Reveling in Chicago’s predawn tranquility

In the magic threshold between night and day, the city is a diorama subject to study.

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The summer after high school, I delivered bagels in the mornings, leaving the south side for work at 4:30 AM, when the entire city remained idled in sleep. Except maybe for Santiago, who'd been boiling and baking the bagels since midnight. The Bagel Nosh was on the Rush Street of 1989, not the red-light district that predated me but also far from the Rush Street of Barneys and Madewell today. I'd pull into the dark alley behind the delicatessen and flicker the headlights for several minutes, alerting dozens of potbellied rats that it was time for them to leap from the Dumpsters and disappear. I earned $18 for three hours of work. In many ways, it was the best job I've ever had.

Up until then I knew Chicago only as a child or a teenager knows the city. I went where my parents took me. I hopped the #6 Jeffery bus. I drove aimlessly with friends on weekend nights. But now I was a bagel delivery man. I piloted a white van. It had a bagel logo painted on its side. In the predawn there wasn't a street I didn't command, a curb where I couldn't park as I dropped off bags of pumpernickels and sesames. On the wide roads, it was just me and the guys tossing bales of newspapers from the back of their humpbacked trucks. There were no people streaming from trains to office buildings. Store windows were dark or shuttered. The rattling, shifting, belching city seemed as unmoving as a diorama.

In that magic threshold between night and day, it was as if I had the power to stop time. I was free to study the Leviathan and its constituent parts, to peer into the giant turbine that had yet to rumble back to life. My deliveries took me through the Near North Side and the Gold Coast, the Loop, and as far south as Hyde Park's border with Woodlawn. I'd been to all these areas before. But now I was seeing as if for the first time how these pieces of Chicago fit together. I was mapping for myself the distances and divisions. Here's how the city radiates out from its center. This is what is still neglected at the nub end of the 80s and what has already changed.

On my drive down South State Street, I passed the four-mile stretch of public housing complexes that had yet to be demolished or developed. That summer was the second Mayor Daley's first in office. I had a delivery at the Illinois Institute of Technology, on 35th Street, where I handed four bags of bagels to a guard in a 20-story modernist tower. Across the street stood a similar modernist tower. It was part of Stateway Gardens, one of the "projects," and each day I mulled over the message spray-painted large on its moldering wall: cain aint abel.

By the time I returned north, customers were eating breakfast in the Bagel Nosh. I joined them. A meal was part of my pay. Then I drove home along the lakefront, thinking about the day I was about to begin. v