Goodbye wilderness, hello jungle
Two teenagers joined me in the brightly
lit elevator. Embellished with gold paint, and featuring
a gold leaf panel with numbers that lit up as it passed
from floor to floor, the lift resembled a Hollywood movie
set from another age.
"I hate elevators, they really scare me," said one of the
girls who looked like extras from a teen movie. Both had
blonde straight hair, tie-dyed jeans and small silver mobile
"And you can't get a signal in here, which always makes
me nervous," the other grinned back.
Pregnant, with sun damaged hair, and surrounded by plastic
bags full of dirty washing, I felt old enough to be their
mother. The lift left the thirteenth floor and shuttled
towards the ground. But after four or five minutes of whizzing
up and down, lighting up numbers like a demented bingo caller,
we all realised the lift had a mind of its own. As we bounced
around floors, the teenagers responded to the situation
by punching at their mobiles, while I punched random numbers
into the lift panel.
"No luck." In between studying their phones, the girls looked
anxiously at my stomach.
"It's not due for two months," I reassured them, "shall
we press the alarm?" The lift shot up to floor eleven, then
back down to four without opening. I slammed on the alarm
and the bell rang out, loud and reassuringly shrill.
"Does anyone know you're in the lift?," asked one of the
girls after five minutes of alarm sounding, with no response
from the hotel. "Will anyone be waiting at the bottom for
" 'Fraid not," I told her, thinking of the boys, bouncing
happily on the beds with the TV blaring and Stuart checking
his e mails, all the way up on the 13th floor. The bell
blasted, the lift bounced and I wiped the sweat from my
brow. It was a hundred and six degrees outside, but thankfully
the lift was air conditioned.
Somewhere in this great city,
two teenagers and a pregnant woman are trapped in a lift
The air conditioning suddenly shut
off. "What are we going to do?" whispered one of the girls,
glancing up towards the lights, willing them to stay on.
"Just keep ringing the bell, someone will hear it eventually,"
I told her firmly, refusing to communicate the panic that
was welling inside me.
"Hey, I've got a signal," her friend shouted. "Does anyone
have a number for the hotel?" We all looked at each other
helplessly. Then the lift juddered dramatically, the lights
went off, the baby in my stomach kicked in protest, and
suddenly the doors opened on the third floor.
"Quick, before it changes its mind," I told the girls as
we left the lift together and they began to text friends
to tell them the news.
The heat blasted into my face, reminding
me of our month in the Pacific. I waited with a hundred
other people at the traffic lights as taxis jostled to overtake
cars and buses, hooting their horns, windows open and radios
blaring. Suddenly a fight broke out between two cab drivers.
They yelled and swore, got out of their vehicles and started
to push each other around. Tarmac melted on the road and
the smell of French fries filled the stale air. Business
as usual in downtown Chicago. A train rumbled past on the
loop, its' bass note drumming into my lungs; already heavy
with heat and smog. I ducked into a nearby hotel, searching
for a washing machine. We had no clean clothes and our expensive
yet inadequate hotel couldn't help us. I located some small,
oppressive laundry facilities in the basement of a Travelodge
and set the machine going. I would go back and collect it
later. I walked back through the city centre, skyscrapers
towering either side, their shadows forming sharp geometrical
designs on opposite buildings, and throwing down some shade
but no respite from the heat.
Elegant towers soar to a peaceful
sky far beyond the manic city scenes below
Having spent two full days and nights
on the train, we were thankful to disembark into the organised
madness of the city's main station. Dirty, dusty and incredibly
hectic, Chicago is a hub in the Amtrak network, sending
trains out to coasts, towns and cities across the US. And
after spending weeks living in the wilderness of the US
national parks, Chicago felt to me like another kind of
jungle altogether. The familiar giant Sequioa and redwood
trees had been replaced by shining silver concrete towers,
slender and beautiful in their own way. They towered above
as birds darted around them, their underbellies catching
the afternoon sun. The loop roared above me, and the traffic
crawled. Despite the heat, Chicago residents were thriving
in their urban jungle. Café owners traded loudly and brashly,
throwing bagels into toasters and slamming black coffee
down onto plastic tables. Bus drivers bitched at each other
from small side windows, the inspectors patrolling like
uniformed rangers, checking they were on schedule, and ticking
them off for being late. Beggars hassled and hussled like
the squirrels that had chased us round the parks for food.
