This is chapter two of my novel CHICAGO TIME. It will be available for purchase from Amazon.com and Smashwords on Monday April 2. You can read more about the novel here. You can read chapter one here.
2 – Chicago Time
As Robert and Elise got near the station, Robert noticed the headlines displayed in the two newspaper dispensers just outside the entrance: The Chicago Sun-Times declared, COUNCIL DEMANDS MORE OFFICE SPACE; The Chicago Tribune reported, MAYOR CALLS COUNCIL ‘CUCKOO.’ There are 50 members on the Chicago City Council, one representing each of the 50 Wards in the city. Chicagoans refer to them most often not as “councilmen” but as “aldermen.” Thirty-one aldermen had stormed out of the council chamber in defiance of the mayor. It was the first time the City Council had ever even defied the mayor, who was respected and feared more than loved. What had started as a dispute between one alderman and the mayor over allocating a small amount of money for a Chicago Park District study had escalated into an all-out media war. For nearly a week and a half insults and accusations had been thrown back and forth between Mayor Patrick Nash, his supporters, and the striking aldermen.
Robert thought that only the Chicago City Council could do nothing and make people think that it was something on their behalf.
Elise entered the station and walked through the turnstile. Robert was not too far behind. The station was the original one built when the L line first opened. It was small and made of brick, looking always as if it was huddling due to its placement directly underneath the tracks. The bricks were painted white. Because of the application of so many layers through the years, the paint looked as if it was a plastic cover, its thickness smoothing over the indentations where the mortar had been applied between the bricks.
Robert knew the station had been selected for demolition, and a new station was to be built on the south side of Montrose.
Up on the platform, Robert looked at the sky. Seeing that it was devoid of clouds, displaying a blue that was searing in it’s clarity, he thought he should be okay without an umbrella. He brought his attention back to the L platform. A small crowd, all dressed in casual or formal business attire, was waiting for the next train. Elise was standing a few feet from him.
“Hey, do you know if there are any other places like La Ville Venteuse around?” Robert asked Elise.
“No. And I don’t care. I’ve got other plans and they don’t include Chicago.”
Robert had asked what he thought was a simple question and was annoyed that he hadn’t received a simple answer. “Like what?”
“I’m moving to Paris at the end of the month.”
“Gee, that’s original.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Exactly what I said. It’s not an original idea. It’s been done and written about to death.”
“Because it’s the city.”
“It’s a city, a beautiful one no doubt, but not the only city in this big world of ours.”
Elise was about to reply but the shiny steel-gray L train turned the corner from the West, screeching through the turn and heading South. Each car gleamed then disappeared behind the lead car. Seconds later the eight cars came to a stop at the platform without so much as a jerk. Lucky for her, she thought, that the CTA finally got its act together during the last few weeks before she was leaving the city for good.
For the past week the L trains had been running without delay, full of passengers, but not packed uncomfortably. There were none of those random stops in the middle of the tracks that occurred on almost every rush hour trip, annoying the riders. There were also no musicians on the platforms playing and asking for money. No one stepped on any wads of gum stuck to the floors of the trains. No one tried to witness entire L cars full of people with warnings that the End Times were near and that you could not be saved by your job, money, girlfriend, car, wife, TV, stocks, bonds, husband, boyfriend, house, dog, or anything else but Jesus Christ the Son of God Himself sent to Earth to save us all.
The doors opened and Robert boarded the nearest L car, wondering why someone would want to live such a cliché, no matter how attractive a cliché it might be. Elise thought about getting on a different car to end the conversation. But she couldn’t let him dismiss Paris as just any beautiful city. Who did this guy think he was? No one talked to her that way about her plans. Nearly everyone else had been complimentary or envious. Everyone!
Elise stomped into the car. Robert was standing by the opposite doors, holding onto one of the poles. She strode to the other side of the pole and grabbed it. “What is wrong with you? How can you think such a thing? Let alone say it to someone you’ve just spoken to for the first time.”
Robert would have loved to move to Paris at that moment rather than go to work with a caffeine headache and deal with whatever new dumb decision his boss Perry had made regarding the QA Department. Since he had neither the job prospects, the necessary will, nor the language skills to pull off a trans-Atlantic move, it was easier to continue the argument.
“Moving to Paris isn’t original. That’s all I’m saying. Even Prague got done. All those American, Gen-X, ex-pats went to Prague after the fall of the Berlin Wall thinking for some strange reason that it was going to be like Paris in the 20s. God knows where that idea came from. But it turned into a whole lot of nothing.”
