Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Listen to them, children of the night . . .

By day, Chicago's Loop—the downtown business district of soulless, gleaming glass-and-steel towers interspersed among blackened vintage relics—bustles with activity. Elevated trains and buses disgorge city-dwelling office and store workers by the thousands, while commuter trains haul in warm bodies from the suburbs. Dishes and glasses clang in restaurants bars, while takeout containers and cups are filled. Delivery vehicles block streets and alleys. Lines form at government agencies, post offices, and banks. As the morning wears on, families and tourists vie with workers for sidewalk space and bus seats. After 10:00 a.m., the shoppers appear. At lunchtime, those can spare a few moments pour out of their office buildings seeking lunch or bargains or to run errands. And between 5 and 7 o'clock in the evening, the process reverses itself, with mostly urban young people staying behind for after-work conviviality and theater- and opera-goers appearing at select restaurants in the theater district and surroundings. Later, temporary lines form at cab stands as each production lets out.

Such is dawn-to-dark life cycle in downtown Chicago.

Despite the drinkers and diners, the theater and opera attendees, and the less studious of the new wave of art students roaming the streets, much of downtown Chicago consists of near-dead zones after late office hours. In some areas, you may be surprised to find yourself the only person walking on that block, or that you're sharing it with its mostly unseen homeless residents. Often, they're not the homeless you meet during the day, asking for money outside the train stations, stores, and restaurants, who disappear with the changing shift. To me, they seem to be the hardcore homeless. Several years ago, when a visitor and i left a pizza restaurant around 9 o'clock, one of these hungry-looking men stopped us to ask not for money, but for our leftovers, which we turned over to him. He clearly needed them more than we did.

Most suburbanites I've known are uncomfortable being downtown after the streets are no longer crowded with their kind. From a practical standpoint, they don't want to miss their express train or the next one because after rush hour (really three hours) the trains just don't run very often. The later it gets and the fewer trains there are, the farther away the suburbs recede. There's more charm in being at home in the bosom of one's family and in the comfort of one's home than in being pursued by gaunt homeless men who want what's left of your pizza. When someone tells you he or she is from Chicago, it's likely they mean that they work in Chicago during daylight hours but rarely have seen the city after 8 or 9 o'clock at night. There's safety in distance and numbers.

I didn't watch the television series Beauty and the Beast regularly but did see enough episodes to know that it captured a mood of urban darkness and danger at night, real and perceived. Contrast that setting with the perfect and dreamlike pastel houses and manicured lawns of Edward Scissorhands, in which the improbable castle on the improbable hill, where evil seems to dwell, could represent the suburban fear of the urban unknown.

Years ago I thought of writing a story or even novel about the city's life after dark, when shifts change from the white-collar desk jockey to the cleaning crews who toil overnight on carpets, cluttered desks, acres of glass and flooring, and countless counters and toilets. As one group leaves and the other arrives, and darkness settles in, the atmosphere changes. With fewer people on the street, the sense of unease and danger increases, a sense exploited in the 1989 Batman film, in the scene in which Bruce Wayne's parents are murdered after a night out.

But I didn't. I've never lived a suburban life, nor have I cleaned toilets at night or been a shift worker at a place like UPS, picked up by a special CTA bus, nor have I been a denizen of the streets, nor have I spent any time on Lower Wacker Drive except passing through in the safety of a taxi or a friend's car. I would be writing something that simply wouldn't be true to life, unable to balance the light against the dark, or to capture the mood. It would be an obvious fake.

Whether I'm at work or at home, at any given hour, night or day, I can't conceive of what is out there. A couple of months ago, the police broke up a dogfight in progress, with even seasoned officers shocked and sickened by the brutality of the scene they found. This week a puppy mill was busted. Then there are the endless reports of child and animal neglect and abuse, spouse beatings, gang fights, robberies, rapes, murders—the list goes on and on and on. And it's all happening within a few miles of the mostly serene lakefront scene out my windows. Only the people who confront these horrors every day—police, firefighters, social workers, and others who are on the front lines out there—could capture the true-to-life, complete picture of the city's good, bad, and ugly. Although I don't retreat to the suburbs, and I have had a few scary moments confronting reality, still here I am, looking out at life from a vantage point well away from it, a zone of relative safety. And I am too old, too comfortable, and too frightened to leave it.

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