“Through me is the way into the woeful city . . .” Dante
I entered Indiana by descending into the earth, as I followed Highway 41 under a defunct railroad bed and the towering pillars of the Indiana Toll Way. What was left of the decrepit viaduct appeared to be held together by its last coat of paint; who knows when that might have been. The railroad bed had eroded into an earthen mound and out of the tracks a linear garden of man-sized weeds and sunflowers bloomed. Cars slowed to a crawl as they had to bounce over craters or weave around chunks of concrete. To avoid the mounds of slimy pigeon shit that covered the narrow walkway, I, too, had to slow my pace. But at least the tunnel provided a break from the heat.
In the last mile, I’d witnessed the history of America’s transportation system, generation upon generation, corroding all about me from sidewalks, to roadbeds, to bridges, to railroads. And yet, I was enthralled by what I’d really never bothered to see—the beauty of rust and ruins. Here, passing from Chicago’s South Side into Hammond was a world left to itself, off in the corner and out of the way, except of course for those who had to use it.
Emerging back into the light, the patriotic town fathers of Hammond have placed a World War II tank, fenced in neatly if not a bit cheaply with painted white rocks, in a triangular memorial that bisects Indianapolis Blvd and Highway 41. The gun was aimed at Chicagoians slinking back with their full tanks of cheap gas and cartons of cigarettes and booze, hoping to avoid the city’s sin taxes. Or the hordes that spent pension money on the penny slots at Indiana’s shrewd schemes to get Chicagoians to provide some tax relief for its crumbling cities.
An old man, filthy and over-dressed with a thick coat, staggered down into the underpass as I walked up, hoping for some change. But I dropped my eyes to avoid his, pitching coins in my pocket he needed more than I did. A bad omen, I thought, a fellow Hoosier, too. So I turned to go back and offer him a few coins for safe passage, but he’d disappeared into the darkness heading back to Chicago.
It’s hard to imagine a place less likely for a park than underneath the Indiana Toll Road, but as I made my way into Hammond, there was a concrete slab with two steel park benches in a cozy corner, a trash can, and a withering row of tangled shrubs, inviting me to take a break under the canopy of concrete. And If I wasn’t dazed from the heat and low on blood sugar, and not panicked about how I was ever going to cover eight more miles to the edges of Gary before night fall, I would have parked my ass down and marveled at the sheer wonder of life under an expressway. I mean when do you have a chance to study the sculptural wonder of concrete and rebar, and the engineering of something as massive as an expressway with pillars the size of a red woods, from this angle? And the roar! Like a waterfall of noise and exhaust flowing down on top of you. The wheels and tons of weight pounded each time an eighteen wheeler bounced over top, shaking the ground so that I could feel the vibrations coming up into my groin and belly. Nonstop. Never ending! Billions of tons going east, billions going west, day after day, year after year.
Like the Skyway a couple miles back, these structures that we take for granted were built by people, ironically out of the materials forged and mixed in their backyards by their uncles and brothers. These architectural behemouths, like nearly everything made in Chicago, it seems, are icons not only to the grand designs of architects and the largesse of capitalists but monuments to the people who built them and ironically who must swallow the poisons that come with them.
Then, suddenly, darting from under the concrete and steel lattice, and over the trees of heaven drooping like palm fronds, came a squadron of birds. Wingless, it seemed, they rocketed in loose formation, out over the evening traffic, dipping and diving around billboards and over the tops of houses. What were they? Pigeons? Not likely, as two more jetted by, I took out my binoculars and nearly jumped out into traffic: Yes! The famed green parrots of the South Side.
My next challenge was to cross the highway. But how? Where? Cars shot down the off ramp, barreling over my shoulders, making it hard to think. Fortunately, a traffic light ahead, actually made all six lanes stop for a whole half a minute for this endangered species with his backpack and hiking shoes to parade across. Pity the poor pedestrian across the world, who has it much worse, in places like West Africa where thousands die each year along the city roads, an inordinate number of children and older women, hoping to cut a few minutes off a grinding day of carrying goods or water home, with no place to cross. Once, I recall, stupidly trying to cross a river of motorbikes, cars, bikes, and rickshaws in Chennai, India, with luggage no less, thinking surely I could get across a road no wider than my neighborhood street, but had to walk down the road and wait for nearly a half hour like everyone else, at a traffic light that stopped seemingly only every ten minutes for the crowd to scurry across before the damn of traffic burst.
