A Case of the Chicago Blues?
Subject: My kind of town
Place: Chicago, Illinois, USA
My kind of town?
Two teenagers joined me in the brightly lit elevator. Embellished with gold paint, and featuring a gold leaf panel with numbers that lit up as it passed from floor to floor, the lift resembled a Hollywood movie set from another age.
“I hate elevators, they really scare me,” said one of the girls who looked like extras from a teen movie. Both had blonde straight hair, tie-dyed jeans and small silver mobile phones.
“And you can’t get a signal in here, which always makes me nervous,” the other grinned back.
Pregnant, with sun damaged hair, and surrounded by plastic bags full of dirty washing, I felt old enough to be their mother. The lift left the thirteenth floor and shuttled towards the ground. But after four or five minutes of whizzing up and down, lighting up numbers like a demented bingo caller, we all realised the lift had a mind of its own. As we bounced around floors, the teenagers responded to the situation by punching at their mobiles, while I punched random numbers into the lift panel.
“No luck.” In between studying their phones, the girls looked anxiously at my stomach.
“It’s not due for two months,” I reassured them, “shall we press the alarm?” The lift shot up to floor eleven, then back down to four without opening. I slammed on the alarm and the bell rang out, loud and reassuringly shrill.
“Does anyone know you’re in the lift?,” asked one of the girls after five minutes of alarm sounding, with no response from the hotel. “Will anyone be waiting at the bottom for you?”
” ‘Fraid not,” I told her, thinking of the boys, bouncing happily on the beds with the TV blaring and Stuart checking his e mails, all the way up on the 13th floor.
The bell blasted, the lift bounced and I wiped the sweat from my brow. It was a hundred and six degrees outside, but thankfully the lift was air conditioned.
A pregnant pause in the lift
The air conditioning suddenly shut off.
“What are we going to do?” whispered one of the girls, glancing up towards the lights, willing them to stay on.
“Just keep ringing the bell, someone will hear it eventually,” I told her firmly, refusing to communicate the panic that was welling inside me.
“Hey, I’ve got a signal,” her friend shouted.
“Does anyone have a number for the hotel?”
We all looked at each other helplessly. Then the lift juddered dramatically, the lights went off, the baby in my stomach kicked in protest, and suddenly the doors opened on the third floor.
“Quick, before it changes its mind,” I told the girls as we left the lift together and they began to text friends to tell them the news.
Feeling the heat
The heat blasted into my face, reminding me of our month in the Pacific. I waited with a hundred other people at the traffic lights as taxis jostled to overtake cars and buses, hooting their horns, windows open and radios blaring. Suddenly a fight broke out between two cab drivers. They yelled and swore, got out of their vehicles and started to push each other around. Tarmac melted on the road and the smell of French fries filled the stale air. Business as usual in downtown Chicago. A train rumbled past on the loop, its’ bass note drumming into my lungs; already heavy with heat and smog.
I ducked into a nearby hotel, searching for a washing machine. We had no clean clothes and our expensive yet inadequate hotel couldn’t help us. I located some small, oppressive laundry facilities in the basement of a Travelodge and set the machine going. I would go back and collect it later. I walked back through the city centre, skyscrapers towering either side, their shadows forming sharp geometrical designs on opposite buildings, and throwing down some shade but no respite from the heat.
From the wilderness into the jungle
Having spent two full days and nights on the train, we were thankful to disembark into the organised madness of the city’s main station. Dirty, dusty and incredibly hectic, Chicago is a hub in the Amtrak network, sending trains out to coasts, towns and cities across the US. And after spending weeks living in the wilderness of the US national parks, Chicago felt to me like another kind of jungle altogether.
The familiar giant Sequoia and redwood trees had been replaced by shining silver concrete towers, slender and beautiful in their own way. They towered above as birds darted around them, their underbellies catching the afternoon sun. The loop roared above me, and the traffic crawled. Despite the heat, Chicago residents were thriving in their urban jungle.
Café owners traded loudly and brashly, throwing bagels into toasters and slamming black coffee down onto plastic tables. Bus drivers bitched at each other from small side windows, the inspectors patrolling like uniformed rangers, checking they were on schedule, and ticking them off for being late. Beggars hassled and hustled like the squirrels that had chased us round the parks for food.
