E.R., towers and life on the streets. Notes from Chicago.

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.
– § –
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.
– § –
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.

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16 Responses to E.R., towers and life on the streets. Notes from Chicago.

  1. J.D. Riso says:

    Fabulous photos and words, Fabrizio. You spent Christmas in Chicago? I’ve been there a few times, but never rode the Loop. You captured the ambiance well. Even in the humid summertime, it’s just not a warm city. It’s an impressive place, though. Metropolis incarnated.

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi there Julie. Yes, I almost spent the whole Christmas day in Chicago (flew back to London on Christmas day). I agree, it is “Metropolis”, especially within the Loop and from above on the John Hancock centre. It was one of the few places in the States I really wanted to see and I’m glad I had the chance. It also had some Central European vibe to it which made it nicer; the immigration officer had a Hungarian surname and my pathetic efforts at speaking the lingo made him oversee my Iranian visa, or the fact that they had Tyskie on tap in certain bars…

  2. lexklein says:

    Oh, it was so gray when you were there! The blue sky and the sun glinting on the lake give a very different feel. And yet, this is also our Chicago some days – the very cold, gray place with big hulking buildings. I think Christmas day is a sad day anywhere for those out and about while others are at home celebrating. I should have known you’d love the El, being the transportation hound you are. I wish I could have shown you around a bit, but you seem to have navigated quite well on your own. I just wish you’d seen the happier hustle and bustle that I did a few days later on a warmer, sunnier day. The homeless and underemployed still bring you down on those days, but I find the city a largely happy and friendly place, a down-to-earth city with a positive outlook. In contrast to Julie, I find it a warm place, but I guess that’s because it was home for so long.

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Lexi,
      don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the place. It’s exactly as I imagined it, and frankly the moody atmosphere suited it – seeing the Sears/howeverit’scallednow tower half-encased in the clouds was brilliant – and it really gave the place that ‘Ray Bradbury feeling’ that I liked so much.
      It’s also a very photogenic city, and seemingly well kept. Plus, unlike London, people *actually* speak to each other on public transport and in shops, which is very nice.
      I just felt quite sad to see so many people living on the streets and that’s a bit of a soft spot for me. My other half said that it wasn’t as bad a situation compared to San Francisco, Seattle or Denver, yet it really saddened me.

  3. I feel this gloomy funk. Together we will crack it. Nice touch with Clinton.

  4. Loved seeing your perspective on Chicago. Your steel-gray toned photos capture how I felt about the city as well. The shiny futuristic buildings and sculptures seem so far removed from the faces one meets on the street. Potential scenes from futuristic sci-fi novels gaze through your images — fabulous.

  5. anyfidelity says:

    Some wonderful shots there with a great narrative, as usual. You have me wanting to put Chicago on my must-go list for a bit of street/urban photography. It’s always a pleasure popping by AWTY…

  6. Chicago is a wonderful city overall, but rather bleak mid Winter and on Christmas day no doubt more so. It is a wonderful place to be in summer with the lake right there…. and everyone out and about!

    We return in a few weeks to visit family and hoping to get a bit of sunshine ~ I do remember the winter grey days…rather a constant for months on end. Must be craxy keaving tge sun in Asia and heading for the cold..

    Good post and photos on the Windy City!
    Peta

  7. Love those overcast tones and what a great feel for this fabulous city!

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