I feel like I should write a series of things about Chicago. If you’ll remember, I wrote a whole piece about the Thorndale stop on the “L” last year for some journalism class and after, decided that perhaps I’d want to do a piece about every single stop on the Red Line, the main train line that runs north and south through the city.
I found it (Thank god for gmail…I haven’t lost all of my college documents) and am posting it below:
One Block Assignment
March 26, 2009
Thorndale “El” Stop
Seconds, minutes, hours, the streets lose count. Days, months, weeks, years. There’s a pothole in the middle of the intersection; it hasn’t been touched in a long while. Cars traveling down Broadway, southbound, avoid the pothole nimbly, jumping left or right around it and continue into traffic, slipping away to other places.
Above, the “El” slides to a jerky stop, passengers departing from the silver beast to swarm the street below. The go left and right too, just like the cars avoiding the pothole. They follow a slow line, crossing the street, blending into the foot-traffic already present at this busy intersection. The passengers who are left waiting for the other train become antsy, anxious. They’ve seen the train lights coming, they’ve felt the slight hope that comes with every train signal, every blast of the horn, every warning. They shift their weight, back and forth, on the platform as they sit there, stand there, either under the heat or out in the brisk wind.
The “El” is the life-giver to this intersection. It provides a stream of people, one constant moving body, yet individuals among them. It is the pumping heart, the engine, everything pulsing and throbbing, feeding the storefronts, the shops and the small diner at the corner.
From the “El” down the north side of the street: Bunz, a bakery, Castle Liquors, an alley, “The Little Corner Restaurant.”
From the “El” down the south side of the street: a small shopette with Maytag Laundry, Video Town and a Chinese restaurant.
It’s in the diner that you’ll find the regulars. These people chat with the waitress at the U-shaped bar in the center of the first room. They drink their coffee as she fills the bottles of ketchup and A1, smiling as a new set of patrons walk in. They seat themselves. In the middle of a swarming metropolis, a small town feel radiates from inside this small place.
“The Little Corner Restaurant” is a gathering place for a small amount of the people who pass around the corner and down the streets of this place. The waitress who seems to act as the hostess too went to Northwestern, long enough, but not too long ago. She tells me how she came to be here, and I find the story informal and sweet.
“My friend lived right over there,” she says, gesturing vaguely over her shoulder out the southwest window of the diner. “Over there,” must mean Edgewater, an eclectic neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. “We used to come over here to do our homework.”
I laugh; we talk about the fact that Northwestern students never had U-Passes and her attention is caught by the man Jim seated closest to the kitchen. He’s smiling and waving his coffee cup, boots hooked over the edges of the stool he sits on.
The waitress, Anne, not so young anymore, a mother, a grandmother, a quick-witted lady, refills our drinks. She tells the boys seated around me not to cause me any trouble, because she has three boys herself. She beams as she tells us that she is expecting another grandchild sometime in April.
I smile and I’m excited for her. It’s one of those times when genuine emotions spill from somewhere you weren’t sure you were hoarding them. She turns away, slender wrinkled hands picking up an empty place on their way away.
After breakfast, I pay at the cash register. It’s a large metal instrument, a relic from some other time. There are no digital number gracing it’s front, nothing except an odd clang as the waitress, sometimes hostess, punches in the total of my bill. It’s probably sat on that counter for more than 50 years, I ask, and she doesn’t even know.
“A long time,” is her only answer, followed by a smile. Her medium brown hair hardly moves as she hands me my change and tells me to have a nice day.
I open the doors and step out into the bright light of the day. I walk across the street, cutting through the traffic waiting at the red light. They wait to go, push past the white bars of crosswalks and burst free into the world.
I dodge an oncoming taxi, its horn blaring at me, shoving my still full self AWKinto a quick sprint across the two lanes. Safely on the sidewalk, I move to the right of the intersection, past a parking lot filled with cars. They sit there, patiently, waiting for their owners to return.
Across an alley, a small strip mall sits, crumbling under the “El.” The small parking lot is littered with taxis, empty and waiting for a fare. “Video Town” is a business leftover from the 90’s when VHS tapes ruled the face of media. There are rows of crudely constructed shelves containing empty boxes. An indifferent teen mans the counter at the back, talking on his cell phone.
“We don’t have this one,” seems to be the most oft uttered phrase. He types neon words into a computer, spitting out neon numbers. It is a rudimentary database. Clientele from the Laundromat next door filter through, wandering aimlessly. I ask one of the men what he hopes to find, and he answers, “Shit, anything good.”
VHS tapes are still for sale, three rows, long shelves, tall enough to touch the ceiling. They sell for two dollars, says a sign crookedly taped to one of the shelves. Old titles, new titles, random titles fill the shelves and line the walls.
A college-aged kid, David J., sits looking at the horror section. In his hands, he clutches a short stack of VHS tapes. I approach. “Hey!” he says. “See anything good?”
I ask him about the store.
“I come here all the time, man,” he starts. “I’ve got quite the collection going at home. They’re so cheap! I make a special trip to come here.”
I ask him how he knows about this place.
“I live over there,” he says, doing the same point that the waitress at the breakfast place had done. “I get off the El every day and see it, so I decided, why not stop in, have a look around. I come every week, more often when I have money.”
The Laundromat seems to be a hub of activity. A middle-aged Asian man stands guard over his space. He stands by the window, watching. College students, families and the like gather there to do the necessary laundry for their lives. The last wash is at 8, doors close at 10.
The liquor store across the street is filling up. During the day, beer suppliers can be seen loading their wares. They sit stacked on the sidewalk. Passerby stare at them, perhaps longingly, perhaps in disgust. They walk by, looking back. I stand in the alley adjacent, watching.
There is a bakery with a red awning. No one goes in or out and I begin to wonder who would go in. It seems to sit silent and untouched. “Bunz” advertises cookies and other delightful backed goods. I’m not tempted. It seems no one is.
Pulses of people pour from the doors of the “El.” That’s what this corner is, a station full of hope for trains. People come and go, spend time killing time to see the train slide in on those infinite metal rails. Homeless men beg for spare change as a businessman picks up a newspaper and begins to read. It’s the way things are here, ever moving, ever changing, every day is another commute, another march up an avenue and down a street.
The Thorndale “El” stop is a colorful, commuter corner filled a vast amount of diverse people, but it is never stagnant. The block is shaped by its constant motion, its constant influx of people. At night, groups of kids will loiter here, cops will drive by slowly, lights on bright, and people will walk a little faster out of the doors of the station. The next day, the sun will dawn and the hours will tick by, the people will flow through and all will be the same. Ebb and flow, this “El” stop is nearly as predictable as the tide: people pouring in by morning, pouring out by night. Ebb and flow.