When I was a teenager, activists from both ends of the political spectrum – the far left and the neo-Fascists – used to hand out leaflets outside my school. There was only one refrain that could have been copied from the fliers printed by one and pasted on the others’: a profound, organic, deep-rooted malaise for the “American cultural imperialism” which took shape, to quote freely, under the form of boy bands, individualistic literature, films and TV series.
You could rubbish 99.9% of their claims on anything, but couldn’t fault them on the TV series front. With the exception of Japanese cartoons, everyone had his or her own favourite American TV series and yet those were the days before The O.C., when you either surfed the Internet or called someone and when the inventor of Netflix hadn’t downloaded his first video yet.
My show of choice was, without a shadow of a doubt, E.R. It shaped my understanding of the medical profession so deeply that, on my first visit to my hospital’s A&E, I was mildly disappointed to see that its doors didn’t open with a theatrical slam and that paramedics wouldn’t be rushing in yelling some poor sod’s blood pressure.
Through E.R. I came to learn a new cliché for America, a vision far different from other TV shows I’d so far seen, such as Baywatch or Miami Vice. Actors had interesting personalities and weren’t just pneumatically-enhanced lumps of muscle. Snow and blizzard dominated the landscape, together with a phenomenon called black ice that conjured Tolkenian images in my mind. But the most lasting legacy of all those E.R. series was, oddly enough, the elevated rail. Every now and then one character would step off a silver train, descending on to street level towards the hospital, a cup of coffee and the first emergency of the shift. The notion of riding trains above ground rather than underneath was as surprising as discovering that the neighbours were Russian dormant spies (they weren’t, but you get the idea).
Years have passed since the last episode of E.R., yet the elevated train, or L for short, is my first stop in town. Feeling giddy with the excitement that only trainspotters know I arrive to the Loop, the noose of steel that has been latched around the business district. Built in the XIX century by a magnate who, in classic robber baron style, made sure to lay the tracks especially by the properties of those who tried to obstruct him, for me it is a sight to behold. I can see the E.R. doctors here, but I can also see Blade Runner. Just add rain and an extra bit of neon.
The silvery train, gliding like a snake through a man-made canyon made of steel, stone and glass, cliffs whose edges lie hidden in the clouds, is a souvenir from a distant future imagined in a distant past. “Future memory”. This description of Ray Bradbury’s books, attributed to Bradbury himself, all of a sudden seems to me to describe perfectly the L train in Chicago. Granted, some aspects – the austere wood planks, the salt and grit, the incongruous LED panels, the billboards in English and Spanish and Polish – are matter-of-fact, even low-key, mundane. But the view of a convoy advancing perched on metal poles, meters above the traffic, striding confidently besides sleek cliffs of the buildings, is as modern and avant-gardist as it gets. It’s “Metropolis” in Technicolor.
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A synthetic voice announces that Clinton – Clin’n – is next. No it’s not we think. How many more must’ve played this joke?
A woman walks on Michigan Avenue, face sunk to the nose in the collar of her coat. Several metal pins are gleaming from above the breast pocket, the largest reading Love trumps hate. I stare at her in surprise, for I’d so far thought that this slogan had only been used by Lady Gaga. Her eyes flash back at me, thinking of me what I can only image, and then she walks away.
There’s a modern light-blue monolith closing the perspective of Wabash Avenue if you look to the north. It’s sleek and strikingly contemporary, so different from the other buildings huddled in small clumps around it. It’s got no stone, no boxy features, no flourishing, no gargoyles, no gold inserts; rather, it’s smooth and sinuous, elegant with its alternation of greys and shades of light blue, growing thinner and thinner as it gets higher, culminating with a silver pole. It’s as sleek as Apple’s latest product at a Cupertino showcase.
At a pedestrian crossing I can finally look at it better, but a sign above distracts me. Church of Christ, scientist. A splendid oxymoron, because how can the religious entity who forced Galileo – the inventor of the scientific method – to recant his beliefs to be scientific?
The traffic sign is still clicking, the light is still red. On the other side a throng of people is waiting to cross in my opposite direction, going to where I’m moving away from. It’s as if they want to put distance between themselves and my destination, walking away from the blue-and-grey tower with its large T R U M P sign on the side.
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One of the advantages of being a visitor in an unfamiliar place, I found, is that it is easy to cross the social boundaries that separate one community from another, seeing strata of the society that wouldn’t be seen in one’s hometown. It can be awkward and dangerous at times – it may happen to step, inadvertently, in some no-go areas – but it’s also a way to see a place come alive before one’s eyes. In Chicago, all it takes to jump from the milieu of the haves to the one of the have-nots is to walk its streets.
We walk by a palisade of hotels in the North Side. Live jazz oozes from the lobbies whilst patrons sit comfortably in armchairs and on stools, drinks in hand. A couple of punters slip out of the revolving door of one establishment, headed for the one just before us. They both wear tweed blazers, chinos and Lumberjack loafers, wool scarves knotted around the neck. “So he moved out of Chicago because their piano instructor also worked for the Obama family” one says. They pop into another bar, the laughter generated by this inside joke still hanging in mid-air.
“Merry Christmas” says a voice. She’s the driver of the Red Line train we’ve just got off from, peeking out of the side window of her cab to greet us as we are about to take the steps of Lake station. “To you as well”. Her smile is the only display of happiness in this drab station.
Homeless men and women patrol every street corner. Asleep beneath bundles of rags and plastic bags, waving rhythmically the loose change in their paper cups, the flotsam of the city hangs on in the cold. They have placards made of torn cardboard and the stories they convey – PTSD, mental health issues, disability, joblessness – suggest that either they all went to the same marketing agency or that something’s amiss in this society.
I can’t get my head around this city. The buildings ooze opulence, prestige, even swagger. There’s polished marble, crystal, gold and stainless steel. Rococo details, brass statues, shiny chrome flagpoles. Grand entrances with doormen waiting outside, under the warmth of electric fires. Shiny cars, restaurants and cafes with comfortable booths, polished wood, ample portions and free coffee refills.
Yet the majority of pedestrians I encounter – on the sidewalks, or on the L – seem to belong from somewhere else. Someplace dustier, poorer, gloomier. Men and women wrapped up in bulky clothes, defeated expressions on their faces. Perhaps it’s an impression, perhaps that’s how commuters on Christmas day look everywhere in the world – family’s home with the turkey and here I am beginning the shift – but I suspect that for most of the Chicagoans I meet the advert Bankruptcy help is a lot more relevant than the Macy’s sales it shares space with on the rolling billboards scattered all around the Loop.