Are People Living on the Red Line?

FeaturedAre People Living on the Red Line?

In the past few years, whenever Ian would visit Chicago, he’d hole up in his hotel for hours working on some project for his job. I’d see him only at our favorite restaurants at mealtime. But this past Labor Day weekend, Ian came to Chicago freed from an old job, celebrating a new.

Our first night at a cherished outdoor restaurant was full of laughs about the ins and outs of “onboarding” the new job and the logistics of moving to Washington, where he hadn’t lived for twenty years. On Saturday afternoon I caught up with him in the lobby of his hotel. We walked a few blocks to the Art Institute for the last of the Bisa Butler exhibit next to the popular Impressionists gallery. 

Early Saturday morning Ian had run a 5k in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood. To get to the southwest side he’d taken the CTA train to 95th Street, then hopped a bus. Throughout our walk to and within the Art Institute, he reported his experiences on the Red Line.

“Are people living on the Red Line?” he asked while studying Georges Seurat’s Sunday in the Park. He’d entered the train under Grand Avenue at 6:00 a.m. and had trouble finding a seat for all the passengers and their belongings. A woman in a work uniform demanded a scofflaw in the corner stop smoking. An argument broke out among all the passengers at that end. “Leave him alone! He deserves to have a smoke whenever he wants,” a burly agitator shouted.

“You have libertarians in Chicago?” Ian asked.

Visiting Paul Gauguin. Art Institute Chicago. Labor Day 2021.

In the Paul Gaughin gallery, Ian elaborated on how, at every stop beginning at Roosevelt Road, a young hustler stood in the doorway with his arms stretched out to keep the doors from closing.

“Gimme money! I’m not letting the doors go til y’all gimme some money,” he yelled to no one in particular until an exasperated hostage would give in. After a few stops Ian fled that car and ran onto another. When he finally disembarked at 95th, a policeman asked him why he was on the Red Line. Like he should know better.

Ambling among Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, I heard why he’d moved from his Michigan Avenue hotel after his return from the morning 5K in Beverly. The hotel was trashy—meaning real trash. There were food containers and empty Starbucks cups all over the lobby. The trash bins were overflowing. No sign of the maintenance crew. Boisterous tourists and children occupied every available lobby seat.

By the time we reached Georgia O’Keefe’s Sky Above Clouds IV,  I looked back at the packed galleries. I hadn’t been in a crowded indoor space since before the pandemic. Suddenly my throat closed and my legs wobbled.

“I gotta get outta here,” I half-whispered to Ian. We darted through the less-crowded Modern Wing, out to late-summer Monroe Street and tender-loving Lake Michigan.