I’m amazed by the things I notice when I stop what I’m working on to actually take a look outside. It’s especially cool to observe so many details about life on State Street and The Loop in Chicago just by looking out the window of my apartment on the 25th floor.
It’s noon on a Saturday and people are out and about, sporting their summer clothes that they bought just for this occasion. From up here, the pedestrians look like calm ant troopers – not scurrying around in any rush, but carrying on confidently in single file to their weekend haircuts or grocery shopping. Some travel in small packs – families or bands of brothers – but many walk alone, the women with their shades up and black purses tucked under their arms, and the guys wearing anything from button-ups with jeans to deadmau5 tees with shorts and flip-flops. Every now and then you have joggers with their headphones locked in determinedly weaving through the sidewalk pedestrians, listening to some motivational Kanye or getting into lock step with LMFAO’s beats (you can tell from their jogging pace). The joggers come mostly in singles, although occasionally there is the couple trying to stay in shape together. Even though it’s the weekend, you can tell Chicago is a mix of fast- and slow-walkers, of East and West Coast – you have your New Yorkers with quick, big strides (it’s like they can’t get it out of their system, even on a Saturday) and then your dilly-dallying Californians always blocking the paths of the impatient New Yorkers behind them. I almost laughed when I saw a New Yorker plow through a crosswalk in half as many steps as the Californian behind him.
Of course, there are a few people chatting away on their phones – making last-minute weekend plans, getting unexpected calls from friends they haven’t seen in a while, or (still) discussing work with demanding bosses unable to detach from office life. (You can see who’s doing which by the facial expressions.) And the jaywalkers never cease to amuse me with their creativity and audacity, especially the jaywalkers who simultaneously talk on the phone and wind between cars at an intersection that’s about to go green.
And then there are the many species of cars traversing the grid-like jungle of Chicago streets and skyscrapers. Taxi cabs of different sizes drive by every now and then, sporting pizza ads from their rooftops. You have your fair share of typical sedans and (to a lesser extent) SUVs cruising up and down State Street for as far as the eye can see, as if they’re on a never-ending assembly line that disappears into the horizon. This serenity lasts for 30 seconds; then, suddenly, a big rectangular bus breaks up the homogeneity on the street, invading the bike lane and blocking out multiple lanes on left turns. As if to compete in size, a white Hummer limo steps out from behind the Hotel Palomar tower and is joined by a fully stocked supply truck just turning onto State.
I raise my eyes and gaze out further into Chicago, to the sight of towering construction cranes planted squarely at the centers of city blocks. Skyscrapers edge each other out of the way for the city’s best vantage points. Like dwarves among giants, the 5- and 10-story buildings put their rooftop gardens, fans and ventilation systems, and even swimming pools on full display for their taller brothers to see. Under the overcast sky, a cute girl sunbathing by one of the pools eerily reminds me of the opening sniping in Dirty Harry, but the large McDonald’s in the background with its happy yellow arches puts these thoughts away.
I’ve never paid too much attention before to these shorter buildings, or to the rather ugly cranes and industrial rooftop fans, or to any of these interesting details in the local passerby for that matter. I’ve always had the habit of getting home from work rather late and taking a minute to gaze out through these same windows at the same barrage of pretty city lights as if gazing upon the same stars. But I’ve never had the opportunity or urge to count the number of steps a young child takes to cross the intersection at State and Grand, nor to observe the variety of 5-person walking formations that people try on Chicago’s sidewalks. The unchanging black night sky awaiting me when I get home – the black city background – has obscured the fact that there is so much detail and human substance behind that visage of flashing lights, of city thrill and architectural grandeur. But now, taking an hour just to observe – to part the curtains of night and see the mundane backstage behind the dazzling theater of nightlife – is a truly enriching diversion.
Oddly enough, I notice these details more profoundly now, 25 stories high and behind the isolation of glass windows, than when I am surrounded by people on the packed bus to work, or when I am eating out in a crowded restaurant surrounded by others doing the same. Seeing Chicago now and knowing that it will be so different 9 hours later – or even 5 hours later – and knowing that this cycle continues day by day and week by week reminds me of Monet’s paintings of the same stack of wheat across all times of day and all seasons. What must have captivated him to paint the same subject in so many different settings is exactly that there are so many undiscovered nuances in even the things we think we know intimately, and such a wealth of information to be captured by observing one object at a different time, from a different perspective, or even with an entirely different sensory capability.