City Work

Let me tell you how it works. When you’re a kid it’s the city itself. Especially if you’re from out of town or the suburbs. It just emerges on the horizon, like it’s growing from the ground, and you stare at it the whole way—it’s slow, it’s gradual, it’s organic. And then BAM! Next thing you know you’re on Lake Shore and the city’s all around you, and you feel that, right in your gut.

It’s still the city when you work in it, but in a different way. Because now you see it from the inside. Waiting on the El platform, cramming on the train, moving through the Loop as part of the crowd, part of that big, pulsing body you used to look at in awe, you feel this—this energy. I used to joke that rush hour isn’t really about rushing to work—it’s about the rush you get when you’re part of it.

And going up to the Sears? Or the Willis, I guess—whatever you call it, it’s the icing. Seeing tourists gawk as you stroll confidently in, ID badge in hand. Hearing the lawyers, the salesmen, the brokers talk like they run the city. Looking out the window and feeling like maybe you do, too. Or best of all, seeing the faces of your relatives in Michigan and Ohio or Florida or wherever light up when you tell them where you work. With surprise, you know? With recognition and respect.

That’s great. But it doesn’t last long. Because pretty soon it’s the big box your cube comes in. Maybe not even that. Pretty soon it’s your entrance. The address you pass under on your way to the elevator, where you speak enough lawyer-talk, or broker-talk, or bullshit small-talk to find it all the same, and all equally meaningless. That’s what it becomes, the big marker for the big city, the one you’d look for on the horizon, the one that used to make you crane your neck way up, even when you were too old to do it without looking dumb.

I still see the tourists staring at it like that. Marveling at how beautiful the place is, this city. And if you’re smart, you’ll remember to look up every once in a while, too. But you probably won’t too often. At least I don’t.

I heard a good one on the elevator the other day. A guy was complaining about some landmark building or other being torn down, something about politics, and his buddy says, “Hey, you know why they call this the city that works?”

And the first guy says, “Yeah, ’cause there’s no law the city won’t work around.”

“No, dumbo,” the second guy says. “It means that in this city, you keep your head down and go to work. So just do your job and forget about the rest.”

I kind of like that, actually. The way he said it if not the idea. But I guess I’ve got to accept the idea as true. Maybe that’s because I’m part of the city now.

Writer:  Pat Chesnut
Location:  233 S Wacker Drive

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