You should get off the
06 Sep 1997 21:37:40 -0700
11:10 Jellystone Park; Eureka, Missouri :: 05 SEP 97
To my amazement, a few people are actually paying attention
to the numbering system and realized they're missing a dispatch. Go figure.
OK, sorry for the delay on 3.007 which was well underway when
it died dirty digital death after a Windows crash. Truth is, there've
been so many other things to write I haven't really had time to go back
and revisit an old thought I'd already worked through in my head. No,
it's not the long awaited "Escape From NJ IV" which will have to wait
a while yet. It's about an experience in Chicago, the kind we often see
on television or read about in the press but few of us ever experience
directly. But I'm getting ahead of the buildup.
Since this entry is now well out of order, it's a bit of a look
back, all the way back to Troy, Missouri...
When I started this journey it was with the intention of tracing
and documenting a few great North American highways. That idea turned
out to be a little too ambitious, which I'd anticipated to some extent.
By the time I'd reached the South it was becoming obvious that to get
in a minimum of six weeks on Route 66, my primary target, I'd have to
make haste for Chicago. After racing across the Trans Canada, I found
myself racing up hwy 61. Even at that pace it seemed wise to turn east
at Rock Island, Illinois, roughly on the same latitude as Chicago and
well short of 61's terminus at Thunder Bay. Another time perhaps.
No worries, my dreams never come off as planned.
From Rock Island I followed Route 6 east toward Chicago. I didn't
realize this at the time but back in 1947, after busing all the way from
New York to Chicago, then Joliet, Jack
Kerouac finally started hitch-hiking west on rt. 6 for a Denver rendezvous
with Neal Cassady, a rendezvous that would be retold in "On the Road"
as Sal Paradise's inaugural journey to meet up with Dean Moriarity. He,
also, would pass through Rock Island and, across the Mississippi in Iowa,
Davenport. I hadn't quite made it to Joliet when a fortuitous wrong turn
sent me on a north-east jog on 271 that not only turned into something
of a short cut into Chicago, but also naturally lead straight onto Ogden
Street, otherwise famous for once being known as ROUTE 66.
What began as a lively commercial strip just west of Berwyn
gradually became more and more run down as it traversed Berwyn. By the
time I was well and truly into Cicero the picture was rather bleak, painted
in crumbling concrete, dilapidated houses and shelled housing projects.
That the inhabitants were all African Americans triggered multiple ghetto,
gangland and crack-house stereotypes. I try to avoid acting on such generalisations
and quelled as best I could the irrational fears. At one point a huge
green boat of an early model American car, fading paint and dented body,
nosed into my lane out of a blind intersection. I thought of the German
tourists killed in Miami by hoods who smash into the rented cars and take
advantage of the stranded foreigners. Foot hovering over the brake pedal;
neck hackles raised; looking for an escape route. But the nose pulled
back and soon I could see the occupants who seemed to be amused that a
50' RV was streaming down the last blocks of Ogden Street.
Still, the whole experience left me unsettled.
The next day I shopped for electronics, hardware, RV parts and
books in the bright, sparkling suburban commercial zone near Tinley Park.
That night I began reading Kerouac's
"On the Road" beginning with Ann Charters' lengthy and informative introduction
In "On the Road" Kerouac
had supposedly defined a new generation, and he was besieged with questions
about the lifestyle he had described in his novel. The reporters didn't
care who he was, or how long he'd been working on his book, or what he
was trying to do as a writer. At first Kerouac's
standard response to their questions-delivered, as Joyce Johnson remembered,
with "weirdly courteous patience"-was to define the term "Beat," which
he'd first heard more than a decade before, used by a Times Square hustler
named Herbert Huncke to describe a state of exalted exhaustion, but which
was also linked in Jack's mind to a Catholic beatific vision, the direct
knowledge of God enjoyed by the blessed in heaven. This line of thought
was obscure to most interviewers, who wanted a glib quote rather than
a religious derivation of a hip slang term.
Late that night, or early the next morning as it were, I read on
into the first couple dozen pages of the novel while printing up a pile
of handbills advertising my need for a ROUTE 66 navigator, then fell asleep.
The next day brought me into Chicago in search of appropriate
places to post all those handbills. I wanted youth hostels and budget
hotels like those I'd found in countless other countries, but Chicago's
downtown core contains but one youth hostel and the budget hotels do not
provide "ride boards" for posting requests for riders. The folks at the
youth hostel did identify another hostel in South Chicago and shortly
after sunset I was heading south on the elevated, bound for the terminus
at 63rd Avenue.
