Bus 53-A south from 44th.
We board the Orange Line at Pulaski and ride south. At Midway we buy
all-day passes. The CTA workers want us to keep moving. We get back
on the Orange Line.
We rise through the graffiti. We move over the rooftops. There is a
acceleration in the drumming of the rails.
We look down on air conditioners and gravel rooftops. Neat rows of homes.
Gargantuan electrical transformers. Warehouses smokestacks streetlights.
Central steel and wire plant D. On into a desolation of American flags
like blind sentinels before watertowers.
A lways the downtown moves in the distance, drawing nearer. Razor wire
& trucks. Incomprehensible graffiti.
3rd / ARCHER
A man says: "How'dja like to work 8-10 hours a day with that buzzing
in your ear?"
Trains roll over rivers. A landscape opens. Bulldozers prowl a crater.
The city turns beneath us. A sliver of lake winks from the distance.
We fly above an industrial moonscape of apparently uninhabitable city.
There is a man who feeds pigeons. Beneath us, an avenue passes. The
aquarium stands, guardian of the lake. On the other, a horizon. Museums
stand in the wreckage.
We board the Green Line going back to the South Side.
We pass through a narrow canyon between buildings, we see roofs, the
vast apparatus of a drawbridge, a crane, scaffolding, a maze of brickwork,
a man walking the rooftops. We descend and soar between the drab buildings
in municipal grey. Arc lamps hang from their poles. If this is desolation
or paradise... Shreds of plastic hang in the branches of barren trees.
Comisky park emerges from the ruins like a plastic blue toy candy robot,
and is again obscured. There are unfinished buildings, finished buildings,
ruined buildings. The smokestreaked walls of projects, narrow houses
of medieval stone, and deserted playgrounds where the swingsets have
been stripped of all swings.
In the places and alleyways where trash collects in the lee of neighborhoods,
smoke rises. There is garbage even on the rooftops.
Drunken porches sag dangerously between occasional amazing murals.
Unsafe steps leer through missing or shattered panes repaired with newspaper.
We disembark and board the 55 Garfield bus westbound. There are resilient
taverns with handpainted signs, a Byzantine cathedral, crumbling buildings,
uncharted tracts delineated by wire mesh fences. A fallen tree lies
in a park waiting to be removed. We get off the bus and wait for the
There is the sudden sense of being roadkill. Exposed to the biting wind
on this median strip. The world resolves into hurtling metal screaming
in both directions, subject to the same forces that elevate trains.
We wait at the perilous intersection of these insane trajectories brought
on by the machinations of commerce. We get on the Red Line and ride
south to the end of the line moving between two rivers of cars, one
barely moving, the other a 100 mile-per-hour blur.
63rd / WENTWORTH
Muzzled dogs cavort violently.
69th / STATE
A sense of moving toward the edge of things.
Capitalism means: somebody's going to get hurt.
The city is standing on its own foot.
And you can no more leave Chicago than you can leave language.
It surrounds you.
It is brutal, anesthetic.
It is as mathematical as any loop.
It is straining to reach the sky.
Its skyscrapers pounded into the pavement like railroad spikes.
It has a big unhealthy heart.
Only the trains elevate the people.
Their routes a neural map of the psychology of the city.
It is a rainbow unraveled.
Apparitions arrive and depart to platforms elsewhere