Thursday, April 5, 2018

Notes from underground

J.J. Madia, in the tunnels under the Loop that he manages.

    When the choice is go somewhere or not go somewhere, my default is: go.
    Because you never know.
    Not that I rush out to every opportunity.
    That would be impossible.
    Not to mention tiring.
    But when it's a 50-50 coin toss, when I'm teetering on whether something is worthwhile or not, my little personal rule pushes me over the edge.
     Though it doesn't always work out.
     For instance, last week.
     A British film crew was in town, shooting some kind of engineering special in the freight tunnels under the Loop, the ones that flooded so disastrously in 1992. The producers had read my 25th anniversary story online. Would I, a nice woman wondered, mind talking to their cameras about the flood?
     On one hand, I could be on British television 24 hours a day and never know it. Any advantage to me would be slight.  Hours of my precious time would be spent to benefit some person not myself.
     On the other, it meant going down into the tunnels—how often do you get a chance to do that? (I had, just a year ago, for the story; but still...)
     Not to forget the allure of TV. Being on TV means something. It is significant, and British TV, double significant. They're so refined, the Brits. My flashing appearance could lead to something....
     True, I had to be at City Hall at 8:30 a.m. to do it. But heck, if I didn't, I'd be doing the same old pottering around the office I always do. Put yourself out. You never know. Maybe these TV folks will become my best friends.
     So I'm there, by the bronze "CITY HALL" sign at 8:30 a.m., bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I get a text from the producer. Traffic. Running late. That happens! No worries! I slide over to Petra's for a cup of coffee, thinking of H.T. Webster.
    You don't remember H.T. Webster, a cartoonist popular between the world wars. Don't feel bad. Nobody does. Except for, I suppose, me. His claim to fame was creating the character "Caspar Milquetoast," star of a series of panels he called "The Timid Soul." In one, poor Caspar stands in the driving rain and, well, it's easier to just show it.
    That's how I felt, a half hour and a $4 cup of coffee later, still waiting for the TV crew. Eventually they showed. Handshakes all around, and down into the bowels of City Hall we go. Boots on, reflective vests, hard hats, we follow J.J. Madia, the city worker whose full time job it is to make sure those tunnels don't flood again.
     To tell you the truth, the Brits—producer, cameraman, sound guy—were not as friendly as I expected. A little distant almost. And as one hour folded into two, it dawned on me: they weren't talking to me, they were talking to Madia. I was just ... well, there, for no particular purpose, sloshing in the water after them.  
     At 11:30 a.m. I decided I had enough. I was supposed to meet my brother, back at Petra's, for lunch at 12 noon. He's be sitting in a booth, gazing at the door, wondering where the flip I was, while I was standing up to my shins in water 40 feet underground. The crew was busily filming Madia expounding over some aspect of the tunnel. I decided to go back myself. I knew the way.
     Or, rather, I thought I knew the way. Turns out I didn't, which I learned when I came face-to-face with a steel bulkhead at a dead end I was certain I hadn't been to before. Getting lost would be bad: there are 39 miles of tunnels under the Loop.
     I turned around, pushing away that sinking, oh-I'm-screwed feeling and, heading back down the tunnel, saw Madia's flashlight, way ahead of me at an intersection of tunnel—I had taken the wrong turn. The Brits were a little nicer since after I left — the producer apologized, and explained that she had put me down for 11:45. A miscommunication. We shot me standing at the corner of Randolph and LaSalle, talking about the Flood. The producer handed me my fee: a dollar.
    Afterward, I had lunch with my brother—that was good, some redemption from being in the neighborhood. A good conversation, as always. Off to the station, waited half an hour for the train, and caught the 2:35.
     Maybe my "go and see" approach needs adjustment, I thought. Maybe the lesson is to stay chained to the computer and work and don't go to iffy opportunities. My new attitude toward such opportunities could be: "Fuck you. Find some other sap to fill your empty airtime."
    No. Just because something doesn't work, once, isn't an indictment of the philosophy. Baseball players employ the walk-up-to-the-plate-and-swing strategy, even though it fails two out of three, that doesn't undercut the value of their approach. You can't get a hit every time. You still keep swinging.
    The train was stopped at Morton Grove. A medical emergency, the conductor announced. The emergency, I realized from muffled screams on the sidewalk, involved a man who had gone berserk in the next car and was being subdued by about eight officers. I joined a group of suburbanites watching blandly from a couple car lengths away. The troubled man was joined by a young lady, also screaming and twisting and flailing as three cops dragged her off.
     Better you than me, bub. Watching the crisis settled my mood completely. A complicated thing, life. Work had lately seemed particularly burdensome—I sent my new 5,000-word story on smiling off to Mosaic Tuesday night—and this lost day turned out to be a reminder that I actually enjoy my work and hate to be interrupted without good reason. A reader among the knot of inconvenienced commuters struck up a conversation with me, waiting for the cops to drag the pair off. That new Sun-Times web site, he enthused. It's fantastic! I told him I was glad to hear that. I won't say it made the previous eight hours worth it. But it helped. 


  1. That's right, keep your chin up. I have a Brit inlaw, not friendly.

  2. I have to admit that the Caspar Milquetoast cartoon resonates with me, as does getting lost underground, kind of a melange of nightmares. Very funny nonetheless.


  3. Have they changed the website recently? I am a home delivery subscriber and the website is a joke. Ads Ads Ads, slow loads and poor organization. Either it has changed or someone is easily pleased.

  4. Apologies to the webmaster. Checked site, annoying pop-up videos gone, improved indeed.

  5. Getting lost in an underground tunnel network. Damn, that's the stuff of nightmares.

    Also, what's with the $1 fee? I take it that was some sort of weird legal/accounting thing?

  6. Missed out on the Great Fire, but survived two of the biggest blizzards and experienced the Great Flood first-hand. The blackout, being evacuated at mid-day, watching the local and national coverage, stepping over the huge hoses and detouring around the pumps and emergency equipment, enduring commute times that doubled, and experiencing the still-soggy pedestrian and subway tunnels days and weeks later. Oh,yeah, it was great fun.

    Especially when my boss ordered me into the sub-basement of the Monadnock Building so I could salvage or dispose of legal files and case records. The dampness, the chill, the smell, the dead rats, the Blue Line trains on the other side of those massive 16-foot-thick stone foundations--it certainly wasn't anything like a river flood on the Ohio or in a Mississipi River town, but it was still a flood nonetheless, and one hell of a mess.

  7. I'm guessing your cellphone wouldn't do you much good if you got lost in those tunnels.


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