The White City

IMG_1076Entering Chicago, this ends the wilderness journey, and put me in the place where long ago so many other set forth in the other direction in order to trade what passed in those days for the comforts of the Old East for the adventure or opportunity of the West. Whether it was land claims or gold rushes, or cows herding, or golden cow herding or whatever. For many decades Chicago launched people out into the steppes of America to either raise up their lives, or sink into madness and cabin fever, starvation and the bleak flatscape that roasts in the sun baking the hard pan soil tight as a clay pot and at night opens up the deafening starry expanse to humble all those hard scrabble pioneers of the infinitesimal specular insignificance of a single life and the futility of creation. That those people were not born out in that wild place, but moved there, step by step, mile by long mile intentionally perhaps made it harder for those who fortune did not smile upon to rest at night in either comfort or pride at their accomplishments. It is no wonder that so many turned to fundamentalism and devout rigid belief to hold on to some meaning in that open and frightening land. Savannahs we may have evolved from, but we evolved in order to escape those flat places and get somewhere more interesting.
The train passes with ease those vast expanses, good people burred under bad lands, moving beyond what the train’s bar car attendant said were the last photo ops before we just sink into the trip, and into Chicago we go returning to the industrial age’s remnants and modern issues. The girl from Montana on the track the other day wished me well, wished me good travels wherever I was going, even through I had said very little to nothing to her, but she did talk the ears off of other travelers and just sitting in the observation car I learned of her husband cheating on her with a bridesmaid, her miscarriage, her abusive rebound relationship, her working with children, trying to eek out a living in Montana, and sundry other points of her life and details unasked for, to the chagrin of the others at the table who turned gray and took on a sheen of sweat and grease slowly having the pores of their faces clogged by her stories. Upon her leaving the table they looked at each other… the girl at the one side of the table admitted to the others, “she gave me her email…” to which they all looked on in horror… “She’s a little much,” the other girl said, to which they agreed in a few nonverbal mannerisms that no, they would not friend her on the book of face. This group were perhaps the same age as that Montana Girl yet unversed in those slings and arrows that life can bring you once you leave behind college and graduate school and life gets messy.
IMG_1083We entered Chicago Union Station and the heat of the city that had just unlocked from the season of ice yet the old station is now the playground of the wealthy, an event center rented out for this or that award. This afternoon’s circle jerk is the Spire Awards which I can only assume are for Leadership or Leadership, or Leadership, which are qualities that the ruling class aspires to, evaluates, reflects upon their “soul” in order to see a sign of Leadership the way Puritans examined their lives for evidence of being their being Ordained or Mormons evaluated their being Chosen, or Marty, that kid who beat you up for your lunch money viewed you as a his Manifest Destiny. The reminder of Union Station is a series of claustrophobia-inducing chambers that funnel the poor people into pens in order to be loaded up on trains as cattle were once unloaded. Very disappointing considering Portland’s grand edifice, L.A.’s anomaly of beauty in an ocean of taint, Tucson’s little station, and even New Orleans Amshack was at least efficient and open. Not for Chicago, it has been Penn-Stationafied, an assault on the traveling public by a class of people who would not admit to hating poor people, but just can’t understand why anyone would want to spend money on them. True, many of the other station stops were dilapidated shanties, newly constructed boxes out in the middle of nowhere like Minneapolis which also abandoned or blew the shit out of or otherwise post modern deconstructed and opted for a tin box under the freeway out in the middle of fuckall, which, considering the rest of Minneapolis perhaps fuckall is what they make out there. I thought the Prairie Home Companion, the radio variety show that oozes cutsie folkie came from this city, this part of the land, but there is nothing quaint or olde timie about this city. Buffalo, NY also had abandoned its grand terminal in favor for allowing that grand building to rot and instead using a tool shed in its place. Considering the assault on rail transportation in this Nation, it is not surprising and I assume we all need to be glad, if not grateful that we rail passengers are given anything at all, and anything better than a bus terminal, which often serves as an auxiliary mental health hospice (in Chicago the news was reporting on hospitals giving mentally ill patients a one way ticket on Greyhound to points not-Chicago).
