Today I thought of city songs. I went through my mind trying to think of the most poignant. I decided of contemporary music, the honor must belong to “Waterloo Sunset,” written by Ray Davies. There has been much speculation about the song, but Davies has been pretty forthright in saying the song was about his sister and her boyfriend and thinking of them crossing a bridge together. It is a song told from the perspective of a narrator who has no one in his life but delights in seeing a couple on a London bridge crossing the dirty Thames and watching the teeming humanity with all of their stories that swarm out of Waterloo Station. Whenever I have felt particularly alone, I’ve imagined such an urban story, only in my case it is those leaving Union Station and the couples crossing over the Chicago trusses.
I have also come to the place in the Dayton Duncan book Out West where Duncan is no doubt truly in the West. He speaks of the Dakotas and the Badlands as he makes his way up the Missouri. And here he also speaks of a realization about space. He is far from his home in New Hampshire and has already come through the Midwest. He observes that in the East one is hemmed in, that even in the rural beauty of New England, one is never far from development. Space widens as you cross the country, however and you appreciate it more the further west you go.
In the East, there is great beauty, but one travels quickly from Boston to Providence, then to Hartford, New York, Philadelphia all the way to the nation’s capital. You may have the mountains and the ocean, but nothing gives one a sense of space like the fields and prairies. Even in a great metropolis like Chicago, you know once you clear the sprawl, it will be several hours to the next city. By the time you make it to the Missouri, there is little but farms and field. And beyond that point the true reality of how vast space can be sets in defying even the Midwest.
From the Plains westward, it is you and your wits. Here one comes to know what is meant by big sky country and how desolate and dangerously beautiful the place can be. As Duncan intersperses his account of his travel with the journey of Lewis and Clark, one can feel the tension and loveliness of the landscape. How unfortunate residents of the coast call it flyover country. If there is one thing anyone from New York or LA should do, it is to get in a car and drive the vast expanse of road across the Plains and mountains. If they did this, I am sure flyover country would become mythic country.
And here I am in that in between place. Chicago is not what one considers a place to flyover as it is a destination and yet my drives from here do not take me long to get to the fields and prairies, where one can wander unimaginable distances with little hint of settlement outside of the small towns. Here in the city I can imagine all the poignant urbanity that went into the Davies song knowing big skies are also only a day away.
Soon the season will fade and the stories of the people who get off the L and leave the Metra stations to linger on the streets and bridges, to stop in at bars filled with laughter and talk and to walk through neighborhood streets avoiding the children who play hopscotch (they still do that here) will be one of no tourists and residents who hurriedly pull their collars up against “the cold and damp” and rush back to hearth and home. Very soon the place with the world’s greatest joie de vivre will become the locale where citizens must make war on the elements.
And even travel will become treacherous. I wonder if Duncan would have made his trip in a time other than the heat of summer.
But for now, no matter. West of here the mountains will soon fill with snow and ice and to the East there will continue to be all the markings of where man was given the dominion over the earth. And here among our tall towers that rise not far from prairies, we will have for a few days more the buzz of cicadas and the couples in love and the children at play. Here in what Billy Corgan says is “the city by the lake where the embers do not fade,” we will have for a brief time more the brutal sun and its playful days knowing the embers indeed do not fade, that in our hearts reside unquenchable passions and joyous days that await yet another rebirth.