There is a heat lamp in my hotel bathroom.
I’ve been basking in here like some kind of great, pale lizard in a bedroom terrarium, periodically turning the timer knob to keep the lamp going, for at least 18 minutes. I suppose I’ll have to leave at some point, but there’s another heat lamp under the awning out front, anyway. And I’ve randomly walked beneath at least three more around the city, stopping briefly to reflect on how travel really does broaden your horizons. I’m in Chicago, and the idea of a public heat lamp for humans has never crossed my mind. It’s the little things that stand out.
Flying here yesterday morning, the clouds parted over the seaboard’s Appalachian spine and I felt it was important to write in my notebook that the towns were clustered in the valleys below. I have no idea why this was important, but it was another little thing for a Florida flatlander to reflect upon, and my notebook is full of these cryptic little admonitions. The naked geology of the earth below us was awesome in the actual sense of the word–awe-inducing–for, in my part of the world, the skin of the earth is hidden beneath a chaste layer of green, youthful and taut rather than ancient and wrinkled. The billion-year old landscape beneath us rippled like a bedsheet spreading from the mountains out toward the great farm belt of Indiana as we began our descent into Chicago.
Bill Cronon argues that Chicago was the depot of the great American West, a concentration point for all the corn and cattle wealth of the vast continental empire ripped from the bleeding hands of its Native masters in the nineteenth century, and I agree. There would be little reason to settle on the chilled rim of Lake Michigan without all of that wealth, and herein lies the testament: Chicago is a grand steamroller of a city, unbreakable, an unstoppable machine looming over the Great Lake and dancing around an emerald-green river that stretches as far as the eye can see. I can’t help but think of the city in its packinghouse heyday as a giant, grimacing head tilting the West into its mouth like a bag of potato chips: crunch goes a million head of cattle, clang goes the Tribune Tower. And so on, until Mr. Brown and Candyman and Chi-raq entered the nation’s consciousness and Upton Sinclair turned over in his grave once again.
Fever dreams of racial violence aside, the city is a kinder place now. The maliciousness of its capital is obscured beneath good works and meaningful architecture. The reflective quiet of museums replaces the clanging madness of the rail yards–indeed, the old Burlington Zephyr resides now in the Museum of Science and Industry–but still, I can’t help but imagine the young people on the streets here as the starry-eyed sons and daughters of Iowa corn farmers, Indiana dairy farmers, Wisconsin grocers. Middle-aged couples bumbled around Macy’s in the Loop where we shopped yesterday, laughing and staring just like us, enjoying their day in the City from the sprawling suburbs just as we made our way to this great entrepôt from the distant southern pineland. Let us all genuflect before this city, because it is one of the greatest cities in the world. I am thrilled to be here.