The Hum of the City

Sound is the heartbeat of a thriving city: people, sirens, and the movement of traffic on streets and rails. When we first arrived in Chicago, these sounds were jarring, but now they feel normal and comforting. There’s the morning rush hour sound that starts while it’s still dark; the endless stream of vehicles headed for the highway; the announcements of buses and trains at each stop gathering countless quiet workers. Evening rush hour seems louder. Street musicians crowd onto downtown corners – marimbas, guitars or drums. Crowds of tourists, maps in hand, chatter and gape as they navigate Michigan Avenue.

Weekends hum, but with a different rhythm. Crowds and traffic build during the day. Major streets seem like Christmas time near a mall with bumper-to-bumper traffic headed for shopping, and pedestrians thick on the sidewalks. Sports schedules influence the ebb and flow of sounds as people pack neighborhood bars to watch the games. In any weather, you can track the progress of the Bears/Bulls/Blackhawks/Cubs/Sox by the cheers and groans of the fans.

Some city sounds stand out. Neighborhood festivals come with music – throbbing bass that makes your organs buzz. Concerts at Wrigley Field I can hear perfectly from our roof. The thumping of multiple music acts at Lollapalooza spread out in front of my office building. The distant popping of weekly fireworks from Navy Pier. The terrifying roar of fighter jets as they head to the lakefront for the Air and Water Show. But at least these events are scheduled and generally have a prescribed end time so that people can sleep.

Parties on the large roof deck across from our previous condo were, unfortunately, a continuing surprise and aggravation. There are countless disclosures when you sell a property, assurances that your home isn’t filled with asbestos or lead, that the systems are in good operating order, and the roof isn’t leaking. But there’s no guarantee against noisy neighbors. Sure, that neighbor building is a rental and who knows what the occupants will be like, but the mere presence of a large roof deck should have set off alarms bells: “Party deck! Party-deck!” The first time they had a party, it was impossible to ignore. Loud music, people crammed onto the deck swinging their red Solo cups, shouting, singing. No amount of glaring at them across the alley changed their behavior. And not even the church bells chiming midnight, or later, tipped them off that perhaps people have families, children, jobs to get up for. Fortunately, they didn’t have the guts, or perhaps, the money, to throw a party every weekend, but it was a potential risk to our weekend sleep all summer long.

We’ve moved to another neighborhood, and no longer face a party deck. Most of the units in our building have a terrace or balcony though, and warm weather draws us outside. Grilling or sipping a cocktail with the occasional conversation drifting up. Sure, some people carry on as loudly as if that balcony was part of their living room, and we’d rather they step inside. But mostly, it’s a great place to relax and listen to the hum.


Leaving Our Mark

IMG_1157An enormous Whole Foods is under construction in our neighborhood, rising like a slow phoenix from a deep hole. First a steel beam skeleton, then interior ribs to define sections, finally a skin of brick and siding. Glass will complete the exterior, and it will animate the formerly quiet corner. The promotional banners show the finished building, scheduled to open next year, complete with sidewalks and park-like landscaping to appease the neighbors. I’m guessing the sidewalks will bear the alterations – intentional or not – that always appear.

When sections of sidewalk are repaired, or remade in front of new construction, you usually see the same set up: wood framing to keep the sections square, a plastic covering, and orange cones or sawhorses to alert pedestrians to walk around. It seems clear enough, but people are drawn to this display as if it is an invitation: they want to leave their mark. A handprint or crude drawing. Their name sketched with a finger, or a heart and initials. It’s fun to find chalk hopscotch squares on the sidewalk (I’ll almost always hop), but drawn into the concrete? Not so much.

Of course there are the seeming accidental marks. A single shoe print – someone thought the concrete was dry, but it wasn’t. Imagine their surprise as their foot sunk and they jumped out as soon as they could. Equally curious is a trail of multiple foot prints. Not a child, but big adult foot prints. Here’s a person who would not be deterred. They are going to walk all the way through and come out the other side, shoes all clumpy and heavy.

Humans should know better, but I guess we can’t expect animals to recognize the indicators of “wet concrete”. That’s why I’ll see small footprints (squirrel? chihauhau?) – usually a straight path across the sidewalk to safety. The most surprising imprint I’ve found so far was an entire animal outline, a modern fossil. I’m guessing this rodent landed in the concrete from some height, leaping during a fevered chase, and kersplat! landed in the wet goo. Since there are no other marks around the outline, I can only conclude that the animal then jumped straight up into the air before finding a safer landing on grass and running away. It’s a strange shadow of the animal, but better, I guess, than finding a pancake flattened body, though I see those too.

Next fall when the grocery has its grand opening, it could be a glittering affair. The mayor and alderman smiling as they cut the ribbon with oversized scissors. Hopeful crowds pressing into the new space and gasping at the mountain of produce and beautiful meats. With less fanfare, I’ll notice the little paw prints of our neighbor’s dog, immortalized in the sidewalk.

Rainy Day


RainI’ve always found rain storms exciting – from the line of black clouds rolling in, to flashes of lightning, sheets of rain hitting the glass, and loud thunder claps. I press my nose against the window to watch the angle of the rain, the trees whipping around in the wind, and people blowing down the street unable to keep dry under their umbrellas. But rainy days have a bad reputation. Connoting some unexpected occurrence or emergency (you need a rainy day fund) they are weekend killers, the bane of your hairdo and new suede shoes. Thunder and lightning prompts the pool lifeguards to clear everyone from the water, and a wet outdoors keeps energetic children indoors. And it’s a lot less fun to be driving in that weather, with zero visibility and flooded underpasses, or walking as water pools and cars send up tidal waves over the sidewalks.

