Many thousand people clamber daily up and down el stairs like these; how many thousand, Celia couldn’t begin to say. The stairs’ steel treads are noisy and unforgiving, sanded in winter to keep patrons from falling. Much life is lived in the shadow of the el, or right next to it, unflappably. Even scholars read right next to it, in this library.
Celia relishes the prospect of the ordinary: the wait for the train, the interminable commute, the office routine—all welcome after the hullabaloo of a week filled with special days and the extraordinary currents of joy, suffering, doubt, and celebration they bring.
Like the earth, we struggle to be fully alive, though, when we are, it’s exhausting.
The backlands: this is the Chicago you only see from the el. Its alleys, fire escapes, backyards, and balconies are unselfconscious because all-but-invisible, save for the instant you peer down on them from the frigid el platform or a moving train.
There’s a gnarly, ugly, decrepit, character to much of the terrain: the untrimmed vine, the dying tree, jumbles of wires or garbage cans. But with them come offerings of the unexpected, the whimsical or ingenious: the gardens people devise on tiny fire escapes; the signs meant for you to read as you rush by.
You glimpse the unwanted but, with it, many other things that keep the city running: the electrical grid, garbage trucks, construction crews. Secret parking lots. Boarded-up doors and graffiti bespeaking adventures and openings now inaccessible and archaic, layers of life quilted on to the city’s bricks and boards, congealed into something more enduring than little ol’ me.
I was looking through my iPhoto albums this morning for inspiration and realized that on this day a couple of years ago I was traveling through the Cascade Mountains by train. The view out the window was absorbing, because, once beyond the bounds of a familiar region, everything was subtly different: the fields, the land, the towns, the buildings. Even this parking lot is different in subtle ways from what you would see in the Midwest. The sun-bleached patterns and shadows on the corrugated sides of the building are like something out of a painting by Hockney. And check out that red curb.
I wish I could have gotten a better picture of this pear house, which has an air of pride and mystery. I like the suggestion of battlements along the roof-line. If you tried to storm it, would you be pelted with a certain fruit?
My sister-in-law, a Seattleite who skis, spends a lot of time in towns like these. The train ran through places like Leavenworth and Wenatchee, open mountain towns folded, accordion-like, into the slopes.
I loved looking at the fruit orchards . . .
and the old farmsteads nestled up against the steep rise of evergreens.