On Change

Aside from a four-month stint doing odd jobs for a construction company in my hometown, my first job out of college was as a promotions intern at Broadway In Chicago, a theater production company that had office space in a high-rise on Wabash Avenue downtown. Every morning during my seven-months at BIC I would board the train from Diversey station near my apartment in Lincoln Park and ride it around the Loop, getting off at the Madison and Wabash stop near work. Although I passed a dozen or so train stops every single weekday, the Madison and Wabash stop stood out to me (and everybody else, I think) because it was massive and clunky and so unapologetically from another era that it was nearly impossible to ignore. Although people found the stop spooky (the ceilings were really low and the whole structure shook whenever a train passed through) and mostly unnecessary (there were two newer stops within spitting distance), I loved it because it felt like a stolen piece of a city long-gone. For years after that internship at Broadway in Chicago ended I'd still use the station at Madison and Wabash from time to time, to access Millennium Park or T.J.Maxx or the Bank of America Theater. That stop was a real part of the Chicago I knew, with much of my life there moving around and within it.

The reason I'm writing about a train station, an old El stop in my old city, is because it'll be gone soon. Trains quit stopping at Madison and Wabash last month and sometime in the coming weeks it'll be torn down and hauled away. Jen Myers, the author of my favorite e-newsletter, included a piece about the aforementioned stop in her most recent issue and I'm gonna share it here because she writes beautifully and because her words struck a chord with me.

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.