Rain may alter the course of your day, but it can be a fun imposed change. Going to the movies instead of the beach, or taking the kids to the McDonald’s ball pit instead of the park. A game of Twister or a picnic on the living room floor when the yard is too wet. Learning all the card games when the campsite is soggy. Catching up on that library book rather than trying to read it in the full sun at poolside.

When I was no older than 6, we waited out a storm in our basement. Mom had brought down a blanket, some snacks, a flashlight, and a radio. Maybe it was a tornado warning, but I wasn’t scared. Instead, it was fun to try to find news on the radio and shine the flashlight around the room. Our pantry of home canned vegetables was around the corner, and we had books; I imagined we could live down there indefinitely. Eventually an all clear sounded and we climbed back upstairs. Unlike Dorothy, I didn’t find a new technicolor world, just a wetter one. A few tree limbs down, and the sun starting to come out.

In our condo we have a wall of windows, so we get an amazing view of whatever the weather is. When the storms come, I think about whether our sky light will leak, or the water will pool too quickly and breach our sliding glass door. Adult worries. But I also get the IMAX-worthy wide view of the horizon, clouds and sky. It’s time to pull up a chair, and enjoy some popcorn with the show!

What’s on your bedside table?

IMG_1487My bedside table holds a visual reminder of my ambition to be informed and well read. The books and magazines taunt me as I fall into bed, and check Facebook for just a second. Thirty minutes later my eyes are too heavy and I promise I’ll read the next night. In my nightmares I’m chased by newspaper tumbleweeds into a canyon formed by a towering stack of National Geographic magazines while library books and professional articles rain down from the sky. When I wake, the books haven’t toppled over to cover my face, but I slink away, feeling guilty that they’ve been there long enough to collect dust.

I love to read, but sometimes it all bunches up. Books I have had on reserve at the library suddenly become available while I’m in the middle of another book, so I need to read faster. I enjoy the great articles in the National Geographic, and I always learn something new, but I’m still struggling through the January issue, while new ones keep arriving. I’ve had some success with recorded books, a perfect thing for car trips or a long commute, but they’re not always available, and I confess I really like to read from paper. No e-books for me (I spend enough time in front of a screen), and I also love to patronize our neighborhood library.

Growing up, our local library had a club for kids. To encourage reading over the summer, there was a reward for every 5 books you finished – you could pick a prize from a small treasure chest. Kazoos, plastic rings, I’m sure the they were no better than you’d get at a carnival, but it was fun to go in with my list of books, get a librarian’s smile, and head to the stacks for something else good. I remember selecting a book because the cover was orange – it really stood out on the shelves. I didn’t know the author or the title, but it wasn’t too big. It turned out to be Grendel, the Beowulf story from the monster’s point of view, and I’m not sure if I understood much of it, but maybe it seemed like a lost chapter of The Chronicles of Narnia.

Now, rather than cruising the shelves, I seek out specific books. Award winners, Chicago authors, books reviewed on NPR, detective and mystery books. Sometimes I’ll “binge read” a series – Robert Parker’s detective Spencer, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. And I follow Sue Grafton closely as she finishes the alphabet mysteries with Kinsey Millhone. But lately, other media is invading my reading time: movies, TV, podcasts, blogs. They come so fast, even the few I select are piling up. That electronic queue may be less visible than the stack next to my lamp, but is no less imposing.

So this afternoon I’ll get in a comfortable chair with my tea and finish that article about Yellowstone National Park. And the reading stack is momentarily a little shorter.

People Noticed

alleyIn a big city, you develop the ability to ignore some of the things you see. Not the beautiful lake views or soaring skyscrapers, but the homeless people tucked into doorways, people asking for money, the gross Sunday morning sidewalks near the bars. Before you know it, you have formed a shell and it reads as apathy. If a semi-crazy person is ranting on the train, don’t make eye contact. If the lady you see on the corner everyday is still asking for a bus ticket to get home, keep walking without pulling a dollar out of your wallet. We’re all busy ignoring what we don’t want to see; fortunately some people are willing to help when things go wrong.

In the 60’s a woman was attacked and killed outside her apartment in New York City. This particular murder is famous for the supposed indifference of people who were nearby but didn’t want to get involved -what became known as the “bystander effect”. It seems simultaneously unrealistic and too real for comfort.

One early evening I took a short cut through an alley to the train. Before I knew what was happening, I was yanked by the purse strap and landed with a thud on the ground. Reflexively, I hung onto my purse, while the guy dragged me down the length of the alley into the street; bumping across the cobblestones, everything was strangely quiet. I don’t know where my voice was, I think I was too surprised to scream. Finally, I made some noise, and people came running. The guy let go. I caught a glimpse of a plaid shirt as he ran down the alley and disappeared around the corner. Soon three total strangers were helping me up off the ground, asking if I was hurt, and calling the police. It wasn’t till I tried to tell them what happened that I started to shake and cry. I was grateful they were there and they noticed.

For the next few weeks, I looked over my shoulder while walking through the neighborhood, wondering if I’d spot the guy, but I never did. Instead, I stayed out of the alleys and thought of how I could return the favor when someone needed my help. Softening my city shell and noticing.