Here’s something the Belgrade-born poet Charles Simic wrote in the 1990s about when he was a young immigrant in Chicago in the 1950s:
Here I am on the midnight el riding to work or coming back after a long day. It’s winter. It’s bitter cold. Every time the door opens, we shiver, our teeth chatter. When it shuts, the heat turned on high, the closely pressed bodies, make it even worse. It’s hard to keep my eyes open. I’m asleep standing up. If I don’t watch it, I’ll miss my stop and wake up at the end of the line. I’ll be halfway to Iowa. It’ll be 2 o’clock in the morning and I’ll be the only one on the open platform pacing back and forth to keep warm, muttering to myself at first, then shouting, shouting at the top of my lungs:
“What a life! What a city! What a country!” And I’m leaving out the cuss words.
That reminds me of the canvas print that hangs on the wall above my sofa. The picture, which was made by an artist named Ben Holiday, shows a nighttime view of an el platform at what appears to be a Brown Line stop—one of the small ones, like Wellington maybe. Or Paulina?
You can see leaves on the trees, so the scene obviously isn’t supposed to be in winter, but an el platform automatically evokes that season for me. In fact, lately it seems like a cold front is moving in over a lot of my memories of Chicago. I used to roll my eyes at outsiders who assumed the city was a frigid wasteland of lake-effect snow and stolid Midwesterners warming their hands over the deep-dish pizzas they eat for three meals a day. Now I struggle to recall a single sunny afternoon between 1997 and 2016.
I know for a fact there were times when the city was so hot the mayor’s office would tell old people to go to cooling centers. But when I try to remember what it felt like to live in Chicago, my mind scrounges up polar vortexes and enormous down parkas from The North Face and standing under the Chicago Transit Authority’s ineffective heat lamps that brought absolutely no heat to any part of your body except for the crown of your head.
But, I mean, that couldn’t have been how I spent the Fourth of July, right?
Not all of my memories set on el platforms have to do with the weather. Some have to do with verbal abuse.
One time when I was at the Red Line’s Granville stop, for instance, a jolly, husky man came barreling toward me to ask which side of the platform was for southbound trains. When I told him and turned to leave, he said, at the top of his voice, “Thanks, faggot!”
Just as friendly as could be. He sounded more like the happy villagers greeting Belle at the beginning of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast than someone uttering hate speech.
I couldn’t even be mad at him. For one thing, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t “all there,” as they’d say back in Arkansas, and, for another, it’s not like he had me pegged wrong.
Besides, if I lived in a provincial village in old-timey France I’m sure the townsfolk would call out to me in almost exactly the same way.