Taxi drivers and café workers thrust single dollars into
their hands to make them go away, unwilling to make eye
contact or start a conversation. And on every street, past
every corner, businessmen and traders, tourists and students
scurried around like worker ants, clutching brown paper
bags of food, dark leather briefcases, or brightly coloured
backpacks, rushing and sweating through the relentless heat.
The distant sounds of a concert in a nearby park failed
to get anyone dancing in the streets.
Back at our hotel, striking staff
picketed outside the glass front doors. I dodged past them,
wondering who was running the hotel, and informed the receptionist
that her lift had held me hostage for twenty minutes. At
the elevator, the panels were flashing and the alarm was
ringing. I walked back to the lobby and tipped off the concierge
there may be someone stuck in the lift. He shrugged and
paged for security.
"We got another one trapped in the elevator."
I walked up thirteen floors, stopping halfway to gasp for
oxygen. The baby had stolen most of mine, leaving me light
headed, but I was relieved not to be in the lift. On the
thirteenth floor, boys were still bouncing on beds and no
one noticed I'd even left the room.
The kids delighted in the idea of
running down thirteen floors of stairs. But at the third
floor, the stairs ran out and delivered us into cavernous
hotel kitchens. Like stainless steel caves they wound round
the hotel, deserted and spooky. As we walked deeper and
deeper into these caverns, they got darker, hotter and ever
more deliciously scary for the boys.
"Will there be a monster?" Matthew asked, eyes wide as he
looked at the knives and ovens and giant catering trays.
"Which is the way back?" Cameron squeaked, as a clatter
from behind made us all jump.
"This isn't the way out." said a massive shaven haired man
in a boiler suit. Perhaps unsure whether he was a plumber
or an escaped prisoner, the kids grabbed my legs and hid.
"The lift was broken," I told him.
He raised his eyebrows to the ceiling, which looked like
it was spattered with tossed pancakes. "Follow me," he grizzled,
and lumbered forward. We trotted after him in the darkness,
through empty kitchens, conference rooms and ballrooms.
I began to wonder how safe we were with this jump-suited
stranger, until swinging doors brought us out into the lobby.
As we soon found out, this man had got the blues real bad
"Welcome to Chicago. Want to hear
something that's gonna make you feel real sad? I lost my
money, lost my girl, no one will loan me money to get a
place of my own and I got the blues real bad. Want me to
share them with you? Well, a relationship is a sharing thing
right? So you listen to some our music for a while and then
I'll tell you my story. But watch out, it's going to be
a real sad story, and I just hope you can handle it. And
by the way, if there's any money lenders out there, please
come and see me after the show."
The boys sat straight backed in their chairs, in the small
dimly lit lounge of the blues club. It was the once weekly
'open to all ages' blues session, and while it had the music
and all the atmosphere of a typical Chicago jazz club; it
badly lacked cigarettes and alcohol. Stuart and I absorbed
the music and longed for a pint. The kids drank a pint of
milk and listened intently to an upbeat yet woeful tale
of repossession and unpaid bills. But some stories are too
sad for three and four year olds, "Can we go to McDonalds
and get a Happy Meal now?" said Cameron, springing to his
feet at the end of a set.
Back in the jungle
of Saturday night downtown Chicago, the bus driver also
had the blues. "I'm going on strike," the enormous black
lady screeched into the microphone as she wrestled for road
space with an equally determined bus competitor.
"Why not? Everyone else is," said Stuart, hugging Cameron
on his knee as the bus crawled down the highway. At our
hotel, the pickets were gone, and there was a huge queue
at the lift as wedding parties, school reunions and tourists
watched the numbers light up and down, with alarm bells
ringing and no one coming to help.
"The lifts have downed tools guys, so we'll have to walk,"
Stuart briefed Matthew and Cameron. They all trudged up
the marbled white stairs, but I moved more slowly, stopping
between floors to re-oxygenate. On the third floor I pulled
back the curtains; already I had risen above the lower-rise
shops and businesses. Chicago; my kind of town. It lay in
front of me, in all its concrete elegance, staring into
the blackness of the surrounding lake while it's citizens
slumbered in the heat. And then I remembered our washing;
lying in a machine somewhere out there in the urban jungle.
It would have to survive by itself until morning. When I
reached the thirteenth floor, I too would be going on strike.