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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Don't miss the boat

     A strong image can stick in your brain and return at unwelcome moments. Such as that scene in Fritz Lang's classic 1927 German silent movie, "Metropolis," where the workers shuffle forward in lockstep, heads bowed, shoulders slumped, souls crushed.
     That image bubbles up whenever I'm stuck in line in the loud, overlit, stinking, Stygian underworld of Union Station's north platform, inching my way slowly toward the stairs, trying not to think about what a design blunder this whole layout is, how if there were ever an emergency and we had to get out quickly, we'd all die on those stairs.
    Which means I pretty much think about "Metropolis" every day, at some point, because when the train empties, it overwhelms the platform and the lines form, one splitting to the left, the other to the right. So at least I have that empty choice, left or right.
    Now and then an iconoclastic soul veers off, hops down onto the tracks, crosses over to the next, empty platform, and races to freedom. I can't say I admire those people. What they do is dangerous, and against the rules, I tell myself that it is a good thing most of us conform, and wait patiently. Otherwise it would be chaos. And what's the rush? Where are any of us going? To the same place, eventually.
     So we look at our phones, our iPads, our shoes, breathe fumes, marinate in thought, or nestle in the void of no thought at all, staring straight ahead. Nobody looks at each other. It's as if we're all alone, en masse. Step forward, wait, step forward, wait, anticipating the thrill of that first stair —almost there!— and the liberation of  reaching Madison Street, like a diver breaking the water's surface. We scatter, reunited with air and light, flee this pit, forget about it for another day.
     Which is why it's so good there's a Chicago Water Taxi stop right there, directly across Madison Street. As if it were planned that way. As a service to disinterred commuters, emerging from their crypt, staggering away from the station like the dazed survivors of some daily catastrophe. I try to take the brief three dollar, three minute trip to LaSalle Street — it then pushes on to Michigan Avenue — at least once a summer. As a reward to myself for going through this. But this summer has snapped by so quickly, I hadn't done so yet. Too busy. Until Friday, when there was no question. Too much Lang, too little lark. On impulse, I leaned far over the stone rail at Two North Riverside Plaza, saw the cheerful yellow boat "Bravo" sitting there, as if waiting for me. I hurried downstairs, hopped aboard —made it!— and soon we were on the water, sliding under the city's lovely bridges.  Suddenly it was summer, beautiful summer. At last. The buildings floated by as if in dream, the bridges plunging the boat into shadow, then returning to brilliant sunlight. The water smelled wet, clean, refreshing. The brief trip felt so good I took it again on Monday.
    A reminder, that we create our own reality, even when we feel stuck in routine, and while that reality can sour in a moment, we can also change it back just as quickly, if we try and we're lucky. If you think to look for it, there might be a boat, waiting for you, and if you get on that boat, it will take you away, for a while.


  1. Each time I board or exit my train at Ogilvie Station I'm acutely aware of the oily, grimy, toxic fumes going into my lungs. Ogilvie must not be as bad as Union, however -- that north entrance sounds like a drag. But the water taxi looks amazing. I see it whenever I'm walking around downtown, but next time I'll definitely try the Michigan Avenue trip.

  2. I walked up those north steps during rush hour for 17 years. As unpleasant as it is, imagine all those people exiting Union station at Adams or Jackson. That's the way it was until 1991 when the Madison St. exit was opened.


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