I love going downtown. It's my mother's doing, and it was started as a kid living in Chicago. Now there's something special about going downtown for me. Going downtown evokes fond memories of trains, traffic and the joy of traveling.
On downtown days, mom would dress my brother and I appropriately for the season and would allow each of us to select one small, portable toy as luggage. I still recall a cool miniature car I had, which came complete with a belt holster. Oddly enough, I can't recall that car in much detail now, as though the name and clear image have been smudged a bit by time.
Once mom had us outfitted, we headed eastbound, down Howard avenue in our VW bus, toward the EL station. EL is short for Elevated. We'd park the bus and walk to the ticket booth to pay our fares for entry. The ticket booth seemed like the very edge of downtown -- as if the heart of the city reached north on the EL line, to claim this station it as its own. Up we went to the platform, awaiting our southbound train heading downtown.
The EL is famous in Chicago, and yet is probably taken for granted, just like the subway in New York City probably is. However, when you're away from the EL and come back to experience it, you notice. I've always loved the sound of the EL: the clattering of metal wheels on track, fizzing of electrical sparks from the third rail, the whoosh of air you hear and feel as the train passes, the hydraulic whine of car doors opening as the EL invites you in.
Now we're moving south, downtown-bound as we wind our way between apartments, behind warehouses, looking down into leafy neighborhoods at other kids who don't even hear us or see us passing by. They have no idea that two kids are watching them play catch from the high perch of the tracks. EL cars hum nicely as we accelerate between stops, beating rhythmically on the well-worn tracks.
Suddenly we descend, the bright light of day blotted out by the darkness of the underground tunnel ahead. Momentarily, the entire car is dark and all that can be heard are the wheels keeping time on the track, amplified to a roar by the tunnel walls. Fluorescent lights in the car flicker to life, my eyes slowly adjust to the lower level of light. I can now see green lights ahead in the tunnel, then the lights of an oncoming EL train ahead. The other train passes, followed by a rushing wind, and I can see the blurry ghost images of riders heading North.
We pass station after station. The eerie glow of white station tiling appears suddenly out of the darkness. We stop for some stations, while other stations pass quickly, blurring the passengers awaiting trains on the platform. Soon we arrive at our station and we exit, climbing cement-lined staircases into the bright sunlight of downtown.
The sounds are much different here, many more car horns, thousands of shoes hitting pavement, and a background hum of wind echoing off tall buildings. These sounds blend into a hum that's soothing. I'm downtown and loving every minute of it.
Mom has plans, and of course, we boys don't have much choice in the matter. But that's just fine, since we're having a great time just being downtown, carrying our small artifacts from home. The time we spend downtown is a blur. Shopping in this store or that, maybe lunch at McDonalds. Sometimes we'd get lucky and stop in the toy section for a few moments to hope and dream about a birthday or Christmas gift.
When I look back, I can't recall what mom ever bought on these trips. Our family didn't have alot of money, so it could have been that mom just enjoyed being downtown, shopping, walking, absorbing the hum, riding the EL train, just like her boys did.
Hmmm. Funny that I never considered that until now.