Life Along the Chicago 

It just hung there for a minute, a globby, dangling blob, then snapped, trailing along a spit stringer like the tail of a comet. It issued from the crimson lips of a kid with black hair. His chin rested on the railing spanning the bridge. He was maybe ten. And the temptation must have been great. I know how it is.

He and his buddy, his brother maybe, were hanging out, looking for some fun on the Montrose Avenue bridge. And there I came, paddling a canoe up the soupy Chicago River, the stinking, onion-bog river. Jamal, my eight-year-old buddy, sat up front, trying to keep his skinny butt centered on the bench, fearing he'd upset the boat and have to touch the water.

The boys saw us coming and I could see the glint of mischief, the birth of a great idea flash off the bigger boy's eyes, blinding me like a mirror catching the sun. He stored a squirt of spit in each cheek, whispered conspiracy to his pal. I caught his eye and held up a warning finger. He loved that. He had me. I was at his mercy. The little devil on his left shoulder said, "Go ahead, man. Bombs away." The little angel on his right didn't say anything. He was ten years old too.

So out it came, stringing out, pulling and stretching the viscous limits of saliva, hanging there in a white froth. It snapped and hurtled down. The kids squealed and fled. "Got 'em," I heard one say. But the blob just smacked the water a few feet away with a gentle pop, like so many other belches rising from the river bottom.

Under the bridge, out of the sun, I held us up, thinking to thwart the little monsters waiting to get us as we came out the other side. Pigeons nestling in their doo, caked up on the ledges of structural iron, discussed who we were and what were we doing there.

"Ahoy, matey," a voice without a body cries out. I look at the pigeons and wonder. But Jamal gestures with his chin to a circle of men squatting near the culvert that washes storm water into the river.

Three men, a shopping cart, shopping bags torn and smudged. A few cardboard boxes. They sit around a smoldering fire, the flames invisible in the midday. "Hey, you catch any feesh?" one says. Jamal's eyes caution me.

"No fish," I answer. "I ain' got no pole." I try to keep the canoe in midstream, but the current drives us back, swings the front end around till we're spinning in a circle, the three pirates eyeing us. "What're you's cookin' up?" I ask to get the attention away from my lousy piloting.

"Squab," says one, pointing a dirty finger in the air, to the audience of brainless, muttering pigeons.

"Sounds good. You take it easy," I say, righting the boat and pulling forward. I don't worry too much about the spit blobs anymore.

"What'd he say, Dad?" Jamal asks.

We were on the river to survey urban wildlife for Jamal's science project. I know there are raccoons and opossums here. And we discovered, in the rubble and brush on the riverbank by our home, the sneering skull, tiny sharp teeth, and dull red coat of a fox. "Prob'ly ate rat poison," Jamal said.

Ducks, geese, and even heron rest here, drawn to the strand of silver they spotted from up high, just like we were. In the middle of a vast urban desolation, the river reminds us of the robust nature that thrived 500 years ago.

We borrowed a neighbor's canoe, boarded it stepping out on the roots of an ancient cottonwood. I quick invented a method for paddling, to teach Jamal, borrowing technique from Tarzan and Chingachgook. But Jamal's paddle doesn't slice and dip nicely into the river. With uncanny skill he spritzes me with every stroke, then complains because the green water trickles down the paddle onto his arm and lap when he switches sides. "Forget it," he says finally and sets it down.

"I'll pull over to the bank and you can turn around to face me," I tell him. When the bow bottoms on the mud, river rats spring away.

Common folklore claims the river is so far gone, the mud so layered with toxics, that any attempt to reclaim it would be counterproductive. "Better to just leave it undisturbed," my neighbor says, echoing what the Water Reclamation official told me. Man has built a Deep Tunnel a hundred feet below the poisoned bed, to handle the sewer overflows from summer storms.

"Water quality has improved," the upbeat official told me. "Well, it's kind of a strange way to prove it, but last year a plating company dumped cyanide into the river and we estimate that over a million fish died. [Number of fish per square foot times number of square feet in one and a half miles of river surface covered with floating dead fish.] That wouldn't have been possible ten years ago. We just didn't have those kind of fish populations."

I have to paddle hard against the current, so we pass the shore slowly, looking hard for animals. They must come out at night, I figure. Under Lawrence Avenue, a chain link fence has been put up to keep out the homeless. On this fence, uniformly gray laundry--shirt, pants, socks, rags--is drying, suspended spread-eagle. Like the fox that left his fur, it seems the human that once inhabited these clothes has blown away, the blood and bone and meat scavenged, the rags left ghostly. We pass under the bridge and in the black shadows a man my age sits head in hands, eyes connected to mine. I nod. He nods. "Let's go," Jamal says.

Here the river bubbles. "This is where they get pop from, Jamal." As ever, he is not amused. This bubbler is all that's left of the old pump house and administrative center for the city water system. Air percolates through the water to oxygenate it. The fish come here for a drink like you or I would stop for a soda.

There are boat docks here; abandoned concrete pillars with sculpted cornices rising from the murk; molding oak doorways that once opened to accept landing parties; a cascade of steps wide enough to take 20 promenading shoulder to shoulder. A spindled banister of whitewashed cement sweeps upward then forms a balustrade on an enormous patio absurdly out of place. Nero was here. Across the way a swatch of forest squats lacking a better home. An old pump house stands ready for the Roman senate to convene. And everything, every carved fissure and cracked wall is covered with spray-paint cryptographs, urging us: LVst...Dimo...Wreck...Flee...Flee...Flee!

"Let's go back," Jamal says.

"To go back you have to go forward," I think, and say it to my son who looks at me, the bubbling water, and is not amused.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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