This branch sits right in Little Italy on Taylor Street, one of my favorite streets in all of Chicago. Surrounded by the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), this branch is surprisingly quiet. Ok, actually, that is not true. After 5 minutes of sitting down, I heard a booming litany of profanity right outside of the window. A young woman was hitting her car trunk and shouting on the phone. Her car was clearly running. She was clearly locked out. To make matters worse, she was in front of a bus stop. Never mess with CTA bus stops. If there is one group of people, besides Chicago crossing guards, that I am scared of, it is CTA bus drivers. They have the power, almost exclusively, to either make your day brighter, or to completely ruin it. Clearly this woman was already having a bad day, so the busses just passed by. About 45 minutes later, a locksmith came. I felt a unique solidarity with her, though, because I had locked my keys in my care 3 times last semester. One time I left the car running.
While I was working at a table, there were a few other people in the room. A middle aged Black woman worked on her laptop. An elderly White man was reading some papers and also using a laptop. A young Black man about in his mid 20’s was reading the Guinness Book of World Records and the World Almanac (this is the same guy from “part 2” of this post). An older White man was using the computer, and I assumed based on conversations he had had that he was either homeless or in transient housing, but I could have been wrong. The security guard, a middle aged Black woman was around the computers.
Apparently the guy at the computers was a regular because he struck up a conversation with the security guard as if they were on familiar terms. He began to talk about the inauguration (it was January 20th) and began to express his utter disbelief that Trump had been elected and inaugurated. He sounded somewhat indignant, actually. Polls this, polls that. You know, the basic “post election” conversation. He offered up some small conspiracy theory about the popular vote and kept clicking through the pages. The security guard responded something about the electoral college, and that’s what matters. She wasn’t dismissive, but also was just reiterating the general facts. She didn’t opine, but pretty clearly made her point that she wasn’t thrilled about the inauguration. The white guy expressed, once again, his disbelief and dismay. Then, out of nowhere, the younger Black man shouted “What are you talking about!?” to which the security guard and the old guy looked over at him. The old guy said something about their mutual irritation regarding Trump. The Black guy then yelled “What the fuck do you have to say? Look at your skin.” At his point, I think everyone in the room jerked our heads back and our eyebrows raised. The old White guy looked confused. The security guard was visibly taken aback. After a pause, she said “No one was talking to you. Everyone can share their opinion.” The Black guy continued to press saying that he didn’t want to hear anything from the White guy and that he could say whatever he wanted about whoever he wanted. The security guard, trying to find some way to hold onto any sense of authority, argued with him back-and-forth a few times. He said he had free speech. She said he couldn’t bother other customers. He said he would do what he wanted. She said he would have to leave because profanity wasn’t allowed. Eventually they ignored one another, she said some kind words to the old White guy and then disappeared into another room.
So, another thing to know about Chicago: race matters. Race always matters. It is ingrained in the politics. It is ingrained in the schools. It is ingrained in the neighborhoods. It is a part of “self” and “community” and “other.” It is always a part of the conversation. It is something you just get used to in Chicago, but for people who are new to the city or just visiting, they often ask “Why does everyone talk about race all the time?” or “Why is everything White or Black here?” So, race-talk is noticeable, and we expect it. It isn’t something we shy away from, although it makes outsiders very uncomfortable. This is Chicago, though, a city with complex histories of race, migration, immigration, racial and ethnic politics, race and class struggles, segregation, and yet a very strange sense of city-unity.