#701: Away

October 19th, 2016

I can see the Enwave building from here. That’s the squat little riverside icebox that acts as chiller for the office buildings around.

I see the Van Buren Street bridge too, and the bottom of the salmon-colored skyscraper that’s topped with the light bulb castle that blares like a beacon at night. Tour boats and Lower Wacker drivers coast by silently at eye level. Pontoons and rec boats cruise a little lower.

It smells like burnt carbon underground.

That ugly office building they prettied up by drawing a map on the side is visible too, at least the low bits. That’s OK. I know where we’re going.


I’m scribbling these lines in a college rule notebook surrounded by concrete — above, below, to the right and most of the way to the left. The left is where Union Station ends and my view of river, bridge, buildings, Enwave and the ugly office building prettied up with a map begins.

I’m on a train, and I’m heading out of here.

I wrote about this impending trip last week, teased myself en blog for “my desire to travel in the most hat-and-suit-old-timey fashion possible,” but now it’s on me. I’m in an Amtrak car waiting for a three-day jaunt west to Seattle, the land of coffee and a lingering affection for the 1990s.

The roomette is nice, but I’m clearly not so much in for nights of intrigue with a Hitchcock blonde as 5 p.m. dinners with doughy gray-haired couples with southern accents and college football hoodies griping about the pasta.

I love this city, but it’s a love that tires. It’s exhausting loving a place that seems so determined to break your heart. Another dive prettified. Another hot scam by a person of power. Another dead body of a person who never could be. Rich over poor, wealth over reason and a chum bucket of scumbags slopped into the water ready to take advantage of it all.

Feh. Who needs it? I want a week in Seattle, where they never have to deal with problems like an overtly pro-gentrification administration, a looming real estate crash due to overbuilding, a police department dealing with a legacy of corruption and racial bias, skyrocketing housing prices and… I’m going to stop talking now.

Similarities yes or no, I just want a break from the home that breaks my heart.

In my concrete womb or coffin, there’s a quiet lull, as if people know. Then slowly, slowly, the train pulls out.

It goes through the endless concrete, CHUD-ian tunnels, the hidden corridors of passages and infrastructure that makes our downtown life possible. It bursts back into sunlight by the horsehair condo building and Continental Tire.

Two pro photographers document an Amtrak construction worker leaning against a girder watching the results of his labor rumble by.

He looks miserable, a reluctant model for Americana.

After the concrete maze, onto the concrete streets, Chicago beckons. But not the pretty Chicago, the one that tries to lure passersby and motorists to stop, share, spend. The real Chicago that knows the train couldn’t stop if it wanted to, so doesn’t put on airs beyond functionality.

Some graffiti belongs in museums. Some makes me shake my head and mumble, “C’mon, man, get it together.” The people we pass fall in the same tribes too.

It’s slower than I thought, the train inching its way past decaying factory lofts and other urban detritus. Chicago Mailing Tube Company. Pack Life doggie day care. Eastern Kitchen & Bath. Half-yellow trees, a Union Pacific cherry picker truck given replacement wheels to run on train treads. Metra stops and muck. A tire pile. Blue Streets & San trucks.

It’s so ugly. So beautifully, beautifully ugly.

A happy man named Alan comes by to give me the lay of the land, how to make dinner reservations and where the observation car was, but I don’t care. Who cares what’s coming? I am exactly where I want to be, as the train pulls me away.

Enjoy dirty politics and dirty martinis with me at “How to Steal an Election,” a night I’m running with Atlas Obscura and the Room 13 speakeasy a week before the election. Swill craft cocktails while I take you through decades of COMPLETELY LEGAL voter manipulation in Chicago and elsewhere. Fun, civics, jazz and the craftiest of craft cocktails. Tickets are going fast.

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