Chicago Blues | Pushing the Wave

Chicago Blues

Opinion, 9 June 2023
by L.A. Davenport
The Subway at Jackson Chicago
Jackson subway station, Chicago
This week I returned to Chicago after an absence of four of five years, and it was of course great to be back in the Windy City.

It is a wonderful place to visit, and iconic in so many ways, although I think perhaps I took it a little for granted prior the COVID-19 pandemic. This time, I was ready to grab the experience with both hands. That attitude does not come without its consequences, however, and I was reminded of some of the more troublesome aspects of life in a modern metropolis on more than one occasion.
I wanted to go back to Wicker Park, a vibrant, colourful neighbourhood to the northwest of the city. I had stayed there previously and was keen to revisit it and see how it had fared during the madness of the past few years.

I descended from the strange abstraction of Chicago downtown to take the Blue Line subway at Jackson, and was immediately confronted by the stink of piss. My rose-tinted view of previous journeys in previous times had blocked out that particular aspect of underground travel in Chicago, and the assault on my senses brought a whole host of memories flooding back.

As I climbed down the stairs to the platform, I heard confused shouting among the cleaning staff and talk of someone disoriented, someone who had fallen.

I was initially unsure who they could be talking about or where the person was, but when I looked over the side of the platform I saw an intoxicated black male lying between the tracks on the route to Forest.

Despite being told to lie down, he tried repeatedly to clamber to his feet, causing panic among the cleaners and other staff, who had arrived en masse on the platform and were staring down at him. They shouted, screamed, over and over for him not to touch the rails but to no avail. He grabbed one, then the other, pulling himself up in a way that, ludicrously, reminded me of Dracula rising from his coffin in a thousand horror films.

I stared, unable to tear myself away, afraid that, at any second, he would be electrocuted and I would see this poor man die right in front of me.

Yet somehow, improbably, incredibly, he managed to stagger upright, swaying this way and that, before falling back, like a rag doll, against the two far rails. Everyone jumped back, fearful that, this time, he would be killed for sure.

But no. Miraculously, he survived, sprawled across the tracks, now eerily silent as the subway staff hollered at him.

Someone, maybe a member of staff, certainly someone with a badge, jumped down and, stepping carefully between the rails, picked him up in his arms. The man fell limp, like he had given up, and his saviour delivered this vulnerable human being to the safety of the platform.

Strangely, no one helped the man who had jumped down to save him, and he had to clamber back up from the deep gulley of the tracks by himself. Most of the staff turned away, while the intoxicated male, now seemingly unable to move, lay still.

Then the sirens, so loud, so American, called down into the tunnel from outside in the street. Then the white policemen in white shirts arrived, taking control of the scene, followed by black paramedics in black and red; they in turn followed by black fire fighters in dirty brown and yellow.

I look around and saw that the only white people were the customers and the police. Everyone else was black.

And the line between us was drawn where the man fell into the deep gulley of the rails, and in the divisions that drove him there.
Taylor Swift was playing Chicago over the weekend while I was there. Three dates, and three days with the streets full of Swifties, almost all white and dressed in a thousand different ways, recalling a thousand different outfits from Taylor’s remarkable career.

After the third concert, I found myself in a bar that struck me as pretty much the only place I had been to where the majority of the customers, as opposed to the servers, were black.

I had a lively and enjoyable conversation with a young black woman sitting next to me up at the bar. She was out with two of her friends and she told me she was moving to Houston because the opportunities for a young black female entrepreneur were much greater in Texas than in Chicago. She felt hemmed in in the Windy City, as if she had no room to manoeuvre. Down there, by the Space Center, was hope of a brighter future.

I was amazed that she should say all that, and we talked through the implications, until I saw the depth of her passion and the breadth of her experience.

During our conversation, I was aware of a white couple, her clearly a Swiftie, him clearly not, having sat down next to me on the other side.

My conversational companion having eventually left, I turned to take in my new neighbours and she spoke to me soon after.

I didn’t quite catch what she said, though, so she repeated herself, loudly and deliberately.

Why, this white woman wanted to know, was I talking to her? Don’t I prefer talking to black people? There are some over there, she said sarcastically, nodding to a couple on the other side of the bar. And there, she continued, directing her gaze at three young people the other side of her, who were having a riotous time, drinking shots and swapping jokes.

I didn’t know what to say, so I smiled and said nothing.

Then it struck me that, for this woman, being a fan of Taylor swift is a statement about her white identity.

It is a way of demarcating herself from black women and celebrating a white women who is as popular as her black counterparts, if not more so.

I get the impression that Taylor Swift, doubtless much to her frustration, is being coopted by some as a sexless, clean-cut ally in the race wars that the right wing media wish to propagate.

And the fact she is liberal-leaning is all the better, as it means those who would hate can say they can’t be hate-filled if they like her.

It also suits the try-before-you-buy values of teenagers, who profess all sorts of socially progressive views to set themselves apart from their parents without having the jeopardy of having to see them through. At which point, they often happily drop them.

After some more pointed comments that I tried not to listen to, the Swiftie and her boyfriend left, and I was left wondering how these lines that separate one from another can ever be crossed if all we see are divisions.
Being away yet again means I haven’t had much opportunity to move things forward, although progress continues on my follow-up to My Life as a Dog.

A short story I am working on and will publish soon will also soon have a cover, about which I will share more details with you soon.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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Chicago Blues | Pushing the Wave