Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Life-Affirming Moment By The Side Of The Chicago River

A sailboat waits patiently.

Last week I was visiting Chicago, and I was walking around with my friend, and just as we got to crossing the Chicago River over a bridge, alarms started going off. Lights were flashing, cars had to stop, and guys in reflective outerwear started shouting and telling everyone to get off the bridge.

We soon understood that the bridge was going to open. That is, the two sides of the bridge were going to go up, so that something could pass underneath. After the obligatory selfie-takers were finally shooed away, we all stood waiting in anticipation. And waiting. And waiting. And then: nothing. The alarms stopped; the cars were allowed back on the road.

As we crossed -- a bit nervously -- we chatted with our fellow citizens, and learned the basic fact that that the bridge goes up and down to allow for sailboats to cross from one side to the other. In fact, as we learned on the internet, this bridge opens twice a week during the fall and spring, so sailboats can move between their winter resting places and their summer sailing places.

But why didn't it go up? A reflective outerwear person told us that something had malfunctioned and that they were going to try again. We decided to wait and watch. A few minutes later, the alarms started going off, lights were flashing, cars had to stop, and so on. A larger crowd buzzed around, all of us waiting in anticipation. And waiting. And waiting. And then: nothing.

My friend was tired and decided to go in, but something about the scene transfixed me. I talked to the guys, and they said they were going to try one more time. So I decided to wait.

It was a pretty awesome spot, actually. It was May, and cool and windy, but the sun was shining down. On the corner, some street musicians including a saxophonist were playing incredible music, including classics from The Jackson Five. I looked down, and saw the people in their sailboats, waiting for the bridge, and hoping it would work. Soon they tried again, the whole rigamarole with stopped traffic and get the selfie-takers off, and -- nothing.

It was so nice, standing there, I decided to stick around to see what would happen. Would they give up? Eventually I saw a repair truck down in the lower level of the bridge, and I figured they must be trying to fix something. Down below, about half a dozen sailboats were meandering around, just drifting, waiting for the bridge.

I figured I'd hang out and wait. Something about the whole scene was so pleasant and satisfying. Part of it had to do with the bridge and the problem themselves. I don't know how to else to phrase this, but it was so refreshing to be encountering such a straightforward situation. Boats are too tall to pass under bridge. Bridge usually goes up, but isn't working. Let's try to fix the bridge. It all seemed so ... real, so non-virtual, so embedded in the world of things.

I got to thinking about how many of the things I deal with -- in life, and in academia, and in philosophy -- have none of these qualities. My things are complicated, and nuanced, and mixed. When there are problems, it's often not obvious what a "solution" would be, or even if there is one. Things that are better from one point of view seem worse from another. There are a lot of perspectives to take into account.

This bridge situation had none of that. Boats are too tall to pass under bridge. Bridge usually goes up, but isn't working. Let's try to fix the bridge.

As I waited, I thought about how amazing the engineering of a bridge like that is. This bridge -- the "DuSable Bridge," as I learned -- opened in 1920, and back in the day it would open around 3,000 times a year. I thought about how amazing cities are, and how so many people had to cooperate on a massive scale to get the bridge made but also to organize the opening and closing and making sure the sailboat people were ready when the bridge was going to open.

Around me, the city was bouncing with life. A street performer dressed all in silver with a bright silver hat wandered over to where one the sailboats was lolling on the side of the river, so he could talk to the sailboat people. A woman with a baby in a stroller stood beside me and listened to the musicians and watched the water. Eventually, a gang of high school students came by, and two of them started dancing together -- like, real partner dancing, with dips and swinging around and the whole nine yards. The reflective outerwear people and everyone else whooped their appreciation.

Finally, the alarms went off. I was surprised how invested I'd become in this bridge going up. I wanted the sailboat people to be happy, but more than that I wanted to experience this miracle of this huge and heavy bridge from 1920 just lifting up into the air, like it was nothing, like we do this all the time.

Cars off, selfie-takers whisked away, a pause... and up it went! Only on the right hand side. I don't know if that was intentional or what, but it didn't matter, it was plenty of space. Sailboats used their motors to zoom on through. Boats I hadn't seen that were lingering behind a curve came into view, and they too zoomed on under the bridge.

Merriment and happiness. People clapping and hollering. Total life-affirmingness. As I sauntered away, the musicians shifted gears into Guns 'n' Roses, and much as I love GnR in their own weird way, this wasn't the moment. I picked up the pace and scampered off into the city.

1 comment:

Linda Palmer said...

Love love love this. Thank you for writing this up and sharing it - !