I love to ride the Green Line.
Of course, I’m much too old and too set in my ways to think of it as the Green Line. For me, that old railroad can only be – and always will be – the Lake Street el. But whatever you call it, that rusty structure with its wobbly cars, runs straight through the heart of my life.
My first ride is beyond memory but, likely, I was with my mother on a trip to visit Santa at Marshall Field’s. On the other hand, I clearly recall riding the el the night of April 12, 1947. Although it was my birthday, my grandmother had had the effrontery to die that day, canceling out a perfectly good party with my friends. To compensate, that evening my older sister took me to the circus at the Chicago Stadium – on the Lake Street el! She even bought me cotton candy and a live chameleon in a tiny cardboard box. It wore a chain around its neck.
The carriages (cars) were made of wood, painted brown. And each had, on either end, an outside platform about the size of a small condo balcony on which the young and the hearty could enjoy the breeze – and Chesterfield cigarettes–all the way home. For the rest, the interior offered lengths of cane-covered benches and reversible seats. The unlucky stood, holding onto work leather straps as the cars rocked through the West Side.
Summer rush-hour travel was an occasion of great sweating, even with the windows open. Come winter, though, the human condition turned truly nasty. The carriages were naturally drafty – very much so. There were heaters tucked under several seats, but one had to be clever. To sit directly on top of a heater meant that shortly, your tush might well melt into some sort of gooey plasma. Too far from that seat, you froze. The smart ones boarded in the South Loop while the train was still relatively empty and seats were for the choosing!
I rode the el throughout high school and then again through many years of hard labor on Michigan Avenue. By the ’60s, the old wooden cars had been retired, replaced by sleek metal in official CTA green and cream.
One Friday night I received a call from my brother’s wife, Domenica. Two trains had collided and had fallen onto the street at Wabash and Lake. Tragically, a lot of people were killed. My brother was a casualty but survived. However, he did have a slight stutter for several years thereafter. Later I learned that when the cars came to rest on the street, Joe Scott was seen standing on my brothers’ head! Now, I like Joe Bob a lot but that’s simply not polite. Thank God those old wooden cars had been retired or the toll would have been much higher.
Time went by and lifestyles changed and for years I had no need of the Lake Street el. Eventually, I wasn’t even sure I would know how to board the damn thing.
But come the Renaissance! I went back to school this year. Weekly, on Thursday, I ride the el to and from the Loop. I feel very cosmopolitan, flashing my magical card at the eye of the turnstile, then plunging through with no need of cash. At first I tried to read the trip away, my nose in a book. But I find myself far too fascinated as I watch the West Side roll by – one way down, the other way back. North view, south view.
In a sense, it’s like watching my life fly by through the window of a train. There! That little two-flat on Fulton – that’s where Anne Marie O’Malley lived – she was really cute. I wonder where she is today? There! That old building – that’s where my dad bought the first car I ever drove … and wrecked! That other building – I think they used to make rollerskates there. Garfield Park–Oh, God, I remember that fight.
Each time, I stare out the window and spot something new – or very old. Church spires can announce the next station equally as well as the mechanical voice on the address system. Or suddenly, a building is gone. It was there last week! Now it’s gone.
It’s said there are only two things in life that we can count on – death and taxes. Not quite true. In our crazy times, change is a constant. And there’s a lot of change you’ll see from the window of a Lake Street el.
I board at Ridgeland, always fascinated by that monstrous public works building going up on South Boulevard. How can they possibly utilize all that space? And how much are we paying for that undulating roof on top of what is essentially a utilitarian building? Is it really anything more than the expensive whim of a self-absorbed architect showing off? You tell me, FLW.
Immediately, we pass into Austin, my old hometown. I always feel a tinge of sadness, thinking of all the delightful friends and family who will never walk down those streets again. Just as soon, the steeples begin to call out the stops; their names have changed since I was young but that’s OK. They still telegraph prayers to Heaven.
About 10 minutes into the ride, we pass Western Avenue, heading quickly toward the heart of downtown Chicago. Talk about change – only a few short years ago, most of the east-of-Western area was a dismal range of failed public housing that begged comfortable Oak Parkers to imagine living in those conditions.
But almost magically, those dilapidated high rises have disappeared, replaced by neat, attractive low rise townhouses on newly named streets. Many balconies now proudly display a new Weber Grill – truly a valid sign of middle class success.
One wants to say, Wow! Is this great! What a transformation.
But is that what I am seeing? Or simply displacement? That West Side dirt is very valuable. Did we give those unfortunate high-rise residents a real chance to buy into better circumstances – to have their own Weber grills – or did we simply push them onto cheaper dirt?
I don’t know. Do you?