#661: Zubat and the Theys

July 18th, 2016

They and they were of types who usually don’t talk.

The first they were 30s-ish, white and cool, aging punks and hips whose once candy-colored hair was now seeing threads of white come through. A man and a woman riding a rocking, jumbly ‘L’ train toward the Loop.

The first layer of leg tattoos were hazing over on the woman of the couple. The society- and Mom-defying calves of flowerburst tats had been there so long they had started, if not to fade, then to soak into the skin so much they looked as natural as the long-lived-in piercings and black clothes.

The other they were kids, maybe 15 or 16 years old. This they, both boys and both Latino, had no particular fashion to speak of. Yes, a hat was kicked, but they were dressed for utility, not affectation. Gray T-shirts with names of schools and jeans of no consequence. They looked like they had come from playing sports.

They were young enough that they were still growing, old enough that the first awkward stretchings and squeakings of that unfortunate change had passed. If the couple looked like older versions of the people they had been, the kids looked like younger versions of the people they will become.

And these two theys, unalike in race and age and all the outer trappings that usually engender camaraderie among strangers on a jumbly ‘L’ train, talked with each other.

Granted, they talked about Zubats and where to find them.

I’ve never played Pokémon Go, the suddenly ubiquitous smartphone game where people travel real-life streets hunting cartoon critters.

It’s a blip and a blur, a momentary trend story of what it all means when a planet comes together to hunt Pikachus and Rattatas, Caterpies and Shimschors, Gorbleflips and Scorber-evolved Camzyshandys. (I made those last three up. Like I said, never played the game.)

No, I don’t think Pokémon Go is evocative of a new wave of culture. We’re just day one of a new fad. We’re at the release of the next iPhone, the launch of Angry Candy Crush Birds, the first time some tech blog declares a social site “the next Facebook.”

They used to call the ultra-ritz River North neighborhood “Smokey Hollow” because of the air pollution from now-dead factories. Today, it’s a mix of trendy and banal, red-hot dance clubs next to family-friendly chain restaurants because you have to be one of those or a luxury hotel to hoist the River North rents.

The glass-clad offices of an ad agency whose website queasies the reader with integrated, multidimensional, purpose-built brand buzzworditry lined its windows with static cling stickers of the little critters. A bit north and west, a River North bar whose path to rent was aping a Chicago neighborhood dive had its chalk artist bedazzle the specials list with a Pikachu.

To the south, a gaggle of children and teens took over Daley Plaza. A 30-strong hunting party complete with poster board advertising their Twitter hashtag, the children-to-teens laughed and ran and explored their city looking on phones for imaginary creatures.

And on a train, two separate theys who wouldn’t otherwise talk to each other commiserated about Zubats.

We live in a time when pop culture is the only one we’ve got. When a man more brand than human is taking his rightful throne atop an elephant in Cleveland, when casual acquaintances hashtagging against each other consider themselves as activist as those marching, when an avid googler sees himself/herself as peer and par with the research minds of a thousand universities.

When technology has given us the means to look out, reach out, touch and learn greater than ever before, we pull in, peeking beyond our self-imposed screens only for the little snippets that will confirm what we already feel.

So it’s a game. A dumb one I don’t have phone or energy enough to play.

But it’s making people who otherwise wouldn’t talk to each other talk to each other. It’s making people explore their physical surroundings, go down a street they’ve never been before.

A little game is changing — just a touch, just an inch and just until the new hot fad arises — the way a city looks at itself. To win, you must see strangers as allies and unfamiliar streets as places to explore.

That’s all I’ve wanted for years. How funny that all we needed was a Zubat.

Read about an older game that brings people together

Exploring an underground River North street

A loathed Australian

The political implications of Rahm Emanuel’s missing finger

A Bronzeville hardware store has a secret

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