We hit the sleepy-eyed highway, a hazy Saturday morning drive through corn fields, rotting barns, paralyzed tractors, and the dreaming country roads of Indiana. West towards the rusted grumbling gray beast that is the South Shore Line. From South Bend we would gravitate towards the furthest reaches of the electrically powered commuter rail, Millennium Station, Chicago.
Conductors greeted while the engine hissed. A gloomy amber light began pouring through the dusty windows as we found our seats among tired strangers. Entire families of sports fans flooded in, Cubs jersey clad. A gang of young women carrying coffee cups and liquor bottles piled across the faded maroon seats. College kids, urban hipsters, solemn workers, and two foreign speaking Asian girls all surrounded us in anticipation of the departure. While the reasons for our leaving were unique and disconnected, we all shared the same destination.
Doors slipped closed and a muffled bell rang along the roof of the steel cabin. A short tug and we were off. The two and a half hour crawl passed through industrial districts, blurry brick, and sandy shores. Out the windows the sun slowly grew above the trees. Black lines ran parallel to the tracks, powering our pace. We shot through small towns, intersections, carving up city streets. Stopping at various stations and adding to our collection of nameless faces. Luggage began to decorate the walls of the car as it became clear to us, by the time we reached Chicago, the entire train would be full.
Edging closer to the city, we could see the skyscrapers hiding behind smokey morning haze. Off the train we wandered through corridors of white tile and sliding doors. The ceilings of the underground station seemed uncomfortably low as we passed tiny fast-food stops and gift shops. Finally, we reached the wide steps that lead to the streets. We ascended, shoulders bumping strangers and I saw Chicago for the first time.
Streets were recklessly busy as taxis muscled Uber cars, both honking senselessly. We’d never heard so much honking in all our travels. It seemed as though it was an integral part of their chaotic hustle. More of an encouragement, rather than a, “Hey get out of my way.” Clean, spacious sidewalks bustled with people of all sorts. As they attempted to cross the busy streets, cars would inch just close enough so as not to touch the fearless crowds. Our first mission was to find breakfast. We settled on a tiny “walk up” coffee shop that offered doughnuts though a window or claustrophobic seating in the back. After a quick refuel, we headed back to the waking streets.
All sorts of chaos clamored. Street sweepers busied by as construction crews blocked the sidewalks. We hurried under the tented scaffolding and shot right past the yellow tape and gaping muddy tunnel holes. Where were we going? Well we didn’t rightly know. So we walked around for what seemed like an hour or so, just to find out we were heading in the wrong direction. Turn around and back down the blistered sidewalks and grouchy yellow vests. By this time the sun had burnt through the mist and the streets were greasing up. How we hustled past homeless collection cups , weary travelers, and luggage men. How the streets began to fill with wondering tourists, backpacks and camera flash. The chip paint stairways, iron gray and wood frame of the infamous “Elevated Train”! We were under it, walking fast and digging Randolph street. Finally reaching and climbing the great stone steps to Millennium Park.
In the sea of tourists, we were two tourists. Taking selfies in the mirrored molded polished steel of the Cloud Gate sculpture. The city bending and warped like a fisheye against the skyline. A fisheye lens we had brought, specifically for this occasion. In fact we had planned for years to bring said lens from the get go. A goal finally attained. The great bending sculpture that distorts the great Chicago, paired with great bending fisheye lens, “fisheyelensception”. While all around us, selfies smiled and tripods tripped, we danced around like little kids, an instant photo here, a fisheye capture there.
I bumped and prodded fellow traveling photogs to get to the underbelly of the great silver bean. Centered shoulder to shoulder I aimed my camera. Straight up! The kaleidoscope of faces stared directly back into my wide 8mm lens. What that metallic wormhole was already pouring out was made even more curving, crawling, chaotic. Almost moving in swirls through the viewfinder. I stood there and I just gawked through the lens, mouth open, allowing the swirling mercury to swallow me up whole. But instead, I became a tiny speck among the stretched out giant specters of Millennium park. We all came to see the art and were transformed, whether we wanted to be or not.
We got our photos and headed off to search for the great Navy Pier. Wondering through garden parks and a bridge that took us across a too busy freeway, the waters of Lake Michigan began to peek past the streetlights and cement. “Over yonder you can see them rich people boats, sail boats, speed boats, big cruising boats. Yachts, I mocked.” Some sketchy foreign individual, dressed inappropriately casual asked if we liked techno. No. “Well today we are giving out free rides on the lake, no charge, free rides. DJ suck and such is playing and you can ride for free. He’s playing techno, dance, party licks. You can hop on the yacht and ride for free.” In silent fear of our safety and lives we quietly passed and kept walking down the path along the lake.
Finally we came upon the pier and were so very happy to have our first, second, and third drink. After a day of walking miles in the heat, the booze hit quick. Maybe a little too quick for my beautiful redheaded wonderer. She was happy, then tired, then happy burning all along the sunny pier. We set our sights on a pizza joint and rested tired feet a while in the outdoor crowded seats. With the deep dish down, she took a quick nap on the splash pad, not hearing any of the crazy kids splashing away our afternoon. What a weird day.
Night came but the city didn’t flinch. We stumbled along chins up to the tallest window lights. All the city was now, were lights. Great big illuminated McDonald’s sign. The fanciest ever. Glowing bars sardined with drunks and crazed dancers. Down the sidewalk we were painted red, pink, yellow, blue. Neon night, neon blinding light. The light came from all up and down the night. Spotlighting the sleeping bums, who throughout the day, had been gifted boxes of cupcakes and greasy bag fries. The wine bottles we had bought at the most absolutely fanciest Target, clinked and clamored in brown sacks. We had nothing to do but hurry down the line towards the train to take us sleeping home.
We were in love with the city at night. The tempo, the blurry taillights and neon signs, the energy, were all addictive. We decided then and there we would move as soon as Ashley was finished with school. We would migrate here to a tiny hole in the wall apartment with our two fat dogs. She would get a job in a hospital and continue her schooling. I would naturally wander the streets aimlessly with a camera.
In that moment, the future was a cluster of distant bright lights across the coal night. A vast black blanket, buckshot. All we had to do was point ourselves towards it and go. We fantasized about all this in our filmy drunken minds.
As we approached the tunnel head, a lone jazz player spit out his horn over the sidewalk traffic and speeding honking cars. We stood there among the blurred shadows jetting past. Letting the music hit our ears and bounce right back. “Give that man a dollar.” She did, and we said goodbye to Chicago.