by Kathleen Rooney
The city is dangerous and cannot be trusted.
We are making our way through the city to find a knife, but I don’t know that yet. So far we are drifting, the destination a surprise.
“We” are my flâneur friend Eric and I; “the city” is Chicago, gray with an azure tinge and snowy.
The knife is not because the city is dangerous. Our prize will turn out to be tiny, the size of a single Cheeto, a classic Swiss Army knife, half-red, with its Victorinox cross-bearing cover long-ago cracked off, aluminum alloy and brass rivets exposed. A one of a kind—like the city here, now. And the knife will actually come to prove the opposite: that the city can be safe and the city can be trustworthy.
The city is dangerous and cannot be trusted is something that we—Eric and I and everyone, really—are told all the time.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs writes, “cities are, by definition, full of strangers.” How one feels about strangers and their strangeness probably determines how one feels about cities. Me, I love them—strangers and cities. So did Jane Jacobs. Eric loves cities too, and strangers—but only as strangers.
We are taking the Red Line from the far north side—Rogers Park for him, Edgewater for me—and I know we are heading to the Loop, but I don’t know why. He has told me only that we are looking for something of his that he left in public a long time ago and he doesn’t know if it will still be there. He is “confident but not hopeful.” He refuses to tell me what the object is, or where, because that would spoil our trip for me, turning it from flânerie into just another holiday errand to accomplish in haste.
My father is a hunter and so am I—spending hours on icy days traversing the snowscapes in search of.
My father’s terrain is rural Nebraska—mine, urban Chicago. My father carries a gun—I, an iPhone camera.
Though my walks are year-round, I think of my father’s hunting only in winter because winter is the season for his target animals: pheasants and quail. Feral cats, too, which he shoots when he sees them, hating the way they decimate the songbirds, the way the cats kill not just to eat but also for sport (hypocrisy, yes, but don’t try to tell that to my dad).
What I’m hunting for today—the day of the knife—and every day I walk is a certain sensation of being in the city, being like total presence, and a certain sensation of being out of time. Not like running out of time as with a finite resource, but existing outside of time, floating above it or flowing with it, being aware of and seeing it, but from the perspective of a bird riding a thermal above a river. Affected by time, but not how most humans are; not how I am for most of the rest of my non-walking life.
We emerge from the subway at Lake Street, in front of the Macy’s that for 154 years was Marshall Field’s, where a Salvation Army bell ringer is ringing and ringing because it’s almost Christmas.
The city is dangerous and cannot be trusted is something you are told all the time because somebody benefits by having you think that.
Because of their capacity to encourage frequent serendipitous interaction between large numbers of extremely diverse people, cities have always been engines of radical social change. Fear slows the engine. People and institutions who oppose radical social change benefit by manufacturing fear of the city: corporations that want cheap labor and profit from people’s distress, municipal institutions that justify their existences by their claim to control and protect.
Fear Los Gallos, trust Chipotle. Embrace the Bed, the Bath, but never the too far Beyond. Division Street, yes, but only east of Roberto Clemente.
A flâneur knows that the wrong way to use the city is actually the right way. That to journey to the elevated train-circumscribed financial heart of Chicago during business hours on a Monday neither to work, nor to shop, nor to sightsee is to move against its efficiencies and capitalistic tendencies. That to use the city incorrectly is to correct some of the city’s undeniable imbalances.
Flâneurs never run—late or otherwise.
Flâneurs never get lost because they’re not going anywhere.
Flâneurs like Eric lead you from the sidewalk up the wooden stairs to the overhead platform, still at Lake but now above the street itself, where the Pink, Purple, Green, Brown, and Orange lines all converge. The Orange Line has just arrived. The platform is flooded with shoppers, commuters, holiday tourists.
Flâneurs thread you through the crowd to the edge of the platform, where a large, locked, metal newspaper-recycling box sits. They crouch, remove their mitten, and reach around and behind and under the container. They scratch into rotted wood crusted with grime and ice. Is it here? Has it survived? Then they smile and hold up the object, the unknown thing you’ve come to find: the palm-sized red Swiss Army knife, all its attachments still intact, unharmed and unrusted, just as they left it.
City as time capsule, to be opened before or after our demise, in a month, in a decade, in an hour. Now, here, or never. This patch of sidewalk has been waiting for our eyes since 1948. That stone might be older than ancient Egypt.
Even the skies above the city are dangerous and cannot be trusted, which is why Eric had to think fast. He was on his way, November 23rd, the week of Thanksgiving, to Midway Airport and aware that they might not let him take the knife aboard his flight, so when he transferred from the Red to the Orange Line, he stowed it here.
In the Loop, out of the Loop, the city is ours. We help build it with our eyes, our ears, our minds, and our hearts. Across the river from Ozinga Concrete. Under the Dan Ryan. On the Metra tracks. Cermak west of Western. Ogden south of Cicero. Milwaukee north of Belmont. 35th east of Wabash. The sublime wasteland stretching south to Chinatown from Roosevelt Road.
The city is multifunctional and opens like the knife. The knife is a weapon or the knife is a tool. Fear lets you see only the weapon. Unfear lets you see and trust the tool.
The truth is: you can hide something in the city, in the broad light of the public eye, abandon it for weeks of dark nights all alone in the winter, and then return to it.
The city hides itself, waiting for you to return to it.
And the city is not your enemy. The city is nobody’s enemy. It is something that rewards respect and grace and careful attention. At our respective ages and demographics, Eric and I are ninety-four times more likely to die from being run over by a texting driver, from heart disease, cancer, liver failure, suicide, or AIDS—than by murder.
The hidden knife. The strangers swarming. The ice floes on the river like an invitation to a crazed and likely fatal game of hopscotch. None of these would you be able to truly see were you not drifting on foot with open eyes.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, providers of poems on demand. Her most recent books are the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (Picador, 2018) and O, Democracy! (Fifth Star, 2014) and you can follow her @KathleenMRooney.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 4 • December 2017 (update)
Image credits: header photo by Kathleen Rooney, author photo by Eric Plattner.