Monday, July 20, 2009

Chicago Fire Memory #1

No, nothing to do with Mrs. O'Leary's cow. How old do you think I am? But I do have two memories of Chicago blazes, each seen from my car while driving city streets or highways. The first was late at night, in Cabrini-Green, notorious breeding ground for all of America's urban housing-project woes. This was in the mid-1990s. I had just moved back to Chicago, alone, and I still had a car, although I lived in the downtown Streeterville neighborhood and really did not need one. I will mention the make of the car, only because it really does make a difference to the story: imagine a single, young, white woman driving through the projects in the middle of the night . . . in a Saab. What the hell? you might well ask. Well, I was returning home from a late-night excursion in Bucktown or Wicker Park, probably the latter. I really wasn't thinking about where I was, only about where I wanted to go, which was back to my apartment to crash. I was tired. But not too tired to be completely oblivious to my surroundings. Crossing the Chicago River, on West Chicago Avenue I believe it was, and suddenly I was stopped at a red light. To my left, I remember seeing blighted housing, hearing a sudden chaos of noise in the cross-street about a block and a half away, or its equivalent. The streets did something strange around there, didn't go through, so it was hard to judge a block—these were the literal and metaphorical dead-end streets of the city. Suddenly, more shouting, and flames shooting up into the night sky. A blaze of orange heat. Not a building on fire; this was in the street. Did someone ignite the contents of a trash can, or was it a car on fire? Worse, I imagined, a person? I saw shadow-cloaked figures running, and although the traffic light was still red, I stepped on the gas. I needed to shake the feeling of being a sitting duck for who knows what violations. And really, what did the red light matter? I remember, more than anything, thinking that if a patrol car wanted to pull me over for running the light, I'd be more than happy to pay a ticket in exchange for a police escort out of the neighborhood. Without incident, I made it home. It was not the first and not the last time I'd find myself in the "wrong" section of a city; this was not even a close shave, not really. Only in the realm of the hypothetical, perhaps. I have never considered myself a skittish person, but call it intuition—on that night, sitting in my luxury car at a red signal, a guiding voice told me to "Gun it!" and I did, before someone else could work their own gun magic in the middle of this agitated night.

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