I moved quickly on the street to get to the Roosevelt station. I wasn’t running late; I was running from the cold.
The escalator up to the platform at the Roosevelt el stop is long because the platform is up high off the street. It’s a painful ride if you have a heavy suitcase with you: you’re on this long, moving staircase and you simply can’t force it to go faster. When you hear your train coming — worse yet, leaving — you can’t will yourself up to the top of the escalator in time to catch it. You’re stuck.
I was stuck on that escalator ride this morning, straining my neck to try and hear my train was approaching or leaving, straining so hard I almost pulled a muscle. I could not miss the train. I could not miss the train because that would mean I would have to wait for the next one outside on the Roosevelt platform. The Roosevelt platform, like the rest of Chicago, was/is dangerously cold.
“Today,” the city weatherman said, “it will feel like -10 to -20.” But “feel” is a useless term when you’re talking about cold this absurd. Humans “feel” only bitterness, aches, and dread at -10 to -20 degrees. Records are being set every day in Chicago — 2014 now the coldest winter on record — and the winter has taken on a wicked quality. There’s an evilness about it. The cold has a personality and it is monstrous. I was in my home city for exactly 49 hours and I felt scared of the beast that has overthrown her.
The monster has sharp teeth. It’s eating people, throwing men, women, and children into its icy, cavernous maw. Inside it, the wind blows and blows forever and there are coats everywhere but they all have holes and no hoods. Hell does not exist but if it did, the best joke on everyone would be that it is not hot and firey, but cold and empty.
The worst part about the snickering, sharp Cold Monster is that it made me afraid of Chicago the two days I was there. I saw people huddled and angry, shuffling along the streets in clothes that looked like bandages. No one speaks. It hurts to breathe. What I didn’t see or hear was worse: three-quarters of the usual citizens weren’t on the streets at all: no one comes out unless they have to. Millions of eyes are looking out from high above or below, waiting out the cold inside (as long as they can without going crazy and you can bet some have gone crazy.)
It’s a terrible thing to be afraid of something (or someone) you love. It’s like being a child and seeing a parent get drunk. The child can’t understand the adult’s funny walk, or why they’re so angry, or why their voice sounds mushy. It’s startling, it’s confusing, and even if it only happens once, the child gets a glimpse into a different, frightening side of their loved one that they will never forget. The fright they experience is indelible, even if the parent never drinks again, because there’s a world inside that person that he/she never imagined could exist.
And it’s cold there.