Sensuous Chicago

by Jeff McMahon
I have a tiny radio that magically describes events as I come upon them.
It started two summers ago. I had just returned to Chicago after some lost decades in the sunkissed West. I was walking on North Clark Street with the earphones in, sampling the local frequencies between blasts of static: salsa, sports talk, weather reports, when I chanced upon a resonant voice:
"It's a high fly ball to deep left field–"
The voice seemed oddly stereophonic until I realized it came not only from my earphones, but also from the open window of a nearby taxi, the open door of a market:
"It's back, way back–home run!"
Then the cheers that began in my earphones exploded from the city around me, bounded out of the ballpark and rolled like thunder across the brickscape.
This is no surprise, I realize, to anyone who's been to Wrigleyville during a Cubs game. The neighborhood occasionally bursts into applause. But when I first heard it, the little hairs went stiff on the back of my neck.
After lost decades in the sunkissed West, in one-taxi towns with neither baseball nor crowds, I had come upon an entirely different sense of place. This was the moment when, if I were Dorothy, I would inform Toto that we're no longer in Kansas.
To a Sox fan like me, a Cubs home run is just another form of white-collar crime, but the South Side had its own essential moment waiting for me and my radio.
It happened just days ago, not far from the park once known as Comiskey. I was bicycling through Bridgeport when I chanced upon a gaggle of cops and men-in-black raking dirt beside a grassy knoll at 33rd and Stewart.
As I arrived, my radio began to explain:
"Acting on a tip, FBI agents are digging up an embankment at the edge of a White Sox parking lot, looking for the remains of a mob-hit victim from the 1970s."
Veteran Chicagoans may be accustomed to having their radios narrate their urban adventures, but I have come to suspect that mine taps into some other frequency, a kind of city ESP.
Its signals have grown menacing since that harmless home run. I've found myself at Clark and Division while my radio recalled the riots of 1969, at 24th and Michigan the morning after the E2 nightclub stampede, on Wrightwood the day of the porch collapse.
Chicago has plenty of events that I'd rather not stumble upon. My radio loves to dwell on gang shootouts, dog attacks, car crashes, strong-arm robberies, molestations… so sometimes I turn my radio off.
With the radio off, this city is far from silent. Its engines growl and its jets whine above the measured clatter of the sleepless El, while the rusty wings of pigeons squeak as they flock toward secret lofts.
To this music moves a remarkable people. Rebounding from every tragedy described by their radios, they invest new hope in every fly ball.

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