On change

03 April 2015

A couple weeks ago, they closed down the elevated train station at Madison and Wabash in downtown Chicago. While, realistically, it had been decided and communicated by transit authority well in advance, it seemed to happen swiftly. One day the train operator announced trains were no longer stopping at Madison, the next day the train rolled through the station without even slowing. The station lights were darkened, the signs removed. The station had been open since 1896.

It was a sensible change—the Madison and Wabash station was old, peeling paint, claustrophobically low-ceilinged and inaccessible to anyone but the able-bodied. It lurked in the dim of Jeweler’s Row, a stubborn remnant of a darker time, a shadow that clung to the edge of shining Michigan Avenue. It also rested close between two other Wabash stations and had always seemed, along with all of its other faults, superfluous. Almost every day I traveled around the looped elevated train track that crossed Madison and Wabash, and every week I got off at that intersection to visit my therapist on Michigan. It’s a minor inconvenience for me to go one stop farther and walk one block longer, but the loss of a routine backdrop gave me pause.

I don’t tend to like change I don’t initiate. The more minuscule the change, the less I like it. I also hold on intensely to places that have accrued character from years and years of human lives passing through them. I fully expect that, in my eccentric old age (which will probably arrive any minute now), I’ll end up at least once chaining myself to one historical landmark or another to thwart destruction. I hate losing little things. The less anyone else seems to care or take note of the loss, the more I hate it.

I like the overlooked, the neglected, the forgotten, the lost and the lonely. I like what’s been beat up and worn down but is still standing. There’s a profound sort of defeat I feel when those things are finally noticed enough only to take apart and shut down.

Everything continues to move, maybe even faster. I’ll continue to look at the darkened station skeleton from the train window, until it will probably go away completely, and there will be a new station, and people will move through that, and make it alive it with their voices and steps and energy, even as they are crowding and smudging and eroding the material it was made of, because that’s what it’s all there for.

I once saw a photograph taken around the turn of the twentieth century of one of the Chicago Loop station staircases, a sepia image of a man with a top hat and cane. He was either coming to or leaving the station. You couldn’t tell. It’s just a moment of unknown potential, captured from one perspective, the context discarded, the view someone had once while going about their life, of someone else going about their life. The places that bear witness to those moments hold on to the shadows of those moments, until the places inevitably crumble under the collected weight, and no one remembers them at all, and we’re lucky if there’s even so much as a stolen glimpse remaining.


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