Thursday, October 28, 2010

Things change

It was a blustery bike ride home this evening. I had to go out of my way to run an errand and in doing so decided to take the opportunity to take a different route home. I had no idea that this little divergence from the routine would make my life flash before my eyes.

Ok not really flash, as it might for someone crossing railroad tracks and realizing that a speeding train is just a few feet away. Rather I should say episodes of my life slowly revealed themselves to me like the peeling away of the layers of an onion.

Autumn is after all the time of contemplation, the falling leaves and first brisk winds of the season remind us that things change, that the life we have settled into will someday disappear, that nothing ever stays the same. My contemplative spirit began earlier in the day when I paid a visit to a camera store in the Loop where I went to buy developer for some film that I shot last week while on a much needed one week "stay-cation" from work.

It had been a long time, shooting film that is, and paying a visit to one of my favorite locations in the Loop, that venerable old shop, set the tone for what was to come. The store which was once a beehive of activity was today, as it is most of the time now, quiet as a tomb. The shelves that were one time stocked to overflowing with at least ten different brands of photographic papers were practically barren save for one shelf. The film counter, with its once steady stream of customers was deserted, even the salespeople at the camera counter had only each other to talk to.

The errand I mentioned earlier was to drop off color film at a lab which once proudly occupied several floors of a building in the trendy River North. Gradually they took up less and less space in that building and ended up in the basement. A couple of years ago they left altogether to cheaper digs in the less glamorous West Loop. Necessity forced them to branch out in other directions and now frames and other bric-a-brac related to the display of photographs dominate their customer area. It was a lesson of survival actually, either adapt, or give up the ghost.

As I was in the West Loop, instead of heading home my normal way along the relative serenity of the bike path along the lake, I decided to take the direct route up Desplaines and Halsted Streets. Serene they were not, the streets were torn to shreds and filled with rush hour traffic. The snarly urban landscape of this route, was dotted with signs of a working city, factories, warehouses, railroad tracks. But now sprinkled in between is a college, a huge grocery store, and condominiums. Even the old chocolate factory whose wonderful smell (which the company was forced to eradicate by the EPA) once permeated the neighborhood, now houses a retail shop.

The notorious housing project Cabrini Green is all but gone as is the old Ogden Avenue overpass that provided a startlingly surreal view of the projects to the east and Goose Island to the west. Gone as well are the hookers that used to ply their trade 24 hours a day in front of the old Proctor and Gamble factory and Meister BraĆ¼ brewery on North Avenue. Once upon a time, those in the know knew that the best place to buy wine in the city was in the basement of a dilapidated liquor store on North and Halsted owned by a guy named Sam. While the clientele upstairs consisted of derelicts buying pints of Jim Beam and Thunderbird, downstairs you'd find the highest of the high browed wine connoisseurs on the north side schlepping around cases of Chateau Lafite Rothschild in the musty, cramped basement. Sam eventually became respectable and moved into the old brewery which became the impetus for the development of an upscale strip mall which in turn inspired much of the turnaround of the neighborhood. He later moved his business into a warehouse the size of an airplane hangar a block away .

It hit me as I passed the brand new Apple Store on North and Clybourn, kitty corner from where Sam's used to be. "Where is Potsdamer Platz" the old man in the great Wim Wenders film "Wings of Desire" says as he walks though a barren landscape strewn with rubble and absolutely no sign of the marvelous neighborhood that once stood there. By contrast, the desolation in this area that I had grown accustomed to (and quietly loved) was gone. What was once one of the grittiest areas of the city, on the north side at least, had swung around 180 degrees. It is now dare I say, warm and cuddly.

And so it went pedaling up Halsted and later Broadway, bits and pieces of my past, old hangouts, some that have gone and some that remain, memories of people long departed from my life, events, some significant, and others hardly worth a mention, all passed before my eyes as the sky grew darker and the cold wind buffeted my face.

The funny thing about living in the same city your entire life is that although virtually your whole existence is contained in that one place, you can easily avoid the past as the city and the people who pass through it, like the waters of a river, continuously change.

Yet today for some reason the accumulation of a lifetime of experiences along that route I seldom take anymore was overwhelming. It was as if I had been thrust upon an epic (if I dare use that word) retelling of my life.

What a long strange trip it was.

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