An adapted version of this story appeared in Metropolis Magazine, August/September 2000
It’s 2 a.m. and T.C.’s urban assault route has wound to an end on top of a mountain of slag in the Union Pacific car yard by California Boulevard. The bikers gambol on the moonscape surface, a little giddy in their lowest gears. Below us to the north, a thousand cars glitter like a lake in the lights of the city impoundment lot; to the east, the bravest buildings in the Chicago skyline look fuzzy in the haze.
“I see these places from the train,” T.C. is saying – industrial lots and rail yards, half deserted, filled in with crushed pavements and heaps of metal scrap – “and I wonder ‘What’s it like to be there?’”
Urban assault is a glorified name for a late night bike tour through the city’s wasted spaces. We are scouting out a new route tonight, because more and more of the old ones are blocked off. Some of the best urban assault routes used to be down around Fulton Market, running beside the rail tracks to pass among the dozing trains under Canal Street, through that vast no man’s land where Wells Street peters out just below the Loop.
Then one night after no one had ridden them for awhile, the guys returned to find fences sprung up, the ground churned up for new development. They’re building the city back in and there’s just not as much wasted space anymore. “They’ll never seal off the rate holes though,” the veterans say.
T.C.’s tried most of this route during the day, losing a few tubes to odd metal trash – says he lost one to a rusted windshield wiper of all things – and getting himself kicked off by the railroad men at least once. But it’s dark now, there shouldn’t be any authorities out.
We meet in front of the Rapid Transit bike shop, where the guys take turns sipping from a bottle in a paper bag. For awhile we wait for stragglers, then we’re off.
The bikes sing through the alleys all the way to the trestle over Armitage, where we heave them over our heads and scramble through the shrubs, up the collapsing concrete of the embankment, and then we’re up by the tracks in the dark. We can’t see at first, but we’re riding fast before we can see, to get our hearts to pound a little, laboring through that heavy gravel with its invisible obstructions – railroad ties and manhole covers and weird broken trash.
The dark is punctuated with occasional spills of light from the alleys on either side, and we’re not entirely alone up here. We pass a huddle of kids sitting on the tracks. They watch with wry smiles as one by one we crash out from the dark and back into it again. There are usually at least a couple of kids smoking secretively in these places, just like there is generally a couple copulating in a car, and there is always the doleful camp of a homeless man. He’s usually not there but the dank blankets piled in some weedy hollow, the charcoal from a cold fire, betray him. People use these places a lot like they use remoter wilds – they use it as an escape, a refuge, a place to conduct whatever secret human business sends men scrambling for distant places in general. It’s different, but it’s the same, the darkness here lends that quality remoteness supplies elsewhere.
We cross the tracks and plunge into a field of tall weeds. There’s a narrow trail crushed through the Queen Anne’s lace, and we call back over our shoulders to one another when there’s a pit to avoid on the right, or a log on the left. Our lungs ache in our chests, and everyone breaks something. A bungee cord on Michael’s rack gets loose in the weeds and tangles up in his drive train; Josh started out with a borrowed bike whose chain was already a little arthritic. It cramps on the jolting terrain and we stop several times so he can coax it back into place. Jim hits a manhole cover raised 6 inches above the ground and flats both tires at once. While he’s changing them we hear a squeal, a crash, the sound of crumbling glass – there’s another world running parallel to the rail tracks, neighborhoods that people are busy in. We look down the abrupt edge of the trestle where the guard rail is gone and we watch guys jump out each door of a sedan, oblivious to us on top of them, and apparently unconcerned about whatever just broke. They’re rushing a case of beer in someone’s back door.
Then when T.C.’s derailleur cable snaps, we have to descend to the street for a more delicate repair, and it seems like an even more altered world than the one we just left. We’re half-way deep in the west side by now, somewhere out past Kedzie. There are cars on the broad avenue but no one on the sidewalks, and we sit in the shelter of a blank wall under an orange light, smoking and staring while Adrian and T.C. figure out how to tie the wire somehow so T.C. can change gears. Then we head on our way.
We take the streets back, traveling fast over pavements like spreading rock formations – here it’s cracked, shattered, broken open by the force of ice and heat and the shudder of heavy traffic. When we reach Lake Street it’s smooth like something freshly washed, ready to receive the new development that’s spreading street by street north from Madison, Washington, Randolph. Only Fulton hasn’t been repaved yet, it’s surface looks soft and lumpy, it’s been patched and filled in so many times. And it’s clean. They wholesalers hose it down everyday with water and bleach to mask the stink of the meat because the people moving into the new loft condominiums complain. It’s like geology, that landscape invented from the trash of urban life, but it’s different, you’re reminded by every sign of renewal, as the people move in to reclaim it.
We stop at an unmarked door in a blank brick factory – it’s the Goose Island brewery where Josh works as a brewer. We drag our bikes inside. It’s scrubbed spotless and it’s hot. We step over hoses and climb the steel stairs to the employee lounge, which is just a cluster of broken chairs behind which every beer Goose Island makes waits on tap.
The polished steel machines below us hum loudly, so we sit quietly in the heat and sip our beer and reflect. It’s like the wilderness but it’s not of course. In the real wilderness the emptiness expands around you, drawing your imagination outward to marvel at the laws of nature, the scope of the cosmos, the will of God. This place always brings you back to the busy purpose of man. The emptiness reminds you of the people that were once there, then left for their own reasons. Now they’re coming back again, up Madison, Washington, Randolph and Lake, they’re bringing hip restaurants, bars and loft conversions, all rebuilt in block glass and stainless, rusted iron and other industrial elements. They repeat the textures of what they’ll replace.
We met the homeless man himself out there, trudging tired and nearly invisible in his gray, felted clothing. He was dragging a clattering shopping cart heaped with trash. Where is he going, for what unguessable purpose, what scrap dealer is open now? Maybe having lost everything else, his instinct for movement and labor are all that’s left. He paces through streets that are transfigured around him.
Everyone’s tired, a little discouraged even, but T.C. wants to go on to that slag heap he’s seen from the train, see what it’s like to be on top, see what that sand like substance feels like beneath the tires, and so we drag the bikes outside and backtrack westward through the empty streets. Our tires sing on the road, our heads sing a little beery harmony. We turn north and find the opening to the Union Pacific car yard, we rush in, and scramble to the top.
It’s lovely. Reflected lights lid the sky, but the city spreads out below us, it’s wonderful even if it’s finite, it’s shadowy crannies call you anyway – come and see what it’s like to be here.