Route 66 :: June '97 -- October '97

Subject: You should get off the train here
Date: Sat, 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 which included:

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 just happened.

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 tom-foolery?

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?"

Both women grinned a sigh of relief, "Yes, that would be much better."
23:10 Meramec Caverns; , Missouri :: 6 SEP 97

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 aware.

  graphical element My anonymous saviour