In the news today is another potential blow to rail service in Amerika. Federal dollars are being cut to rural lines or those deemed “not profitable.” Meanwhile, in Super Bizzaro World, the highways are funded and paved with unlimited tax money, subsidizing the auto industry, the gas industry and the “Geography of Nowhere.” It would be a shame if Ford and Toyota et. al. had to pay for the $600 billion deficit that the gas tax and tolls don’t cover to build the bridges and turn our four lane highways into eight lane highways. Maybe we should not allow Big Government to address these costs, I mean they can’t do that effectively, or efficiently. We could pass them on to the Corporations, but they, like Apple has shown just this week, don’t believe in paying for their true costs let alone stupid taxes. I guess we could pass the costs on to the consumer. If we did, then the market would dictate and the forces of the market adjust as-needed. With these costs associated, a car could cost $150,000 each. Then in order to drive the user would have to pay all fees associated, not just a toll every now and then. Want to drive on a paved road, you have to pay for each paved mile. Perhaps we could be like the Third World and only pave roads paid for in tolls – as I experienced in several countries – so on top of the $150,000 you pay for a Nissan Sentra, you have to pay a $175 toll to cross a bridge. How’s that 32 MPG treating you now? Perhaps rather than taking a car, maybe fly, especially out of a regional airport, since not everyone can live in a city, some people want Chemlawns for their kids to play in or don’t want to see a neighbor in any direction at any time for any reason, unless they need medical assistance. We can un-fund the airliner industry and let them pay for themselves. The air industry would have to add on about $4000 per ticket price for these regional airports, which would really put a kink in Expedia and other services. “Oh, yes, the ticket is $350 but the fee associated with the repeal of 1978 Essential Services Act is $3700 buddy. Yeah, I’m taking to you Mr./Ms. Limited Gubberment living out in the middle of no-where.”
Ah yes, but the market will take care of itself, oh yes, it’s all the regulations. The rail system should be allowed to fail, be divided up and sold as scrap. The mile of track that we have is about half of what we had a century ago. True, if we add in the redundant lines, the competing lines serving the same cities, the spurs built to travel to a certain factory (kids, factories were places Americans made shit, like what the Chinese do today for us), or in order to reach a mine or other place of temporary resource (I saw this in Canada where I traveled to an area with an abandoned mine and then three years later the mine was again being used and there was a brand new rail track going there for hauling rocks) there is some waste and perhaps we need not restore every rail mile. However, it should be seen as a matter of national security issue, the right to movement within our land, that we not only preserve what we have left in rail transport, but work to restore and renovate what we will lose to age and neglect and to bring some lines up to current and future potential.
I am not an engineer, a trained designer, I know nothing of the tinsel strength or anything or the load of such-and-such a design, but I know when something is rusted through. And a great deal of what I saw out the window appeared quite rusty. The cars on Amtrak are not bad, but they are mostly renovated numbers that have been in service for some time either originally built in the 1970s and refurbished or as-is from the 1990s. The double-decker is knows as the Superliner. This Superliner is unique to the western lands since in a good majority of the old east the bridges or other obstructions don’t allow for this type of car to travel or perhaps I just invented that reason, but it makes sense to me. Whatever the reason it is unfortunate, not so much because the cabin design is that different from regular trains, as the variations are very slight between those trains and the more typical commuter-style, but because of the observation car is part of this configuration and were this in place in much of the Northeast it would be a very different experience. Also, unlike the dining cars of the Northeastern Corridor with snack service pushed over to one side of the car as it has been for over a century, the Superliner has a snack bar on the first floor with tables and then upstairs a mixture of tables and chairs allowing one to take full advantage of the floor to ceiling windows, the upper windows allowing for view of the sky and giving more of a panorama as we race down the tracks… or crawl, as the case may be. And… I spent too much time in the observation car, and perhaps more than my budget in the snack bar, considering the increased mark up and the fact that nationwide, Amtrack sells the exact same thing for the exact same price in exactly the same way. Which… is somewhat like the airliner food, and in general, the state of travel for many of us who pull off at Exit 34 and go to a McDonald’s and order the exact same thing we had 500 miles ago, and get it exactly the same size, tasting exactly as it does the world over.
The news on the TeeVee in the station is about this or that suspect in the shooting of some kid in Chicago, bombing suspect, potential kid planning to travel overseas with a few bucks in his pocket and a dream of jehad , fires starting way before “fire season,” and sundry other insanities of our current world. The group of us that lived together for a few days now become strangers again, baggage and belongings, talking on cell phones, rubbing tired eyes and staggering just a little, and we march down the platform and into the city to find whatever it is that we have come here for.
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