L / by Anna Li

Oak Park

The L is full of eyes that look away. Eyes that refuse to meet each other, staring down into books or screens or the faded advertisements in their frames. Eyes that seem magnetically repulsed by one another. I stand with my hand wrapped around the rail and turn my eyes out the window. Frost gathers at its edges. The L pulls away from the platform.

The clear sun filters through the windows and casts rectangles of light onto the floor, which is concrete and stained with footprints or salt carried from shoes. This car smells like my sister does after smoking a cigarette, when the scent hits me in waves; I won’t notice until she makes a small movement, and I catch the faintest edge of it, sharp and musky. People sit with at least one seat between each another, hiding their hands in pockets or between knees for warmth.

Today, I rose while it was still dark, took the train to Oak Park, and waited at the platform for the L. I am taking the green line to the shore. The decision has already been made, though I don’t know where the compulsion came from. It might have been the last time I took the green line, when a friend and I accidentally got lost in the city. She looked out the window of the L, then turned to me and said that she could never live here because it was too landlocked.

“You don’t live by the sea,” I told her.

“It’s not that,” she said. “It’s comforting to have the option. That in Virginia, I can drive to the coast in a day if I need to.”

“There’s Lake Michigan.”

“Lakes are landlocked,” she’d said. “Lakes end. Oceans don’t.”

I stand and feel the ground move underneath me though I make no movement, the way it does my feet are in an ocean. I never told her that I catch my breath sometimes when the sun glints off a passing train like fish scales. Outside, telephone wires undulate like waves beside our window. Islands of platforms and rooftops rise to meet us. Apartment windows stare back at us, wide-eyed. In one, I can see the distant shadows of a living room—a plant leaning out of a windowsill, a red chair beneath a standing lamp. It’s one of the reasons tenants in 1892 objected to elevated tracks laid outside their rooms in long, iron beams: they had to pull their shades down for privacy. Yet neither this negative nor the others—the sounds of the train going by, the smoke from burning coals—could deny the convenience of its speed, traversing thirty-four blocks in the span of ten minutes. Since 1892, the tenants have pulled down their blinds and lived their invisible existence.

The L gives a false sense of panorama. From the elevated tracks, we see only the tops of trees and houses swim past us; beneath, neighborhoods move in secret. Feet make their paths along cracked sidewalks, hidden from our sight.

It reminds me of the lake where my family and I would swim. My sister and I would watch the boats carve wide arcs into the water. We would find smooth stones and cast them across the lake’s skin as far as we could.

My sister and I were floating in the lake. The sun made spokes of rays that disappeared into the dim water. I could see the farthest shape of a branch, right below my feet.

“You know there’s a city beneath us,” she said.


“Yeah, a town that was flooded. There’s stories about fishermen who find birdhouses or mailboxes with letters still inside them. Scuba divers come here.” I notice that ramps the boats use to launch are roads that dip below the water and come up on the other side of the lake. They lead to the aquatic town. I imagined scuba divers who weave in and out of open windows of houses, covered in brown moss.

I look at the aquarium of scenery outside. Streetlamps crane their necks above the horizon line. Trees stretch their bare arms to be seen. Beneath us, people live their private lives. The train moves over a man walking his dog, a woman taking drags of her cigarette in between pauses of her phone call. We remain unaware.



Pipes rise from rooftops. People rise from benches to board the train. They both gasp out steam from their throats, and the sun makes their breath thick. Seat by seat, the commuters fill the space until everyone sits hip to hip. They spill into the aisles and hold onto the railings.

In the distance, the skyline rises. The city is loud and sprawling, but from here it appears patient; it sleeps on the edge of the train tracks as a blue revelation. No eyes look up. They are familiar with each curve in the track.

The green line is shaped like an L itself, a capillary that moves toward Lake Michigan from the west, and then curves parallel to the shore when it reaches Chicago. It weaves two of the oldest branches, Englewood-Jackson Park and Lake, into a single route. Competing railroads claimed their parts of the city and built webs of train tracks over buildings, which tangled over one another. It was not until CTA bought the private lines in 1947 and united them, each private line becoming what we know today as the pink, brown, green, blue, and red lines. The CTA continued branching into the suburbs until the L had a structure that looked like a vessels that led into the heart of the city. I always thought the metro maps were so beautiful, the way they wind over each other as colored capillaries.

The L is cardiovascular, pumping trains through vessels that carry them in to the heart of Chicago and back out again. While the city maintains a highly segregated social geography, the neighborhoods divided by skin tones into neat blocks, the veins of the L cross through boundaries regardless. The capillaries collect the different parts of the city into one body. Yet it is more than simple anatomy. Wheels grate against the spine of tracks in a metallic pulse. It’s the same pulse that rose from the cracks in sidewalks to forge urban blues, the pulse that drove hands to rebuilt the city from its ashes after the Great Fire of 1871. The pulse of the city is driven by the same material that the people are made of, which is grit.

It’s precisely this grit of routine that makes Chicago known as a “city of travelers." A woman closes her eyes and leans her cheek against a window. She turns her neck, and I can see two small stars tattooed on her throat. A man with a hooked nose and thin hair stares into a laptop. Pockmarks shaped like sunflowers bloom across his cheek. A girl my age pulls a cell phone close to her ear. She grimaces, showing the gap in her teeth. They are familiar with the movements of the L, the coils of road that cut through the city, then out to the streets. They find themselves sleepwalking through their glass doors and pressing elevator buttons and carried up to cubicles, and then at the end of the day, do it in reverse. The city’s pulse has become involuntary. The path has become second nature, waking suddenly and finding yourself there without even realizing. The body goes forward.



