The Red Line


Christopher Johnson

The Red Line is Chicago.

This, the great artery of the gritty city,

Pumping blood and life from Howard to 95th Street,

Getting the circulation of the city going,

Transporting the amazing panoply

Of this cityÕs people to their appointed tasks:

Their jobs,

Their jury duty,

Their dates

Their love affairs,

Their drug deals,

Their coffee meetings with new and prospective girlfriends and boyfriends,

Their mundane grocery stores.

Lifeblood of this boasting city, which behind the sparkling fa¨ade

Of the impossible glass-enshrined skyscrapers,

Remains at heart a city with sleeves rolled up to fix the plumbing

and make the electrons zoom again.

Begin our Red Line adventure on the platform at the gray and renascent Howard Street.

Dead of January,

A hundred degrees below zero,

Chicagoans stuffed into black parkas and strangling in woolen scarves

And congregating beneath the feeble heat lamps that the CTA has

Deigned to provide for four or five humans,

Leaving a hundred others to freeze to death and never be heard from again.

The train arrives, announcing 95th Street in stark red letters.

The pile of humanity crushes in,

And waits for the doors to close.

They donÕt.

The wolf winds rush into the car,

Lowering the temperature to 200 degrees below zero.

Kind doors, close if you please!

They do.

Then heaters emit Sahara winds over abject passengers,

And the temperature of the car soars to 100 degrees above zero,

Roasting said passengers like filet mignon.

Train stops at Granville.

Doors fly open like geese.

Again the temperature in the car plummets to 100 below.

Up and down, hot and cold,

Like life itself.

The denizens of the lumbering car start to expurgate their tightly wound outerwear,

Opening the collars of their nightmare black parka jackets and loosening their homemade


Semi-enjoying their bumpy ride along the ancient rails of the Red Line,

They bury their heads in I-Phones,

Exchanging immortal messages 140 characters in length

With distant and mysterious friends, lovers, bosses, cranks.

Their noses drop into the glorified telephone devices,

And the tiny light from the screens shines up into their

Automated faces and foretells a robotic future.

But not all congregate in the e-universe of the devious Jobs and the elusive Zuckerberg.

The gentle man across from me has wrapped himself in a midnight black beard

And gentle eyes like a stuffed animalÕs.

He is reading The Prophet,

Absorbing the almost wisdom and evanescent poetry of Khalil Gibran.

The man floats into a world far away from the shaking mangling ride of the Red Line.

In a sense, I envy him.

Addison Street.

If this were summer, hordes of Cubbiedom would hang on overhead straps,

Wearing their caps with the curlicue CÕs

And jerseys with Banks and Williams and Sandberg pasted on their backs.

They mass out of the car to partake

Of their fanatical and loving ya-yaÕs for their go-team-go.

Mr. Middle-Aged Man gets on at Addison and sits next to me and sees I am reading

Gilead and says damn good book.

He imparts the wisdom of the ages at DePaul.

And grades the obfuscating papers of bereft undergraduates.

We are fastly friends in five jiffs,

Staving off the loneliness of life in the vast and atomized city.

He gets off at Fullerton,

Disappears forever.

See ya, friend-I-talked-to-once. Nice knowinÕ ya.

South of Fullerton, the Red Line sinks beneath the earth,

Goes all subterranean like a giant worm,

Plows through the angry soil.

When I was a kid, this was my favorite part.

CTA cars back then in Ancient Times

Were blessed with windows,

And the dragon roar of the train screeched into my ears

And transported me to the city land of adventure and excitement.

I, 15 years old, whisked toward the Loop with buddies

And hoping to meet the love of my life

Or at least see a good dirty movie.

Back to now and winter, and Red Line brisks us through the Loop--

Lake, Monroe, Jackson.

The panoply of humanity more panoplied than ever—

Lawyers, hip-hoppers, teenagers, babies, janitors, plumbers, jewelers—

All crushed together on the Red Line car as it lurches underground.

Then, in Chinatown,

Our beloved and intrepid Red Line train

Re-emerges from the earth, bursts back into the brilliant cruel day,

Carries us into the South Side,

Which to a North Sider breathes of the blues more than anything.

The land of my beloved White Sox.

In summer, black-and-silver bedecked jerseys emblazoned with

Konerko, Thomas, even Aparicio, adored by the old guys who remember how fantastic

he was at stopping the short rabbit-hopping balls and go-going the basepaths.

In summer, the fanatics bunching out at 35th Street

And cheering their heroes at Big-Corporation-That-Won-the-Naming-Rights-from-

Reinsdorf Park.

The Red Line scurrying past IIT with its weird Mies van der Rohe bald

rectangular symmetrical lifeless dormitories with the leaking windows and rusting frames,

Yet strangely intriguing anyway.

South, south, carried through miles of prairie covered over a century ago

With factories, graystones, blackstones, tiny churches, warehouses, gas stations.

The bleeding part of Chicago that mayor after mayor after mayor after mayor

Has fed on the crumbs left over from the belch-inducing cakes bestowed

On lucky Downtowners and well-born North Siders.

Washington being the overly obvious exception that proves the rigid rule.

Onward, south and south the Red Line rumbles,

Toward 95th,

Lurching side to side along the Dan Ryan with its chaos of sleek automobiles.

From our Red Line perch, we can see for miles and miles over under sideways and

through the South Side.

Something, I can feel, is happening,

It is happening right here, right now,

Despite all fears and doubts and naysayings of the nabob nitpicking negatifiers.

Mom enters Red Line car nestling baby forward in space-age perambulator.

Babv infant child—you will prolong yourself into the 21st century,

Long after I am eaten by worms.

Baby grins a babbling brook of joy into my waiting-to-be-done-with-this-trip eyes,

As the Red Line car slowly inhales the soul of the South Side.

I am surrounded by tough-breathing laborers,

Weary with hope, ecstatic with long-day grunts of effort—

Carpenters, car repairers, disc jockeys, hairdressers, bankers, hotel managers,

And cane-wielding elders who remember struggles past and breathe those struggles alive

for the yet-to-be-initiated who crystallize hope for the future.

The Red Line--our courageous and competent transporter--pulls in to 95th Street,

Completes its journey,

Pats us on our backs,

Gently empties us out onto the soft platform.

Miles and miles we are from Howard Street.

A different time, a different place,

Yet the Red Line the artery that carries the cityÕs blood from north to south

And south to north,

That circulates the life,

That guarantees the survival of the body.

The Red Line is Chicago.

© Christopher Johnson

Bio:  IÕm a free-lance writer in the Chicago area and have published articles and personal essays in The Progressive, Snowy Egret, Earth Island Journal, Chicago Wilderness, American Forests, Chicago Life, and other magazines. In 2006, the University of New Hampshire Press published my first book, This Grand and Magnificent Place: The Wilderness Heritage of the White Mountains. My second book, which I co-authored with a prominent New Hampshire forester named David Govatski, was Forests for the People: The Story of AmericaÕs Eastern National Forests, published by Island Press in 2013.