High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

South and North

Riding public transit from Beverly to the Old Town School in Lincoln Square is pretty straightforward and in the "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here" days of the Ryan Construction, it's not likely to take much longer than driving. It's a straight shot 134 blocks north on Western (and there's a bus that does this), or it's a bus ride 3 miles East, the red line north for 112 blocks, a platform transfer at Fullerton, and then the brown line train covers the last 22 blocks north and jogs back west for about a mile and a half, depositing one at the doorstep of Chubby Wieners. I usually opt for what sounds like the more complicated route, and it's not just for the wieners.

Yesterday, I left the house (which is most definitely not in order) later than I should have. I couldn't find the clothes I wanted, or at least I couldn't fine any of the components of what I wanted to wear at the same time. It looked very much like rain and my shawl is so capacious at this point that even my Mimic (aka the hottest knitting bag known to god or man) cannot close over it. In the irritated rush, it seemed like shoving the whole works into a paper shopping bag was sensible. The chosen Nordstrom bag split promptly and neatly along its seam (only later would I learn that this was an enormous boon, and I'd never seen it coming).

Aggravated, I shoved the entire works into my leather backpack and rushed out the door, only to rush back in when I realized that I'd forgotten my sunglasses. Although it probably only reached about 83F yesterday, it was oppressively humid. That, my bad mood, still-wet hair, and the stress of wondering whether or not I'd actually make it to Old Town in time conspired to make it feel like 105.

Our realtor, who is also a friend, once told us that Beverly is the neighborhood with the second highest median income in Chicago. I don't know if that's true (although she's a trustworthy source on such things), and I wonder how meaningful the statistic is. For example, I I don't think I, personally, have the second highest median income in our household. I'm willing to bet that median or no, Beverly has a fair amount of heterogeneity in income level, being quite racially mixed, having a large proportion of blue collar and city works, and existing as it does only just barely inside the city limits. This last point explains the one before it: Many city workers must live in Chicago, and Beverly escapes being a suburb on the technicality of Western Avenue.

The location and demographics of Beverly make for some interesting main thoroughfares. When I stand at the bus stop, facing northn and waiting for the 95W to, paradoxically, take me east, I'm staring at a cutesy, newish strip mall comprising the required Chipotle, Cold Stone Creamery, and Panera bread. Ours is also fitted with the EB Games, Chase Bank, and Sylvan Learning Center options. These are all fitting companions for the big Borders just to the East.

At my back, on the south side of the street, is a moribund Radio Shack and a Dollar Store. Moving just a touch west, I think the block of store fronts is entirely abandoned now, but they were the kind of businesses that would have drawn the hairy eyeball from the developers of those developing across the street: A payday loan/currency exchange type place, one of those huge, jumbled beauty supply places, and in large and prominent corner space that wraps around on to Western, I think there used to be an old-fashioned, stand-alone department store of the variety that went out with 8-track tapes.

In practice, the north/south difference isn't a white/black one. Not exactly. Black men and women maneuvered their cars in and out of the cramped parking spaces of the strip mall. A young white woman (probably more than five years my junior) struggled out of the dollar store with a huge, multi-roll pack of paper towels as she tried, unsuccessfully to wrangle her army of tiny clones (four kids, each the very picture of her, all under the age of 7 or 8). Sure, the store specializing in going-to-Church hats is South Side, and the health food store is North Side. But, in general, Beverly defies the Minnesota/North Dakota rule.

The 95W bus is not in Beverly, no matter where it happens to be sitting. Yesterday I boarded at my stop with the usual suspects: A woman about my age, hauled her two children along with her, an older woman whose uniform and grim manner suggested that she was on the way to work, and an older man who politely stepped aside to let me board before him. Being so near Western, the bus was virtually empty when we boarded. I was the only white person on board and would remain so, though the bus filled up to standing-room only capacity as we moved eastward.

I, like most of the riders, exited the bus at the red line. The terminal is a broad, squat structure that spans the width of I-57 and the Ryan as they diverge (or merge, depending on whether you're a Yankee or a Reb, I suppose). The traffic around this southernmost stop on the line is thick and slow moving. The terminal can only be approached on foot or by bus. Anyone attempting to dropp off a rider by car is subject to murder by sizzling laser eyebeams.

After making my way through the turnstyle, I heard the unmistakable sound of the doors rebounding off passengers determined to make the train. The escalator was not working. I don't think the escalator has ever worked, but it's not exactly a case of "Escalator Temporarily Stairs. Sorry for the Convenience." Whether one wants to descend to the platform or climb up to street level, a broken escalator represents an opportunity to make an end run around bullying "entrance" and "exit" signs. At the red line terminal, everyone swims upstream.