Taxi drivers and café workers thrust single dollars into their hands to make them go away, unwilling to make eye contact or start a conversation. And on every street, past every corner, businessmen and traders, tourists and students scurried around like worker ants, clutching brown paper bags of food, dark leather briefcases, or brightly coloured backpacks, rushing and sweating through the relentless heat. The distant sounds of a concert in a nearby park failed to get anyone dancing in the streets.
City strife, city life
Back at our hotel, striking staff picketed outside the glass front doors. I dodged past them, wondering who was running the hotel, and informed the receptionist that her lift had held me hostage for twenty minutes. At the elevator, the panels were flashing and the alarm was ringing. I walked back to the lobby and tipped off the concierge there may be someone stuck in the lift. He shrugged and paged for security.
“We got another one trapped in the elevator.”
I walked up thirteen floors, stopping halfway to gasp for oxygen. The baby had stolen most of mine, leaving me light headed, but I was relieved not to be in the lift. On the thirteenth floor, boys were still bouncing on beds and no one noticed I’d even left the room.
The kids delighted in the idea of running down thirteen floors of stairs. But at the third floor, the stairs ran out and delivered us into cavernous hotel kitchens. Like stainless steel caves they wound round the hotel, deserted and spooky. As we walked deeper and deeper into these caverns, they got darker, hotter and ever more deliciously scary for the boys.
“Will there be a monster?” Matthew asked, eyes wide as he looked at the knives and ovens and giant catering trays.
“Which is the way back?” Cameron squeaked, as a clatter from behind made us all jump.
“This isn’t the way out.” said a massive shaven haired man in a boiler suit. Perhaps unsure whether he was a plumber or an escaped prisoner, the kids grabbed my legs and hid.
“The lift was broken,” I told him.
He raised his eyebrows to the ceiling, which looked like it was spattered with tossed pancakes.
“Follow me,” he grizzled, and lumbered forward.
We trotted after him in the darkness, through empty kitchens, conference rooms and ballrooms. I began to wonder how safe we were with this jump-suited stranger, until swinging doors brought us out into the lobby.
That’s why they call it The Blues
“Welcome to Chicago. Want to hear something that’s gonna make you feel real sad? I lost my money, lost my girl, no one will loan me money to get a place of my own and I got the blues real bad. Want me to share them with you? Well, a relationship is a sharing thing right? So you listen to some our music for a while and then I’ll tell you my story. But watch out, it’s going to be a real sad story, and I just hope you can handle it. And by the way, if there’s any money lenders out there, please come and see me after the show.”
The boys sat straight backed in their chairs, in the small dimly lit lounge of the blues club. It was the once weekly ‘open to all ages’ blues session, and while it had the music and all the atmosphere of a typical Chicago jazz club; it badly lacked cigarettes and alcohol. Stuart and I absorbed the music and longed for a pint. The kids drank a pint of milk and listened intently to an upbeat yet woeful tale of repossession and unpaid bills. But some stories are too sad for three and four year olds, “Can we go to McDonalds and get a Happy Meal now?” said Cameron, springing to his feet at the end of a set.
The Blues is catchy
Back in the jungle of Saturday night downtown Chicago, the bus driver also had the blues. “I’m going on strike,” the enormous black lady screeched into the microphone as she wrestled for road space with an equally determined bus competitor.
“Why not? Everyone else is,” said Stuart, hugging Cameron on his knee as the bus crawled down the highway. At our hotel, the pickets were gone, and there was a huge queue at the lift as wedding parties, school reunions and tourists watched the numbers light up and down, with alarm bells ringing and no one coming to help.
“The lifts have downed tools guys, so we’ll have to walk,” Stuart briefed Matthew and Cameron.
They all trudged up the marbled white stairs, but I moved more slowly, stopping between floors to re-oxygenate. On the third floor I pulled back the curtains; already I had risen above the lower-rise shops and businesses. Chicago; my kind of town. It lay in front of me, in all its concrete elegance, staring into the blackness of the surrounding lake while it’s citizens slumbered in the heat.
And then I remembered our washing; lying in a machine somewhere out there in the urban jungle. It would have to survive by itself until morning. When I reached the thirteenth floor, I too would be going on strike.