It couldn't have been more than a a few seconds after taking
a seat on the train that a group of teenagers-more than five, less than
ten-filed through the inter-car door from the trailing car and made their
way up the aisle, all the while bantering as a group of teenagers will
when following an inertia some of its members don't agree with.
"Yo, man, why are we still walkin' down the train?"
"Maybe there're some seats in the next car."
"There weren't none last time!"
"Yeah, well maybe someone got off."
"Well, this is really losin' it for me."
And so on. Just as the trailer of the party reached me, the train
lurched to a start, forcing a stutter step and an exclamation I can't recall
but probably something like, "Whoa! We've got to find some seats!"
There are moments in life that unfold like a rose, the human-ness
of them moved through like choreography, a perfect line. These moments
are never predictable, but their outcomes must follow certain well-worn
paths in order to be perfectly realized. The whole grand parade down the
train had been a beautiful expression of bored teenagers killing time.
The little trick of the tail, the stumble-start as the train kicked into
gear, seemed the perfect outcome, a cinematic moment, as if the whole
scene were played out for me particularly. And so I chuckled lightly and
allowed the grin to spread wide.
Then, two boys ahead of my stumbler, I sense something else.
A body stopped, turned:
"Hey! You long-hair white ass, I heard what you said..."
I missed the rest of that one, but my stumbler, my perfect teenage
boy asked his friend, "What'd he say?" And I missed the reply too. Something
inside warned me not to acknowledge the hot glares pointed my way, so I
kept my head down muttering only under my breath, "I said nothing.". The
boys continued moving up the aisle, following their friends who'd already
entered the next car up, but the last one, I think the youngest one, the
one who'd complained about traipsing up and down this train without plan
and so perfectly stutter-stepped seemingly for my bemusement, levelled a
very serious threat. I didn't get all the words, and really can't piece
together anything concrete, but the tone was unmistakable.
He kept on moving, the door closed behind him, and I breathed
a very deep sigh of relief.
I can't recall noticing whether people were looking at me. My
mind was elsewhere, thinking "that was a narrow one." But it wasn't very
long before that door at the front of the car opened again and more than
five but less than ten youths filed through the door and down the aisle,
walking just past me before taking whatever seats were available in the
crowded car. "Uh-Oh" thought I. There was too much racket on the train
to hear what they were saying, but they were talking, without doubt. Peripheral
vision couldn't sense them looking my way, but with my head down, even
the periphery was obscure.
I tried to take comfort in the fact that they hadn't taken the
seats available all around mine, surrounding me in the process. That would
have been an unmistakably bad omen. I tried to ignore the fact they were
black, that all the people in my car were black, and once again quelled
all the racial stereotyping that are the only images in the memory of
a man who, except for the various media portrayals, had lived his life
almost completely isolated from black people. I began thinking of what
I would say if the confrontation came about, how I'd use logic or guile
to extricate myself. But what *could* I say to angry kids spoiling for
a fight? The best I was coming up with was, "Hey, I'm Canadian. We gave
refuge to thousands of slaves" Idiot! Patronising, racist idiot!
I'm not sure if it was the next stop, or the one after, but
two middle-aged women got up and made their way off the train. As they
passed me, one leaned down and in a pleasant but firm tone warned: "You
should get off the train here." So I did. Immediately.
And I didn't stop at the platform. I walked straight for the
stairs and descended them, trying to sense if I was being followed. The
train left the station before I reached the bottom of the stairs. I looked
up. No one. I reached the bottom of the stairs and rode back up the escalator
and at the top of the platform found a few recognizable faces, all of
them fellow passengers on the train, none of them younger than 25 years.
"Phew." Among the fellow disembarked passengers was the woman who'd warned
me off the train. I kept to myself for a while, thinking about what had
I noticed the parking lot below the elevated station was filled
with police cars, and smiled a strategic acknowledgement to myself on
behalf of my benefactor. I thought a little about my naivete, about the
improper assumption of safety. I thought alot about the possible outcomes
had I stayed on that train. I thought on all these and more but realised
I needed more information than my recent observations and all those media
representations that made up the bulk of my knowledge. So I approached
my benefactor and her friend.
"Excuse me, Hi. I'd like to thank you for the warning."
"You're welcome, and I'm glad you took the advice."
