#943: The S.E.P. Field

June 20th, 2018

I don’t know how many times I’ve ridden the ‘L’ around the Loop studying things.

It’s not a deep study nor a particularly insightful one. It’s a simple joy of trundling down the tracks and looking at buildings, staring at passersby and wondering where they’re off to, the delightful daydreaming and examination created by a cityworth of visual stimuli splayed around you at a time you don’t have to worry about getting hit by a car.

But in all these views where I’ve ogled pretty architecture and daydreamed about what would happen if I, like, totally stole that guy’s briefcase and ran off giggling, I had never noticed the blank-faced building.

“Never noticed” is a tad unfair. I’m sure the squat tan brick among the gleaming glass castles had crossed my eyes before. I’m sure my visual sensors had seen it and the reptile section of my brain had registered enough to determine it was neither a predator nor food, but I’ll be danged if I ever gave the Loop-adjacent building a moment of thought.

I’ve wondered and wandered about the Jeweler’s Building. I know that the Poetry Garage was the site of a long-dead 1800s newspaper. I smile a tad each time I see the Hermes carved into the Trustees System Service Building knowing it means the Brown Line’s about to take the stretch-and-ache curve north.

But here was a short, nameless, faceless building right along the train’s path and on June 20, 2018, I realized I didn’t know what it was.

Comedic sci-fi writer Douglas Adams of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame once wrote about a simple invisibility cloak called an S.E.P. – or Somebody Else’s Problem – field. It “relies on people’s natural predisposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain.”

Keeping with the Brits, a “Doctor Who” misdirection circuit can hide “trap streets” from everyone but cartographers and there’s whatever magic J.K. Rowling came up with to justify no one noticing scads of vermin-toting schoolchildren running headlong into a train platform wall. Back in the U.S., one of my favorite web cartoonists also used the notion for the Sociology Invisibility Cloak.

Make something overtly ridiculous or too big to handle and the brain will choose not to handle it.

Like a nameless, faceless, fenced-off Art Deco rattrap just marked “10” along one of the busiest circuits in town.

Aside from the obvious answers – secret entrance to a superhero lair or covert government installation – the building at 10 E. Lake St. appears to be a CTA substation built in 1929 and currently under a $44 million renovation and modernization project covering three local substations.

Due to that construction, I wasn’t able to traipse down Haddock Place – a street I had likewise walked by hundreds of time and never seen – to see the substation’s backside. But it’s nice to know I can go back. It’s nice to know there are still undiscovered (at least to me) corners and crevasses of a downtown I’ve wandered too many times to count.

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