I fought my way down the actual stairs, noting somewhat desperately that the buzz-thwack of people slipping through closing doors was becoming more infrequent. My lurching forward motion came to an abrupt halt as I came up against the woman with the two small kids who'd been on my bus. The girls, probably about 2 and 4, had simultaneously decided that walking is for suckers. With one baby on her hip and the other hanging from her hand, she formed a slow-moving, impassable obstacle. I heaved an irritated sigh and stopped behind her. At the same moment, a young black guy, probably 19 or so hurled himself in her direction from below. Raising one hand, he palmed the back of the younger girl's head as he shoved by, knocking her forehead soundly against the angle of her mother's jaw. I decided that I could probably get the fuck over myself at that point.

Stunned and probably in not inconsiderable pain (it was an impressive bone-on-bone foley), the woman stumbled down the last few steps and stepped to the side. Unsurprisingly, fear and pain had set the younger girl to wailing. Her sister provided back-up vocals. I hovered for a minute, unsure whether I ought to make sure they were ok. In an impressive mom move, the woman planted a kiss on the baby's forehead and yanked on the older girl's arm, "Get your ass on that train!"

I lunged for the train and shoved my arm through an opening just a bit too small for it. The doors clamped down briefly, then grudgingly sprang back. I stepped aside to let the woman and her kids pass. "Thank you," shaking her head in exasperation as she lugged her kids thrugh the door and into a two-seater row. I dropped into a backwards-facing aisle seat in an empty two-seater row a few behind hers and set my wards: Sunglasses on (despite the overcast day and the fact that a long stretch on this "elevated line" is actually on); iPod on; knitting deployed. The way I saw it, it wasn't even 2 PM and I'd already exceeded my "direct contact with people" quota for the day.

At 87th street, a 16-ish black guy slid into the row in front of me. I recognized him immediately as a brother. Not "A Brother," you understand (I mean, he was incontrovertibly "A Brother," but J's hPh is the only white dude I know who can use the phrase and carry it off), but MY brother in eschewing human contact. Although he took the window seat, he monopolized the row as effectively as I had mine by sprawling laterally. It's not a move for amateurs. The challenge is to convey in no uncertain terms that the aisle seat is Not Available without physically encroaching on it. That'll cost you style points. He pulled it off, though, and if the hip hop blaring through his headphones hadn't been in competition with my Welsh bass-baritone boyfriend, I probably would have saluted him.

Before we reached the next stop, I realized that at least one other person had boarded the car with my fellow introvert. A black woman moved into the aisle next to us. At first I took her to be upwards of 70 and assumed that she wanted the (technically) unoccupied aisle seat. I briefly scanned the car and noted that there were plenty of completely empty two-seater rows, making this move Not Cool. Nonetheless, it seemed even less cool for the guy to ignore an older person who seemed clearly to want the seat. I bundled my knitting up and slid into the interior seat, shaking my head slightly at my brother for taking the introvert thing too far and indicating that the woman was welcome to my aisle seat.

I even went the extra mile to make eye contact with her. This gave me a closer look at her and made it clear that the guy in front of me might have poor manners, but his train weirdo radar was in perfect working order. The woman's skin had the overbaked, peeling look that usually indicates "homeless." She wore a knit cap that covered all her hair, but the bristling growth on her upper lip was iron grey. As our eyes met, she raised a gnarled stick. It was covered in a chipped lacquer, suggesting that it had once been a proper cane, but the end had no rubber stopper. In fact, the laquer tapered off near the base, and it looked as if the stick might have been deliberately shaved to a sharp point.

As she lifted it, I assumed that she was preparing to take the seat next to me. It was somewhat alarming, therefore, to have it suddenly poking me in the shoulder. Hard. Before I could blurt out something akin to "Dude, WTF?" (but hopefully more generationally appropriate), she leaned down and mumbled something I couldn't hear at first. The volume grew as she repeated it again and again, "Blood of Christ. You are Covered in the blood of Christ." Everyone else in the car carried on as usual, and I wondered for a minute if the woman and the chant were part of some kind of psychotic break. As if to reassure me of my sanity, she jabbed the stick at me again, pulling back just shy of my shoulder and cackling as I flinched. Just when shocked was giving way to pissed, she tapped the point of the stick twice on my aisle seat and moved back up the aisle behind me.

At the next stop, several people got into the car. A older black man in some kind of law enforcment uniform sat down next to me and started thumbing through his Wild West video catalog. Several rows in front of me and across the aisle, a 40-something man and a teenage girl sat down across from and facing the young mother with her two girls. He joked animatedly with the girl next to him, grinning to reveal nothing but gum, top and bottom, all the way back to his premolars. The girl laughed and nodded as he spoke, but kept her eyes front. Later, the man would leave the train long before her, leading me to wonder how they wound up sharing a two-seater aisle when it wasn't necessary in violation of all laws of god and man. Meanwhile, her limited feedback got to him, and he turned to teasing the girls across the aisle.

