“How’s the career going?” Amanda asks me.
I turn to the mercurial mirrored curves of Cloud Gate behind me, shrug my shoulders, give a lopsided grin and answer, “Oh, chugging along.”
Anish Kapoor’s polished sculpture distorts my face and figure so that I look like Victor Hugo’s hunchback grimacing in pain. A truthful depiction since inside I am seething. The question appears innocuous, but I always hear the undercurrents. My honest reply should be, “I have no clue. I am living moment by moment, word by word, trying my hardest.” I never want to say this because the pitying looks, the pats on the shoulder, the fake sympathy is not what I seek.
I am in Chicago, Illinois to meet my friend Amanda on my cross-country sojourn from the Pacific Ocean to the eastern coast of the United States. She is a mid-level manager at an international financial accounting firm with three children. She has always known what she wanted to achieve and the steps she needed to take to get there. Her life has been a steady climbing escalator. Mine is appropriately represented by the stainless steel globule at Millennium Park: looping and bulbous.
As a long time comrade, Amanda worries over my future. To her road trips are relegated to college age bohemians enjoying the last of summer. Every time we speak on the phone, she asks, “Do you know where you will settle down? Have you thought about buying a house yet? Are you looking at all? Now is the time to invest in your future. The equity you could build would provide you with peace of mind.”
She frets over my life choices and believes I shall one day show up at her doorstep as a homeless and impoverished senescent. I sometimes awaken from nightmares about being destitute too, though I would never burden myself upon her. I am happy Amanda has achieved her definition of success, but her intractable journey through life echoes the rigidity of the city’s rectilinear silhouette. I crave her surety, her credence in the House of Mammon, her sacred sense of worth through proprietorship, but I cannot worship at her altar.
I stare at that intransigent skyline as it glides past our cruising yacht, stacks of metal and glass reflecting the midwestern sky. My path is better mirrored by the convoluted history of the 156-mile (251 kilometers) Chicago River. Once its northern and southern tributaries met at Wolf Point before emptying into Lake Michigan. In 1885, Chicago decided to reverse the flow due to pollution concerns and built a network of canals. Now the waters pour from Lake Michigan into the river as it empties into the Mississippi.
The river’s murky birth from ice age remnants of Lake Chicago and warping by human engineering is not a typical narrative, but this one owns its twisted turns proudly. In the face of Amanda’s perturbation I would like to do the same. I may not have designated signposts in my profession that flaunt my achievements. I may not be chasing the same fiscal milestones. I may not have a career that resembles her ideas, but I have my own goals, plans, and aspirations. If my destiny does not appear to be at the right turn or to have come to fruition yet, it is not a failure. I believe every organism grows according to its own rhythm. The endpoint of my finish line may lie far beyond any visible horizon, but I am certain it is there and that I will eventually arrive to that crossing tape.
Modern metropolises must get manufactured at the same cookie factory. They boast the same avenues filled with identical global storefronts. They show off the same lineup of gargantuan cigarette box edifices splayed out like faceless dominoes. They perpetuate the myth that to be a worthy conurbation requires a nondescript permanence of sorts: the buildings alter but the look stays the same. I admire the way Kapoor’s Cloud Gate contorts this perspective of Chicago. Looking at the city’s outline through the sculpture’s undulations reveals the innate fluidity all urban architecture should possess. Like the Chicago River, it reminds me that not everyone has to enter through the same door or toe the straight line to success. Who can say when Chicago’s DNA is complete? Who can predict the plot turns of their narrative? The unfinished “chapter of now” is the most interesting to me, its never ending story unfurling and folding upon itself to create a shape shifting novelty.
The river gave birth to the city and remains an integral part of daily life. The three branches of the Chicago River are immortalized in the city’s Y-shaped municipal emblem. Look for it as the marquee of the Chicago Theater, stamped upon sewer covers, and as a heraldic symbol of the Avondale School. A search for it throughout the city will reveal it hidden in plain and not-so-plain sight.
Is there a megapolis you believe has a unique skyline? What features would you like to see that would differentiate cities from each other?