Friday, November 1, 2019

Exploring Chicago: Epiphany on Carroll Ave.

There are places where the city shares its own secret language with who know how to seek it out.

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, the process of saying good by to my childhood friend, Steve, and the process of saying goodbye to the city of Chicago became inseparably intertwined for me. As I committed myself to better knowing one (the city), at the same time I committed myself to better remembering the other. More than once I called his cell phone to try and memorize the voice I'd known for most of my life, a voice that I can still recall as I write this, but one that sadly I will not hear again. It was his voice I imagined with me as I made up my list of Chicago places and activities.

I set out to discover the place I'd been living. I chuckled when I went to visit Shit Fountain, and I was fascinated when Jen and I went to visit the button museum, but I wasn't truly or fundamentally altered until I walked Carroll Ave.

Visiting Carroll Ave. seems like such a simple task - it's just a street after all. You can spot it easily enough on old printed maps, google maps or any GPS system. But when you try to find it, even when you seem to be right there on top of it, you likely won't see any sign of it.

And that's because you are, literally, right there on top of it.

You see, the story of Chicago is one of buildings reaching ever higher, one alongside and on top of the next, ever upward into the sky. Which means that walkways and bridges and streets needed to be built up as well. Such is the case with Carroll Ave. from which one could, once upon a time, look up from and see the sun. Now however, looking up from Carroll Street, you'll only see the bottoms of shoes and the tires of cars through grates as they pass above you - completely unaware of your presence. The street has been devoured completely by the city and reborn as a secret subterranean tunnel.

To get there I went down an elevator to the Marina along the Chicago River - but rather than stop in to examine the boats, I kept walking and found myself in a long, dingy passageway. There were train tracks that had fallen into disuse. I passed the lower entryway to the House of Blues, and I continued walking until I was directly under the Merchandise Mart.

It felt like being one of the Goonies, discovering a wishing well from the bottom; as if, at any moment, I might stumble over the remains of Chester Copperpot or some similarly hapless explorer who had come this far, but no farther. It was a place I'd passed or walked over hundreds of times, but never once even wondered how anyone would get down there. Thus I had my first real taste of the vaguely subversive pleasure that is urban exploration. Carroll Ave was my invitation and indoctrination into a quasi-secret second city. A second, Second City, if you will. Clive Barker's Midian.

I could imagine Steve's presence there with me, just over my shoulder. Would he have had the foresight to tell me that this was what I loved and what I had been seeking without realizing it? Would he have seen the words as they formed, what was to be my newest iteration of self? It wouldn't surprise me - he usually grasped such things before I did. He knew me at least as well as I did, but without the subjective baggage and blindness.

I circled back and took a ramp back up into the daylight. I was on LaSalle Street. And I realized I'd looked at that very ramp so many times before without really once ever seeing it. It was the city's own form of steganography - hiding there in plain sight, a message to its inhabitants, and I was seeing it for the first time.

From that point forward I began to notice doors and stairways that seemed to lead to nowhere; windows where there was no logical reason for them to be. It opened my eyes at last to the place I was leaving and to all places I've visited since, making new those places I'd been before and making sacred those places to which I was new.

And it brought me back to one specific time when my friend Steve and I were no more than thirteen years old in the late summer afternoon sunlight and dust choked shadows of a barn loft where we witnessed something that made us pause and ask each other, did we just see that?

Was that, just maybe...