"Why you cryin', baby girl?"

She looked around the car with an enormous frown on her face, as if she couldn't quite believe that anyone dared address her.

"Bump!" She said angrily.

"Bump? That's your brain," he replied, matching her frown for frown. "You gotta big brain."

She clutched at her head with both hands. I think the news might have alarmed her. "No!"

Her sister had curled far into the window seat and tucked herself under her mother's arm as soon as the conversation began. But now her head peeped out and she giggled, "You gotta biiiiiig brain!" she mimicked.

"No!" The baby drummed on her own head, somewhat undermining her previous attempts to work the bump angle.

I couldn't see their mother's face, but body language plus an abrupt change of subject suggested that a message not to get the girls started again had been sent and received. He kept up a running conversation with both girls over the next few stops, telling jokes and teasing them mildly. Somewhere north of Hyde Park, he hauled himself out of his seat and began that never-graceful jaunt toward the door. Even accounting for the moving train, something about his movement was especially awkward. After he'd passed my row, he backtracked and held out something to the baby girl. Her mother turned sharply toward him, a little bit alarmed, and the girl stared up at him in confusion. He was holding a few crumpled singles.

"For your babies," he said to the woman. She looked uncertain, but by then the older girl's hand had shot out and snatched the money.

Resigned, "Say thank you." she slapped her hand lightly.

The girl grinned, "Thank you."

"Bump," said the baby, turning her back on the man.

He passed a tall, burly woman about my age in the aisle. She was towing a boy of about 7 whose build and face strongly resembled hers. Despite his size, she was having a lot less trouble than the woman with her skinny 4-year-old. She took the seat in front of me and I wondered when my possibly rude but definitely wise fellow introvert left the train. I was too wrapped up with the little girls to notice, I guess. Although the little boy is as dark as can be, he reminds me strongly of my fair-haired, porcelain-skinned nephew S (of "Yeah, I'm a dork, but I'm a funny dork fame). Mostly, his fearlessness reminded me of S, as he sang and wriggled in his seat even after his mother's "Wait 'Til We Get Home" look unspooled into a slap upside the head. I added charisma to fearlessness when she looked surprised to hear herself apologizing.

At one point, he reached both hands over his head, coming in contact with the unzipped flap of my backpack, which was gaping forward against the back of his seat. His hands stilled momentarily and, on a whim, I quickly pulled the zipper toward his fingertips. He jerked around and raised an eyebrow at me (definitely a lady's man in the making [or man's man, whatever]). I raised one back and he grinned and turned back around. I unzipped the bag again with a flourish. He waited a minute or so, then grabbed at the zipper again. I zipped in a flash and he laughed. We got away with two or three more go arounds before we were both treated to his mother's sizzling laser eyebeams. I gave him a last sheepish smile and zipped the bag for good. He might be fearless, but I know too well that moms will fuck your shit up.

The Cermak stop is above Chinatown. Yesterday, it was kind of a no man's land where no one seemed to get on or off. In my earlier red line days, there would have been at least a few knots of Hyde Parkers headed down there for a potsticker fix. It's still summer, I guess.

At Roosevelt road, there's a shift in ridership that gets more dramatic as the train heads north to plunge underground in the Loop. The first white faces, other than mine, appear and soon outnumber the black. Objetively, these are the people like me in more than color: young, middle-class singles and couples heading to a museum, a lecture, a play, or maybe just shopping or the lakefront. Mixed in are a few of what I secretly consider my real peeps, although I'm less and less like them as time goes on: hip UIC students bound for Belmont to restock their goth supplies, maybe a small knot of pimply geeks who'll get off at the same stop but head straight for some of the best comic and used book stores in the city.

Our pasty white ranks will swell until the train reaches Fullerton, where I switch to a brown line train and a slightly different crowd. Here there are more East Asian and Indian people, either DePaul students or run-of-the-mill Lincoln Park denizens. In addition to the racial/ethnic shift, the brown line is, perhaps appropriately, crunchier. Many will get off at Western with me. Some will be heading for Old Town; others might opt for the Grafton or Bad Dog to hear or make music. If I were to stay on the brown line further than I did yesterday, I would end up in a neighborhood very much like the one I grew up in. Tom and Chris, our Sea Shanties teachers live up there and I had an eerie feeling of not-quite-nostalgia Thursday at the barbecue in their back yard.

No matter what line I ride though, if I go north, there's no place like Beverly.

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