Life lessons learned in the middle of the Kennedy Expressway

All the entertainment and insight you need is on an el platform, surrounded by automobile traffic.

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For more than a decade I rode the Red and Brown Lines to work, peering down at cars and pedestrians as my train groaned into the Loop. So when I moved recently to Avondale, along the Blue Line, I was startled and strangely excited to be waiting for my train on a platform smack in the middle of the Kennedy Expressway. The platform is flanked by four lanes heading north, four lanes heading south, and two reversible express lanes, and if you wait at odd hours, as I often do, the traffic really screams by, especially in the express lanes. It's like the Indy 500, if the drivers in the Indy 500 were all fat and bored and listening to talk radio. Speed can be intoxicating when you're inside a vehicle, but no less so when it tears past you at close proximity. Who can read a book when there's that kind of brain-dead entertainment to be had, and all for the price of a little carbon monoxide inhalation?

Even when traffic slows to a crawl, the platform offers endless amusement. No city intersection, no matter how big, can deliver the people-watching opportunities of a ten-lane expressway. Sealed into their cars like aquarium fish, drivers are lost in their own little worlds: they eat, put on makeup, sing along to the radio, talk to people on Bluetooth devices. Sometimes, when the train is slow to arrive, I make up extra verses to "Eleanor Rigby" for the people who roll by: Eddie Kilpatrick, late for a boiler repair out in Arlington Heights / Speed as he might. . . . Anna Moustapha, hoping her dress will attract the new guy in IT / To some degree. . . . Monica Jackson, giving her oldest a smack so he'll learn to be still / Damned if he will. . . . All the lonely people, which exit ramp is theirs?

I pitched this story idea weeks ago, and it seemed like a lark then. But this morning, as I sit down to write, comes the awful news that a CTA worker died at the station last night; standing on the tracks to flag oncoming trains during construction, she fell onto the third rail and was electrocuted. This happened in the middle of the night, but there's always traffic on the Kennedy, and I wonder how many drivers glimpsed her working there as they flew by, the same as I've glimpsed them. I probably won't enjoy the Addison Blue Line stop so much anymore, because for the people who loved her, it will forever be the worst of Chicago. Then again, no structure in the city has any intrinsic meaning; what brings it to life is the lives passing through it—whether they're moving fast, moving slow, or moving far beyond.  v