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.

Unearned Chicago Whiteness

I want to be a woman who is not afraid of young Black men. I want to enter the subway platform like an alley cat flic-flac’ing her cold feet into lackadaisical safety. I’m an old woman who wants to love non-Anglo words bouncing off the curve of the tunnel—ping! pow! hitting the pulse of the collective-waiting-for-the-train with differing beats-per-minute.

Imagine if I accepted Black culture the way some accept Chinese culture. I’d stop trying to colonize Black names—it’s Na’Dia, not Nadia! I’d quit harping at the Walgreen’s cashier for her gold-plated elongated fingernails—how can you hit the keys with those? I’d accept rap and hip-hop, stop changing the words or the beat whitening it all up just to enfranchise my fragile birthright. 

I’d walk down Lawndale streets, how-you-doin’, and ‘wassupin’, a welcome visitor looking for friends and food and local art. Next day I’d take you with me sayin’, meet Taneesha from poetry class and oh there’s Damari from tutoring. Hi Fam. Here’s my friends. I’d hear new language poppin’ outta my own mouth. Like they were my own words. Like they have to do when they walk white and talk white on Michigan Avenue, or else. Or else, the judge says, I can’t understand you. Speak proper English. 

We’d gather all together and go to the movies, sit side-by-side transforming ourselves into subcutaneous doppelgängers. We’d be like, oh that’s funny or Girrrlll I feel ya’. All hands would open and close on popcorn from the same bucket. Afterwards we’d crowd the sidewalk two-steppin’ to No Diggity on our way to brunch. Everyone would get served and be safe.

My unearned whiteness is a blessing: I get to go out the door without rehearsing how to react when Macy’s security guards ask to see my receipt. And a curse: A white woman cried to the police there musta been 40 Black boys down there crowded in the red line and I’m helplessly guilt-ridden when the fact gets reported as 50 later that night. And 60 the next morning.

I’m an old white woman who wants to cuddle and cry with Black children maligned in that subway—not white women’s cries regurgitating Black boy history of false accusations and lynchings. No. No. God-the-Mother cries with tears that seep under my babies’ skin cleansing them of my control, my denial of their equality, my remarks about their hair.

I thought I was once a curious woman simply eavesdropping on human nature’s racial conversations. The constant banged-out message that my beloved Chicago is the most segregated city in the country woke me to know I’ve been a gagged participant all along.

My vow is to be the old white woman waiting in that subway, with you, emancipated from the fear of young Black men.

michael-sardin
CHICAGO (CBS)–An 18-year-old is among four people now charged in a mob attack on the CTA Red Line.