(written on the train from Chicago to New Orleans on Thursday, April 30)
I am leaving Chicago.
I just spent my last three hours here, and it felt a lot longer.
My first reaction was just being staggered by the height of everything. I don't think I've ever really been in the middle of a city like Chicago before. Allie told me to take a picture of the spot where I feel most unforgivingly lost, and that was it, right as I stepped outside of the massive AmTrak station.
I meandered around, feeling exactly like what I was - some weird bearded student with a cumbersome red hiking pack. I walked with a spring in my step, having no idea where I was going. There is empowerment to this. All I knew was that I wanted a harmonica.
I stopped in Waldenbooks, where I thumbed through their tiny poetry section. Nothing worth buying, I reflected, though "1001 Arabian Tales" or whatever did catch my eye. Three volumes of pure Arabian myth! Bazam! Maybe another day as a requested gift item, I decided.
I found my way to a "ROCK RECORDS" store. It looked, like a lot of Chicago, as if it was started and built 30 years ago and merely renovated today. Scandalous pictures of rock star idols in varying poses papered the walls, or hung by thread from the ceiling. A brief run through the depths of the store revealed that i had no harmonicas; nay, no instruments of any sort. I asked the man up front for help.
He was a short, overweight guy whose curly brown facial hair looked like it belonged on a leprechaun.
"There's a Harmonicas 'R' Us two blocks north," he quipped. Hah.
(SWITCH TO PRESENT TENSE)
Him, the other worker, and the customer at the front then all proceed to collaborate in assisting me on my quest, debating time costs, money costs, better stores -
"Just $4 by train," Leprechaun says suggestively. "It is rush hour right now, you'll be packed (bad word!)-to-elbow. It all depends on how much you like to grope."
"I like groping," I admit.
Then it's settled. They send me off on my quest for a harmonica. I navigate my way to a rail station. The rail system in Chicago is very well-designed; everything is color-coded. So, if you want to get from point A to point B, you just hop on the Fuscia train, then switch over to the Jungle Green and then you gotta get on the Haystack one, unless you take the Salmon route and end up switching with Sky Blue or Mahogany. I'm glad that my mom got me the 128 box set of crayons in 4th grade. Once I'm on a train, it jams up quickly and efficiently. I recognize that the rocking mid-life crisis leprechaun was correct. Everyone's bad words are fully connected to each other's elbows.
I have, by this point, seen a lot of people. I'm not used to this big city collage of humanity. Old ladies on bicycles. Arabs with iPods. Thirteen year old girls dropping the F bomb as casually as pocket lint. Suits and briefcases. College chick behind me talking about "dude-boning" on her cell phone. A high school field trip. Fat beret guy. All of these, and more, crammed into each other like somebody was trying to make a fossil.
On an individual level, the people vary. I was overwhelmed by the grandness of the city, but also overwhelmed by the intense solitude that can only be felt in a dwarfing mass of people and buildings. Your only associates are your two-minute friends who give you directions, but it's just as likely to encounter two-minute enemies at Guitar Center or Cinnabon. Each stranger is a roll of the two-sided die. (Or, y'know, a flip of the coin. I don't know what I was thinking as I wrote that.)
An example: I walked into a pizza place and asked for a slice of Chicago pizza. The guy's eyeball almost popped out of his face. He looked at me like one might look at something written in a foreign language. "You mean DEEP DISH???!!!" Who knew?
I understand the preoccupation with the loss of identity that occurs in these big cities, where everyone is put through the mass systems - the transit system, the traffic lights, the 9-5 - is the city their home, or are they just part of the city? Questions like that arise while someone's bad word is rubbing against your elbow, and your own bad word is pressed against somebody else's elbow.
I get the harmonica and a book and railed my way back to the AmTrak station, just as the sun really started dropping. The skyscrapers caught this wavy, distorted reflection of the orange-lit city. Some pictures were probably in order, but I was on the tram.
Strangers were ruder to me as the sun went down, suggesting that the city was getting tired of me. Or suggesting that Chicago is really some kind of vampire city. In the end, I was well ready to say farewell to Chicago and go to New Orleans.