Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Blog Project Extraordinaire

Here's the assignment: To write a short essay about something that happened to you in a very specific place. The goal was to make the essay more about the intrinsic connection to the physical place than about what actually occurred there. (And yes, mine doesn't quite cotton to the rules - I'm sorry Ryan!)

Here are the players: Bryan, Emily, Mandy, Meredith, Ryan, Stacy, and Tom

And here, because I'm a procrastinator, is "Via Chicago" (love on that Wilco, yall)

When I first came to this city, I noticed the doors, but not in that cheesy, entry hall poster kind of way. (Didn’t everyone have those when we were kids? The doors of Ireland, the doors of Kansas City, red and yellow and purple doors that looked the same in every town.) I took the train into the city from Midway airport, and I noticed that the doors of the train close to leave a small gap where their bottoms meet.

I came to Chicago to visit friends and hear music. Literally – we went to a music fest all weekend. My first experience with sight-seeing came from a glimpse of Millennium Park via bus windows, and ended with the skyline framing a Wilco concert. In the meantime, we drank. I was mystified by my friends’ buzzer and security doors. I didn’t know how to keep the bus doors from banging me on the way off. I loved the way the lake looked like it never ended.

One year later, I found myself readying to move. Two years later, I’m sweating through my first summer in the city – the first I’ve spent without central air for many, many years. On the way home from work today, I had a tremendous headache. It came and went in paralyzing waves and I tried to convince myself I was breathing them down.

I boarded an elevated train and scurried about, looking for a seat. I found one next to a good-sized man and his good-sized bag, but at rush hour you don’t complain about seats. I watched the doors close as the stragglers behind me filtered into the train’s dirty aisles.

That gap is still there, at the rubbery base where the train’s two sliding doors meet. I see it every time and think how can they have left that? In my seat today, I watched the train’s air-conditioned air get sucked through the hole no bigger than a silver dollar, imagining its trajectory over the brick buildings and ancient tracks below.

The hole makes me flash back to winter, to the mental blocks I put in those gaps when riding to and from school or work. My friends and I exhaust ourselves enjoying every moment of this summer, working hard to visit every park, catch every free concert and buy food from every street vendor we can. They told me all winter it would come to this, these throngs of happy people and bumbling tourists and DRUNK Cubs fans, but I had to see such a transformation to believe it. What kind of a place stores up its happiness for three short months?

Chicago fits me, because I’m forgetful. I remember winter’s cold, unforgiving gaps but I’ve forgotten the mystery of a good scarf. I’ve forgotten the camaraderie of a bus stop full of freezing, angry people who somehow realize that the only way to get through it is to wallow in one another’s frustration. I’ve forgotten how stylish I feel in boots, in all boots, even if they are caked in slush. In those days, the closing doors of the train are a welcome sight, hole or no hole. There is happiness to be had, even if the bars’ patios are all closed. But for now, I get to wallow in my forgetfulness. I get to pretend it will never be winter again and there will be concerts and visitors and boys and bars every single weekend.

The headache kept interrupting my enjoyment today, the jolting of each stop crushing my brains and forcing my eyes to uncomfortable places in their sockets. I marveled at the relative lack of crazies on the train, and kept my eyes focused on the doors. Eventually, they opened to a person-sized gap instead of a small, forgotten one. I got out and walked down the streets, full of people and noise, and breathed my headache out with the train’s stale air.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Green Line Stops are Few and Far Between

One of my favorite things about living in Chicago is my access to live music. There are big names, and little guys, and the guitarist from that one band's band. I'm lucky to have friends with similar musical tastes and similar thirsts to see and be seen at the small and and fabulous venues of Chicago. Even in the cold of Chicago winter, we made it to some choice shows. (Yelle at prom, I mean Logan Square Auditorium, anyone?)

But now summer reigns supreme and that means one thing: festivals. At the beginning of May, someone sent me a list of all the summer festivals one could find in our fair city. Pizza fests, jazz fests, rib fests, neighborhood fests, even cheese fests!! Obviously, there's just not enough Beth to get to all of these. But last weekend, I did make some time for the Pitchfork Music Fest in Union Park. Overheard after the fest? "It was the bestest time ever!"

I know, I know, Pitchfork is a total scenester scene. So we put on our best 80s sunglasses and hit the town! For 50 bucks, Saturday and Sunday presented quite the bang. Despite a little mud and some sweet humidity, the music killed. The food vendors were plenty, and they had Chicago microbrew for only $4 a beer! Being Pitchfork, the site has reviewed its own fest, so you can read that here. My personal highlights were: Bon Iver (duh), M. Ward, The Hold Steady (sorry KC), and the bits and pieces we caught of Fleet Foxes and Apples in Stereo (not together).

But the real story is, of course, behind the music. After Spoon finished the thing up on Sunday night, we made a beeline for the train stop located conveniently outside the park's boundaries. We thought we might beat the crowds by leaving before the encore finished, but when we got to the lines reaching from the El platform all the way down to the street, it was clear how wrong we'd been.

Instead of waiting with all those smelly unwashed hipsters, we decided to head west along the train tracks to pick up a Green line train at the stop BEFORE the festival's Ashland stop. We're pretty tricky like that. We made sure to ask some fellow music fans about the location of a station ("Oh yeah, if not at Damen then at Western) and trudged off down the increasingly abandoned street below the tracks. In the social geography of Chicago, we were heading toward a questionable part of town, but we weren't worried because a stop would come along any minute.

So away we walked, four white-girl music fans full of microbrews. We didn't make it three blocks before our first pit stop to pop a squat (not me!) and then, not four more til our second (again, not me). Fortunately for our bladders, the street was becoming more and more abandoned. Unfortunately, this did not make us feel any safer.

After awhile we came along a Chicago first for me - a group of people congregated in the street, blasting music and lights from their cars. A street party, for lack of better words. A block party, without the children riding their bikes. A party worthy of Wichita's teen crowd, according to our resident expert. But these were NOT Wichita teens. They invited us to join them, we declined, and the night continued. (They were playing a really fun song, though. That one that goes "Do do dodododooo What about my boyfriend?")

Finally, we came to a busy street, the western-most place where we were told an El stop would be. No stop in sight, we decided to cut our losses and call a cab. The company insisted on an address, and so they were given the street address of the check cashing facility we stood in front of. [We found out later that the next stop was not for another SIX miles.]

We waited at this corner for the cab around fifteen minutes before we called them again. Our order had not been picked up yet, so we abandoned the check-cashing corner in hopes of a bus. By this time, we could officially announce to one another that our spirits had broken. After a few inquiries after our destination by a man outside McDonald's, we made our way over to Madison and prayed for an east-bound bus. One came, and we retraced our steps, ended up downtown, and took the train on home. A journey of maybe 6-10 miles took us two hours. The whole time I was carrying a rolled-up outdoor blanket that looks like something I ordered off the Stuff White People Like website.

This was an interesting experience. At no point were we lost, but at the same time, we had no control over our progression. We couldn't retrace our steps once we'd come a certain distance, but we knew that we just kept walking deeper and deeper into a muddle. Things worked out, like they always do, but the ends of some weeks feel like the end of Pitchfork: trying to choose the lesser of two evils, with a big of mess to wade through before coming to a safe end. Is the music worth it? Yes, but only if there's cheap beer.