I'd like to say thank you to everyone who has supported me on my journey to completing my first novel. To those of you who don't know me or my work and are visiting this page for the first time, welcome.

Over the next few weeks, I hope to share with you a little of my progress as I begin research on my new book -- a yet-to-be titled historical novel, set in the 1920s and involving the founding and establishment of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the predominently African-American labor union, led by A. Philip Randolph. Sleeping car porters worked on the railroads, cleaning and preparing sleeping cars and acting as valets and waiters for passengers. The union struggled for more than a decade before they received recognition and equity from the Pullman Company.

As part of my research, I'll be traveling by train from Oakland to New York City, following the path of those porters from years ago. This trip will include a visit to the A. Philip Randolph Museum in Chicago. Along the way, I'll be sharing with you what I learn and experience. Thank you for coming along.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Chicago Blues Shuffle

Well, the story of my visit to Chicago is like a classic blues tune, full of high hopes, disappointment and eventual redemption. Since I had filled my iPod with music by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, (for reasons I’ll explain later) I decided that it would be fitting if this particular entry had a soundtrack. So, ladies and gentlemen, the Chicago Blues Shuffle.

(Note: I tend towards hyperbole when I’m frustrated and impatient. These might not have been the actual songs that I was listening to, at the exact moment that these events took place but they should have been. Press the play button on the sidebar for the appropriate track to accompany the narrative.)

It started off like any other great romance, with promise and excitement. We crossed the Mississippi around noon.(I got the Feeling I’m Fallin – Dinah Washington)I didn’t eat lunch on the train because I wanted to be ready to sample the fare of Chicago – deep dish pizza, caramel-cheese popcorn, hoagies. I had a few contacts and hoped that I’d be able to jump right into the city life. I had my bags packed and was waiting for the train to finally pull into Union Station.

Already the scenes outside my window had begun to change as we began to get closer and closer to Chicago. After miles of natural beauty from California, rugged mountaintops and canyons in Colorado, we had been riding past fields and fields of corn in Nebraska and Iowa. Tiny little train depots that had consisted of a single story shingled or brick buildings were pretty indistiughable from one another. As Chicago grew closer, the depots we passed still held that small town charm but instead aging farmhouses, shops and single family houses filled out the background. More and more people began to fill the shrinking spaces between buildings and sidewalks grew beneath their feet. Blue signs with the names, like Westmont, La Grange and Berwyn began to dot our tracks and underneath these names, Chicago in white letters accompanied by an arrow pointing straight ahead. Because of the position of my room on the last car of the train, I didn’t see the city until we turned east into downtown and then it slipped from my view as the train went underground.

When the train stopped, it didn’t matter to me that the air smelled like diesel fuel or that this platform looked like the set from the type of movie that I’m scared to watch by myself or that the old yellowing lights overhead made it difficult to make out much more than the other passengers disembarking from the train and the various freight and passenger cars lined along the platform. I was finally in Chicago. I had no idea how to get to the surface. I just followed the people in front of me, trusting that they weren’t leading me into some subway train hijacked by bio-terrorists or a rodent mutated by the chemicals dumped in sewer. The underground station is confusing but I keep dragging my suitcase towards the daylight.

When I finally emerged, I was met by sunlight and the skyline of Chicago. (This is Heaven to Me – Billie Holiday) Even from the sidewalk I could see the Sears Tower. The evening was cool and the breeze slightly passive. The cabbie told that I had missed the heatwave of the previous few days. Though my hotel was only six blocks away, I was impressed by the originality and variety of the architecture that I saw. My hotel was across the street from Grant Park, which I couldn’t wait to explore.

After I checked in, I called all the various contacts I had been given and no one answered, so I decided to go out on my own. I left with no specific destination in mind since I still didn’t quite know where I was relative to the sights of the city. (Its Magic – Carmen McCray) I head west, away from the Park and run right into the Chicago Public Library named after former Mayor Harold Washington – a building I think is magnificent – the perfect balance of traditional and modern. Staring at the gigantic copper gargoyles with their outstretched wings perch above the more traditional red brick facade of the building, I almost walked into on-coming traffic.
I found I was only blocks away from DuPaul University’s downtown campus and their theater, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago. There is lot of construction going and I can hear music coming from the Park and I smelled food so I head in that direction.

After asking around I find out that the city hosts an event called Chicago SummerDance , which offers live music, dancing and dancing lessons in the park. Each week, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, a different dance is featured. This week, it was the samba. The area cleared for dance had a nice size crowd but the band was taking a break so I decided to take advantage of the sunlight before it disappeared to take pictures. I decide to keep walking straight ahead because I can begin to make out boat ahead of me and as I do, I cross over railroad tracks and I wonder if these are the ones I had just ridden. As I head toward Buckingham Fountain, I looked back at the skyline, which rivals New York and San Francisco’s. I thought I’m going to like it here.(Summertime – Ella Fitzgerald)
The park is magical, reminding me more of Paris than New York, particularly the crushed granite, flower beds, iron benches and whimsical sculptures. As I approached the water, I realized that I missed California a little; although, the lake looks a lot more appealing than the Bay, at least on this day.The water was azure. (I know. I don’t use that word but it wasn’t blue; it was azure). Boats were bobbing quietly and a group of tourists rolled by on Sedways. (What’s up with that?) I walked along the shore and enjoy the day coming to a close and looking forward to the next day.

(To be continued...)

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