“Prague is the Golden City.”
“When I was there in the mid-Nineties it wasn’t so golden. Plenty of homeless and a lot of bad Communist-era architecture. Not to mention all the restaurants trying to charge you for bread and other stuff you didn’t ask for.”
“Such an American.”
“I am what I am.”
“I can’t wait to get out of here.”
“Chicago doesn’t care.”
Elise tightened her grip on the pole. Her hand was about a half-foot below Robert’s. She thought about slapping him. Why this indifference? Why was he being so infuriating? The last time she could remember someone being able to get her so angry was in Paris, with her ex-boyfriend Patrick. But at least for awhile Patrick had shared her Parisian dream.
“You’ve probably never even lived anywhere else,” she said.
“For your information, I lived in the Bay Area for most of the Nineties.”
“Well, la-dee-da,” she said. Elise turned her head away from him and looked though the windows on the opposite doors. Flat black rooftops and gray light polls blurred by. A crew-cut young man in a suit was talking on his cell phone about how drunk he had been Saturday night at a bar called Hi-Tops.
Robert didn’t want to say anything more to the attractive woman with fierce blue eyes whose hand was just below his on the pole. There were no rings on either set of fingers, he noticed. If she wanted to leave Chicago for Paris, then good riddance. When he had traveled through Europe years before, he had met a number of U.S. ex-pats who hated the U.S. He would strike up a conversation and whatever world event was dominating the news would eventually come up. The angry ex-pat would recount the same litany of sins that Robert had quickly become overly familiar with: CIA-backed coups in Guatemala, Chile, and Iran, the creation of Panama and the building of the canal, an irrational stance against Cuba, unconditional support of Israel, Sexism, Racism, horrendous public education that left U.S. citizens less-informed than their foreign counterparts, especially when it came to world history, rampant Consumerism, a pop culture that was really no culture, unrestrained capitalism, the arrogance in believing the U. S. is exceptional and unlike any empire that existed before it. When Robert would point out that atrocities and invasions committed by old colonial powers such as England, France, Belgium, and Spain were far worse, and that as empires go, the U.S. was much more benevolent, and that whenever the population of a country like France or Germany became five percent people from “somewhere else” there were protests, the argument just went round and round again. Robert felt there was no point arguing with people like that. It was as pointless as arguing about corruption with a Chicago machine hack like his father. They had an irrefutable belief, a mind closed to self-doubt and introspection.
Elise watched the brick buildings pass by. She couldn’t wait for the day when this was no longer her view. When she would be on the Paris Metro and able to reach every part of the City of Lights, or to a station where she could catch a train to anywhere in Europe, and where she wouldn’t have to deal anymore with that particular brand of provincialism known as Chicago boosterism. She’d had it with people like the man whose hand was too close to hers and their constantly pointing out how Chicago invented modern architecture, modern comedy, modern theater, and how the local TV news was always looking for the so-called “Chicago Angle” in any major news story that didn’t emerge from Chicago. But by far the most annoying facet of life in Chicago was everyone’s reference to things happening on so-called “Chicago Time,” as if the city had its own special time zone. The city was actually in the Central Time Zone but you’d never know it talking to people in Chicago. It was a perfect example of the city’s own warped sense of itself. No wonder her father left the city to go to college and never came back.
Through the train windows, the passing rooftops began to disappear, replaced by taller and more taller buildings. After stopping at the Merchandise Mart, and passing through the concrete and steel canyon created by the river, the view inside the Loop was of the large-windowed office buildings on Wells.
The train stopped at Washington. Elise looked back at Robert. She wanted to say something more definitive than “la-dee-da” to make her point. Noticing that she was looking at him, his frowning glance met her frowning glance. He wondered what she wanted now, with his dull headache approaching a pile-driving thud with every throb of his heart. She squinted slightly. He squinted slightly back. Elise realized nearly everyone who was getting off at the stop had already gotten off. The doors would be closing soon. Who knew when she would see him again? This might be her last chance to win the argument. Though it was probably a waste of time and breath. So forget about it. She let go of the pole and walked out of the car. Robert watched her short fast steps. The doors closed behind her and the train continued on its route. He turned his head and his eyes caught sight of a copy of the day’s Chicago Sun-Times on a nearby seat. He reached over and grabbed the paper.