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Chicago: Four Blocks Around Union Station

Travel friendships go the way of the wind, and so did with Diane. Still, she wrote my email address in the back of a novel she was reading. She wanted to read the book that I wrote on Turkey’s hidden Armenians. Notwithstanding my warnings that it had a narrow focus on a tiny group of a tiny nation, she insisted she wanted to learn about them: “It’s history, I don’t care whose.”

We bid farewell to each other at Union Station in Chicago, where I would board my train to Los Angeles. The railway terminal was an example of glorious architecture, in the style of New York’s Grand Central, a secular cathedral to progress. A huge American flag presided over the main hall, as it did at Grand Central too. Perhaps those oversized displays of patriotism dated to the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001. An Amish family was poring over a map of the United States.

The last four years of extensive journeys made me travel weary: from Chile to the States to Turkey to Iran to Armenia to Ukraine to the Mexican province of Tabasco and then back to Kiev and then Crimea, then Armenia again, followed by Georgia and Turkey then return by boat to the States and then off to Italy. Even though I had almost five hours to wander around Chicago, I stuck to the immediate four blocks. Unlike most American cities, Chicago was walkable. Yet it was what I feared.

The streets were empty, even though it was a weekday. Sidewalks were deserted. There was none of the pulse of New York, much less that of Italy, where I spent the last year and a half writing my book. No conversations to overhear, no characters, none of the life stories, smells and sounds that we carry around when we walk the streets of the cities where we live.

An enormous loud sign, yellow on black, ran along a corner: “Al’s Italian Beef.” A silver grey Chevrolet Impala was parked outside. It was a bland afterthought of the original Impala, those massive Detroit gas-guzzlers that enriched the mechanical fauna of American cities and roads with their unabashed styles, fins and colors, the cars of a confident America that ran on very cheap oil –the one that has been fueling two generations of Middle East wars now. Someone, I think Ralph Nader, had called that batch of automobiles “Detroit porn.” Yet they had that undefinable quality that objects have too, which we call personality. Personality: a word of Etruscan etymology. The persona in Etruscan theatre was the mask that actors used to amplify their voices.

Even though it was a tad early for lunch, I walked in, out of nostalgia for Italy rather than hunger. A female employee was bickering with a co-worker as she scrubbed the floor. Someone had spilled some kind of yellowish or pinkish soda. The pugnacious smell of the atomic chemicals used to wipe it clean was putting me off, even though the floor now had a mirror shine. I ordered the “regular Italian combo”: it came with a huge bun of what Americans call Italian sausage and shredded beef, all crammed together into the sliced bread, a massive portion of fries, and a little bucket for the soda, with free refills.

Nothing about the place or the food was Italian except in name. The place was some kind of fast-food restaurant, albeit with classier décor. There was a large photo of a paunchy man having an Al’s classic sandwich, leaning over a counter. It had a plaque underneath, white on black:

Al’s Chicago’s #1 Italian Beef
“The Italian Stance”
No self-respecting Chicagoan would eat an Al’s Italian beef any other way.
NOTE: Elbows on the counter
Feet EXACTLY 2 1/2 feet from counter;
Mouth wide open.
ANY other position may cause severe damage to your shoes.

Chris Pacelli
Owner of Al’s Beef – Taylor Street – Chicago, IL

The restaurant was empty at that hour, and so were the streets when I left. A man in a hat with the colors of the American flag biked by. I walked around a one-block park. There was a bronze statue of a young woman in 1800s garb in the park. Across from the street there was St. Patrick’s Church, with a twin-tower, needle pointed façade. It was a style of sacred architecture that would repeat itself on the Chicago skyline, with paired towers, pointed or domed but always mirroring each other, which grabbed my attention as my second train left the city.

Then I walked into a Starbucks to sit down and work with the WiFi, our lifeline to the outside world even though I was surrounded with people. That – company, even if silent and passive – was what I sought. When I had first arrived in the States in 1999 and was having trouble to adjust to Atlanta’s empty streets and numbed cultural and social life – at least in the understanding of someone who came from Buenos Aires – my friend Victor had advised me to “grab the New York Times and sit down at a Starbucks.” It had become my habit since whenever I was in the U.S. Not for nothing, Starbucks was Italian-inspired, which was reflected in the names of its fare: doppio, venti, macchiato and the like.

The man sitting next to me was awaiting another one: one of them was trying to sell something to the other, but I could not figure out which one was doing the pitch. They both wore pricey watches on thick wrists and if my eyes did not mislead me they were both in expensive Italian suits. Italy was a distant ghost that only survived in objects and names, but its spirit was nowhere to be found. A city with empty sidewalks spoke of a stunted society.

Something else was wrong too. It took me a while to realize it was the paper cups, the paper envelope for my very American and very un-Italian bagel, and the bunch of paper napkins. In minutes, my table had become a repository for paper objects that had soon turned into trash. Through that cup, a faint flavor of paper, and hence garbage, had travelled into my taste buds.

If it was only that. Just like I feared, no opportunity arose for a conversation among strangers, like those that so often started in Venice and elsewhere in Italy in the last year and a half. A year ago, I had read a chronicle by a Norwegian writer for The New York Times. It was only memorable by how infuriatingly incurious he was and how bad his writing was. Ignorant and indifferent to all he saw, surely he was not the right person to write “what he felt” as he traveled across America. Yet just like him, I would sum up my impressions of my five-hour layover in Chicago with exactly the same words: “I felt nothing at all.”

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Next on the Trans-American Railroad: The Southwest Chief

This is the twelfth part of The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron, a travel diary. Please see the previous stories below:

The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron
The Trans-American Railroad (Part II)
Penn Station: The Journey Begins
Suburbia and the Ruins Outside Philadelphia
The Flies, the Blue Whale, and the Boatman on the Potomac
Descent into West Virginia
The Grain Express: How Tomorrow Moves
The Amish Travelers of the Old Order
The Color-Blind Passenger
To the Sides of the Railways
Away from Cincinnati, and the Sun

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