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Hearing the city in a different context

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Living and working in the city means dealing with a constant influx of sensory input. The sights, the tastes, the textures — they all come together in an urban hub like Chicago, but the sounds in any place are a distinctly local phenomenon. Here’s a short list of some of my favorite spots with unique soundtracks.

Blue Line

If you’re on the Blue Line and get caught in one of the older cars (the ones with the accordion doors), you’re probably going to get a tinny earful of “DOORS OPEN ON THE RIGHT IN THE DIRECTION OF TRAVEL” at every stop. Annoying.

But if you get a chance to stand on the platforms that sit level to Highway 90/94, stop and listen for a bit. The sound of thousands of horsepower whizzing around you in opposite directions is overwhelming, but it also puts you in the thrall of stress-induced, hypersensitive euphoria.


Getting stuck in traffic is one of the great annoyances of modern life — regardless of creed, color, gender, location or socio-political status, no one likes being trapped behind some asshole whose bumper is a PSA for their child’s Honor Roll status.

And while it does give you a great venue to listen to music or a bit of talk radio, sometimes the most interesting thing to do is skip the distractions and listen to the muted orchestral rumble of a sea of idling combustion engines.

Next to
a speaker
at the

Do this one at your own risk. There are legends of the fabled “brown note” — the frequency at which your bowels tend to evacuate themselves by virtue of sheer vibration — and while they are legends and not facts, the best place to tempt fate is right next to a huge stack of speakers.

It isn’t necessarily the biggest venue with the biggest rumble, but when it comes to setup, the directness of the Metro’s soundsystem is brutal. That, combined with the venue’s continued history of booking some of the crunchiest acts in popular music, make for a great big mess, both metaphorically and possibly not.

at lunch

Working a nine-to-five job in a major center of commerce usually means shuffling around a cubicle like cattle in a pen and a weekly case of “the Mondays,” which generally means any free time is a cherished sliver of liberty between rush hours.

This makes lunchtime in the sub-Loop Pedway a prime location to feel both the rush of people with places to go and the potential sadness of folks on the fast track to lifelong corporate confinement. Compare it to the aforementioned Blue Line stops: if the rush there comes from the dizzying speed of well-oiled machines, the rush here comes from the idle chatter of a retching mass, stinking with hopeless humanity.

Hancock Center
observation deck

The higher you are, the more interesting things get, and believe it or not, I’m not talking about drugs. Some of the greatest stories are amplified by vertigo-inducing heights whether it be King Kong’s Empire State climb with Fay Wray in tow or the hunchbacked Quasimodo brooding silently in the belfry of Notre Dame.

On the 94th floor of the Hancock Center is the Observatory, accessible to the public (albeit for a fee of $15) and rising over a thousand feet above the raucous traffic of the Magnificent Mile. Staring out over 80 miles of Midwest provides a fair amount of inspiration if not an outlet for your megalomaniacal fantasies, but the real rush comes from the SkyWalk, which provides a chance to step out into a howling tempest of whipping winds and the distant echoes of pedestrian life below.


When I first moved to Chicago, my laundry room consisted of a giant basement peppered with cigarette butts and rat turds, accentuated by a washer and dryer that looked like they came off the set of the Brady Bunch. Those machines had a 50/50 chance of working, and when they ate your quarters, it wasn’t like Florence Henderson was showing up any time soon to console you.

Needless to say, I spent my fair share of afternoons watching jumbo-sized dryers tumble my underpants — an activity many would attribute to a wasted weekend. That’s fair, I guess, if you only see laundromats as waiting rooms, but what other kind of waiting room presents you with a warmer distraction to pass the time — the simple but pleasant machine mantra of “hummmmmm”?

Jamba juice

I’ve never been a fan of Jamba Juice. Spending a good chunk of my life listening to Californians wax poetic about wheatgrass shots and soy protein boosts didn’t help. When my friends looked up nutritional facts and found out how much sugar was in their sherbet/fruit milkshakes, I didn’t hesitate with the I-Told-You-Sos.

Still, I could never resist the scraping whir of a good blender. Jamba loves jamming huge chunks of frozen berries into the equivalent of a firing squad made of Blendtec blenders, and when those visor-clad smoothie hawkers squeeze those triggers, there’s a crunch that would startle even Slayer’s most seasoned roadies.

The shower

In 1377, the great Maghrebian Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun wrote the first book in a volume of seven said to be an important early attempt at a universal history of mankind. This tome, the “Muqaddimah,” says that “when those who enjoy a hot bath inhale the air of the bath, so that the heat of the air enters the spirits and makes them hot, they are found to experience joy. It often happens that they start singing, as singing has its origin in gladness.”

Today, we back up claims of spirits and heat with talk of hard-walled reverberation, but the idea is the same — the shower is a rich atmosphere for sound, backed with the seductive sensation of heat. Much like spending quality time crammed between freeway commuters, you could fill the space with any number of sounds, but why spoil the rich racket of running water?

at AIC

I admit that when contemplating whether or not to visit the Art Institute of Chicago, the deciding factor is not likely to be “awesome textiles” — especially not when admission for non-SAIC students (i.e., family members on holiday) is a whopping $18. Tourism is generally about shock and awe and not about shuttle looms.

But if you need a break from the tired, the poor, the Segway-mounted masses, slip away quietly into the basement between Picasso and American Gothic where an idyllic tableau of fabric and peace resides. The whole space is a veritable dungeon with one entrance/exit and a cul-de-sac that would make any circulation-obsessed architect cringe in terror, but it is one of the only places you’ll find true quiet in the whole building. Close seconds can be found in the Chinese/Japanese/Korean art sections or the dark room in the Modern Wing dedicated to film, but even those oft-overlooked galleries can’t compare to Textiles, where you’re invariably alone with the soft whine of climate control.

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