"Well, I was going over my options and, admittedly, getting off the train
wasn't on the list. But seeing a couple of locals get off the and having
one of them suggest you do the same, well, even I can follow that logic."
They both smiled in acknowledgement.
"I want to make sure I understand what just happened here. How much trouble
was I in?"
"They were bored."
They were bored. Yes, I'd recognized that from the start, only I
didn't know what it meant. They were bored and looking for kicks. Perhaps
the one claiming to have heard me utter some put-down had heard someone
else and mistaken me for the speaker. Or could he have just made the thing
up, something to break the monotony and maybe even kick off some excitement?
I remember seeking a way out of the doldrums as a teenager,
and even later. I remember tweaking the windshield fluid jets on my friend
Stu's VW bug with a paper clip. We'd drive past a corner busy with pedestrians
and zap them with a short burst of water from the jets. It was all we
could do to contain ourselves as the unwitting targets searched the sky
and street in vain for the source of the water splotch on their shirt.
Even at 20 we were young, fearless, careless with other people's well-being.
We didn't think about how our actions might impact other's lives. We were
out looking for trouble.
Haven't kids always been like that? A little anarchic, a little
But how did it get like this? What happened that underlying
the perfect little human moments like bored teenagers looking for a little
fun, even a little trouble, we find an attraction to mayhem. What happened
that underneath and within the playfulness of children lurks a profound
willingness to cause grievous bodily harm?
"So, do you often have to get off the train."
"Not for a while," said my benefactor.
"But," rejoindered her friend, "school's back in and the kids will be
riding the trains more."
"Yes, then it'll get worse again."
Eventually another train came along, the three of us boarded and
I sat by the two women.
"Where are you going?" My benefactor asked.
"East 63rd." And she made a face.
"Why are you going there?"
"It's the closest stop to the University and there's a hostel there."
"You'd be better to get off at 55th, cross the street and take the bus
to High Park. It's a diverse neighborhood there, and it's well policed."
"Oh, 63rd isn't safe then?"
"The situation on the train will definitely happen again at 63rd. It happens
to me all the time, and I'm a local."
Presumably, the community at 63rd was not 'diverse' and so she was
also implying "And I'm the right colour." When I asked her to make that
explicit, she did.
After we talked about the somewhat lesser potential for similar
difficulties at 55th, another option came to mind:
"Maybe it would be better if I came back tomorrow,
during the day?"
23:10 Meramec Caverns; , Missouri :: 6 SEP 97
Both women grinned a sigh of relief, "Yes, that would be much better."
We decided it'd be best for me to turn around at 55th, which
was still several stations away. I let my benefactors get back to their
conversation. I looked out into the inky night as Kerouac
is fond of calling it.
Earlier that day, I'd ridden commuter rail into town, the Rock
Island Line originating in Joliet. After 93rd street, or so, it goes express
to downtown, skipping past the South Chicago projects. "Projects" means
subsidized housing for the poor, it means despair, crime and violence.
Cracked, split, uneven concrete; scraggily grass choked with trash; rotting,
half-condemned structures; thick steel plates blocking the windows and
doors of burnt-out, destroyed apartments-sometimes as many as half the
apartments; balconies screened in, presumably to keep inhabitants from
jumping or being thrown from them. I watched as row, upon row of these
rose from the distant horizon, blazed past the window and was gone, only
to be replaced by another row of despair.
Inside the elevated, darkness kept hidden from me all but the
outlines of buildings hunkered down for the night. Few lights shone in
the windows. Before long, 55th came and I departed the reassuring company
of women who'd assuredly saved me from grievous bodily harm.
I have travelled four continents, walked the streets of numerous
cities night and day, never have I sensed danger the way I did that night
in South Chicago. It was a uniquely uncomfortable experience. And unlike
the ill-sense of danger while driving through Cicero, this time I had
the testimony of people who should know.
After waiting a long 20 minutes for the next train at 55th,
I took a seat in the lead car, two seats away from the operator. I felt
safe again...relatively safe all the way back into town where I walked
several relatively safe blocks back to La Salle station where I soon caught
a pretty safe train back to the very safe Tinley Park. And on the way
back, as I passed the projects for the fourth time that day, I thanked
the stars which kept me from being born into such a hell-hole, such a
pain-ridden place, a life without hope. I'm not sure I'd have managed
to escape that so easily. We can never be sure, can we?
~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
You can never relax for a minute; you must always remain
|| My anonymous saviour