I wonder if I would think about rooftops so much if I didn’t live in Chicago.
It’s not the rooftops themselves. There’s nothing special or magical about the roof of a building in Chicago, any more than any other place. They’re the same shingling and tar paper, AC units plopped atop and years-old clumps of dead leaves rotting in the corner between where the real roof ends and the façade dupes the passers below into thinking it’s a widdle taller building than it is.
It’s transit that makes me think of roofs. It’s the elevated trains putting us at just the right height in the neighborhoods to reel among rooftops, see the spray-can taggers’ works up close and peer in the odd rooftop deck where barbecues are promised but never seem to happen.
You can see architecture of course, but I’m not one to know a mansard from a lintel, both of which I just discovered were words by googling “roof.” And you can see crime and construction, but I can’t make heads or tails of those either.
But up there you can see time. And that’s what I do think about.
I see the old TV antennae — they call them “rabbit ears,” but to me the thin rods splay out like fishbones, or the ribs and veins of a rotted frond. They’re ears listening for nothing and no one right now, perfectly tuned for signals no one has sent in the eight years since the channels went digital.
Now, when they do survive, the antennae only live by merit of being too much hassle for the scrappers to tear down.
By the fishbone antennae you’ll see the gray, round satellite dishes from when people looked to space for their premium channels. Flattish plastic bowls stuck to roofs and walls, ubiquitous upon arrival but had a fraction of the pre-obsolescence life the rabbit ears mustered. Some still power through, upping the voltage through subscription services with names like Dish Network and DirecTV.
Others flick off one by one as the wifi speeds ramp and a laptop or phone becomes a better option for film.
By the dishes, next to them, over and above them, you’ll see plastic boxes. Tall and thin, sometimes white, sometimes not. They get slapped on the frames that once held building water towers, or riveted to the towers themselves to give the old boys a few more years of use.
These are what swap your info and data packets and whatnot to your mobile devices. Your phones stream through there. Maybe this sentence got to you through one of those featureless boxes. Maybe you’re chatting a friend, downloading a research library or just watching videos where dogs do silly things.
The three sit alongside, the past, the more-recent past and the future past. From an elevated train, we watch the world pass itself by, leaving future trash we don’t care enough to pry off the roof.