But these folks, the kind of interesting mix of ethnicities and races you only find in a big city, were hootin' it up and hollerin', laughing and screaming at decibel levels typical for groups of teenagers. However these were not teens; they were all about my age (50 somethings) or older. The loudest of them, who happened to be the person sitting the closest to me was this white guy with a very distinct Chicago accent, and an obnoxious guffaw. What he was talking about I can't really tell you, it was more of a stream of consciousness monologue than part of a conversation. At one point the guy kept referring to some sort of scam he had worked out. Then out of nowhere, he mentioned a church we were passing: "Yeah dat's St. Gertrudes over by dere. It's Gotic ain'it? D'ja see dat program on Channel 11 (the local PBS station) about Gotic architecture the udder day? It was priddy good."
That got my attention. Then back to his ramblings about working so hard he didn't have any time to spend his money and so on. The other folks seemed to have their own stream of consciousness conversations as well, all of them talking at each other as if they were in parallel universes.
Half way to work, most of the group including Chicago guy got off. The parting comment from one of the women in the group was: "Bye, don't call us, we'll call you" which resulted in one last guffaw. There was a sigh of relief from the rest of us left on the train. It was quiet and I could get back to my book.
Interestingly enough, I happened have with me a wonderful anthology of writings about Chicago called appropriately enough, This is Chicago. After my friends got off the train and I was able to concentrate, I began to re-read the forward by the editor of the volume, Albert Halper. It is one of the best short essays about Chicago that I've ever read. In it, Halper raves about the literary talent in this city (it was published in 1952), and laments the failure of writers from the east coast establishment to adequately capture the essence of this city. Here is an excerpt:
One feels these visiting reporters always carry their encrusted opinions with them, like patients traveling with hardened arteries. They have never probed Chicago's interior, never walked the grasses of Chicago's parks, never gone into the outlying homes, groceries and playgrounds of Chicago's neighborhoods, never stood on street corners watching workers stream from the factories at dusk, never mingled with youthful crowds jamming the great ballrooms, never sat in the big, air-conditioned bowling alleys listening to the crack of the pins as teams of men and and girls. wearing sweaters with the names of their leagues stitched to their backs, send the heavy balls rolling along the smooth smooth floors.After reading those words, it dawned on me... I sort of missed those noisy folks after they got off the train.
Sticking to their Loop hotels, or making the customary rounds of the city's newspaper morgues for dead "facts", the writers were never drawn to stand on the lake point at Fifty-fifth Street to watch the long ore-boats passing far out on the horizon, never walked up Plymouth Court listening to the symphony of the giant printing presses inside the flanking buildings, never went out to Pullman to stare at the red glow of the mills agains the prairie sky, never thought it worthwhile to walk along the lake north of the Drake where long gray rollers crash in the spray upon the city as if in a dream.
No, these journalists never had the time, it seemed. In all their writings one never comes across descriptions of the city's haunting autumns, of its springs, or of a winter scene in Garfield or Humboldt Park, where on a Sunday afternoon, thousands of skaters can be seen circling or mingling on the ice; one fails to read in their articles anything about the youth, or the scholarship, of the city, or about any of the municipal virtue the city may possess. Chicago is a city of crime, a desert... True. It is a crime-ridden, as Sahara-like as any other great American city. It admits it. Its inhabitants are the first to admit it. But no city can function if all its citizens traffic in crime. No metropolis can exist whose foundations are sunk in sand.*
*From the Forward to This is Chicago: An Anthology, Edited by Albert Halper, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1952