But, my sights were set, I was heading for those golden arches of corn starch, happily lit ahead over the empty lots and brake and muffler shop. I’d not eaten in eight miles or so, at a stand on the beach in Hyde Park, chips and some kind of barbeque something I didn’t even really look at before swallowing it in two bites.
I’m partial to McDonald’s. Why? I don’t really know. Forty-five years of French fries might have something to do with it, give or take a few years living abroad, where, I must admit, I have found myself in line on the Champs Elysees looking down at my feet and ordering in my best bad French une grande milkshake and pommes frites, si vous plait.
When McD’s came to my hometown in 1967, there was a sense of palpable pride: our factory town of thirty-five thousand souls had entered American middle class luxury, or so we believed. The future had finally arrived: frozen foods, moonshots, color TV, and fast food. Those dingy downtown diners (one of which my aunt actually owned) were over. Who wanted a tenderloin as big as your face, or pie that someone actually made and served with ice cream from the town creamery? We begged my dad to just drive by, so that we could peer into the glowing florescent lit miracle that we knew, we hoped, we prayed, would eventually bring us, maybe even a mall with a K-Mart. (And it of course eventually did.)
At the counter, of course there was a family of Hispanics ordering via their 10 year old daughter, who along with the counter girl switched back and forth from Spanish to English to Spanglish. But I was just happy to be in AC, after all, I was the foreigner, as Hammond is home to yet another wave of America’s immigrant story, with nearly half of its population now from Mexico. I settled for a benign fish combo with a chocolate shake.
As soon as I collapsed into my chair, my legs felt like sand bags pouring out onto the floor. The bottoms of my feet burned. I stared for a few moments at my food, the corn starch display boxed and bagged ready to eat. Then, the next thing I knew, I was shaking the box of fries for every last crumble and sucking up the final straw full of sucrose. Blissfully buzzed by sugar and carbohydrates, I thought of putting my head down on the table, but knew I’d better not risk it.
Instead, I stared out the wide windows at the industrial landscape of Hammond, Indiana. “The City in the Middle of It All,” as a sign proclaims as you enter. Indeed it was, corporate giants processed, forged, and belched in every direction: Cargill, Dove, BP, Arcelor Mittal, US Steel, State Line Power, and miles of tank farms. (And that’s only what I could see.) On the other side of the highway, three squad cars had cornered a man in his van in front of a shuttered cigarette outlet. Behind this silent drama, a long line of double-decker containers awaited their next load, a reminder of the area’s historic role in the railroad business, where once almost every major rail line in America passed through. Many of the cars were tagged with colorful signatures of protest; a night’s work for artists along the routes of America’s manufacturing ghost towns. Beyond the wall of artwork, where the lake should be, was the brick bastion of State Line Power Company spewing forth from its coal-burning furnaces as if it were 1970, as it has successfully avoided for years the EPA’s demands to comply to the Clean Air Act. (Indiana itself only last year finally got taken off the list of states who’d not been able to comply!) Beside it, running a half mile along the lake, hills of coal, higher than the tops of the nearby stands of cottonwood, await alchemical transformation form fossils to megawatts for the people of Chicago.
But what caught my eye was the webbing of electrical lines and the towers that carried them, giant black praying mantis on their hind legs marching off into marshes behind me and over the industrial lands to the south and east, scores of them. Why hadn’t I noticed how many and how magnificent they were? Were they beautiful in their patterned sequence, black against the fading pale light over the petroleum pipes and plumes of fire of the refinery? How was I seeing this all for the first time if I’d passed over it hundreds of times before? Was I just too tired to care how ugly it really should look? Or had my perception shifted from having walked all day and landing here as if it were someplace I’d never known, a territory that existed inside the city I thought was mine?