The train’s steel tracks braid over one another. In the distance, the headlights of another train approach ours. It is so close, I could reach out my arm and touch it. I can see the other side of the tracks paneled through the open gaps of cars, the people waiting on the distant platform. It’s like flashes of dreams on the other side of closed eyelids. If I look back, the train appears as one unending, oblong movement snaking toward and then away from us.

In the back, people speak to themselves. A boy with the hood pulled over his head sometimes breaks into a single line of a song. “I can tell,” he sings under his breath and stops. Across from me, a woman sits twisting her coffee cup in her hands and whispering to herself as if in prayer. She is practicing a speech, because she mouths the words to an invisible lip reader and stops, then restarts it over again. I wonder who and where she will say this. “It’s not going to work,” she will tell him tonight with a certain tone. He’ll carry his head in his hands and never know this is the hundredth time she’s said it today, meditating on it like a mantra. Others—most—choose silence. Headphones deafen ears and heads bob to the tempo of their individual rhythms. From the back of the car, someone is humming.

This space is transient; everyone and everything is in transition, waiting for the next movement. It brings people in and away like tides or breath. It encourages anonymity. Nameless faces oscillate in and out of vessels all over the city. The person sitting next to you could be a cashier or a successful entrepreneur or an artist or someone who lives a street down from you. This liminal space is a microcosm of the city with whom we coexist together and share in the communion of patience, the silence of strangers. We wait for our stops and hold our breath. And then we change, and everything around us changes, and everything the same but different all at once. The L only offers the immediate; all we have is the present. We are like the slots of platform that pass through on the other side or the gestures of shapes through an apartment window—we can only make out the bare edges of one another. We are tourists to other people’s lives, the way they flit through our vision as a passing dream.

A boy with his hood up stares into his tennis shoes. He looks up, catches me staring at him. His eyes narrow a little in a way that asks, “Do I know you from somewhere?” I’ve forgotten that staring is not behavior of someone who belongs to the city’s pulse.

City is still a word that I have not earned. I’m from a small town vined with kudzu, where we always carry the sun on our shoulders. When we were little, my dad taught us how to read our slanted shadows like sundials and the constellations of stars. I saw my first city when I was ten. We drove to my aunt’s apartment surrounded by marble buildings that looked like mausoleums. I couldn’t sleep because the city was too bright. Street lamps and porch lamps turned the sky the color of embers. In city, night and day is flipped. During the day, the tall buildings make streets dark with shadows. During the night, the people sleep under skies blind of moon and stars.



Parts of the L also remain obscured. In the 1930s, the CTA added branches of tunnels that carried commuters beneath the city. The green line runs over these, but connects to them with a winding concrete staircase. Months ago, my friends and I took this train and got off this stop. We had spent too much time looking at images of a train photographer who spent his days with his face darkened with soot and a Polaroid camera in his hand. We transferred to the blue line, where it carried us away from the lake and away from the suburbs. We walked down the stairs to the blue Clark/Lake station, and in the hallways, men were playing drums on worn buckets in sync with the percussion of the train. We were static with energy and rode the train, pitying the dull expressions of the commuters on the way to work. They were routine, but we were breaking routine. If we could not be cogs operating within the city’s machinery, we would be loose wheels roaming free of any mechanic body. We spent the day getting lost in the basements of secondhand bookstores. We looked at murals painted on walls--one, a boy drifting off to space. Another, colors tiled like scales. At the end of the day, we returned to the station. The men were using the same plastic buckets to paint the walls of the metro. The paint fumes filled the space. “It’s like getting paid to get high,” one worker said.

We were silent the whole way back. The tunnel made it all so deafening. The steel grated against steel in a scream. Air moved all over us in a chord that sounded like a metallic ocean. It turned everyone into lip-readers, and they mouthed words to each other until they gave up. It made the kind of silence you were secretly thankful for, the kind that eases you from the burden of choosing it. You’ve run out of the same shallow questions and are too bored to listen to the dull answers.

The tunnels were dark, and the train moved fast over the spine of tracks. We looked out, and we could see the retina of darkness looking back at us, the lights moving past in segmented beams. It smelled like rust or blood. We were gridded into the structure; we were not free. Even the photographer was only as liberated as steel would let him. We were locked like the commuters. We return to the beds that we woke in.



The train slows into the station and the crowd stands to leave the train. There is still the woman with her star tattoos exposed, leaning into the wall with her eyes closed. I get off the train and walk down the stairs. I can hear the girl whispering her speech behind me. I look back up through the slots of tracks. The buildings are no longer patient in the distance. The pulse is no longer steel grating against steel, but a new rhythm: elevators that move up and down buildings, cars that crawl along roads, heels that meet sidewalk. I am no longer a part of the aerial view, but I join the fleet that lives in secret, obscured from its gaze. I follow the direction of the shore.

I remember when I first saw Chicago. It was from a distant view of an airplane. It was a cloudy day, and the lake was covered with fog. I couldn’t tell where the sky ended or where the lake began. There was no intersection; the horizon was one seamless veil. Buildings rose from the shore. It looked like the city sleeps on the edge of the world.

I walk out of the station. I know I will follow this road until I run out of pavement, until the road disappears into the water. When the blocked spaces of buildings open up and there are only the waves fanning onto the shore. The tide will have drawn back and made small pools of ice into the sand. My boots will make cracks in the ice like lace, and I will collect pieces of ice like smooth stones. The tide shapes and re-shapes small dunes of sand so they bow toward the lake. This is no ocean. But I know that the lake flows into the rivers that move beneath tracks, and that rivers branched like vessels eventually carry themselves into the body of the sea, carries us out to a sky wild with eyes of stars. In the same way, at the end of the day, I will board the train again. I will be carried through the roots of buildings, past throats of streetlamps, back to where I began. This is the pulse: we go in and move away. We rescind, and we move forward. We go out, and we return.