Andersen: Cities, valleys and peaks
October 19, 2015
Chicago. The roaring, bumping subway. My wife and I are riding to the airport from our hotel on Michigan Avenue.
A man steps through the vestibule, moving between cars. His tattered appearance underscores his announcement: "My name is Victor. I'm homeless. I have diabetes and need help getting my meds. Anything you can do to help is appreciated."
I don't raise my eyes, not wanting to meet his pleading gaze, not wanting his condition to invade my soul. I struggle to avoid the tug of guilt for not digging into my pocket. Not giving is a discipline equated with street smarts. No eye contact is the first rule.
This is the same guilt I felt the day before on Michigan Avenue, walking past the man sitting on a nest of newspapers. His head was shrouded by a hoodie. His hand was extended, shaking a Styrofoam cup rattling with loose change. A sign propped up before him bore in crude scrawl: "We are all one."
Victor passes through the car and onto the next. I stick fingers in my ears to ward off the deafening roar of the subway as it barrels through the dark tunnel labyrinth beneath drab city streets.
I reflect on the book I'm reading: "Your Brain on Nature." The authors extoll the health benefits of the natural world. I couldn't be further from that now, sitting in a metal box gyrating through a rat hole under the Windy City.
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Chicago is my birthplace; a sheltered suburb was my childhood home. On this visit for my aunt's 90th birthday, the city oppresses me. I'm reminded of a modern-art painting at the Chicago Art Institute.
"The River," by O. Louis Guglielm (1942), shows a waterway channeled by concrete dams and walls. On the far bank stands an industrial site. Three people lean against a rail looking down at the imprisoned water.
"Man, oppressed by his own great triumphs," reads a critic's analysis.
A short flight later, we're in Washington, D.C., where I have meetings to advance my Huts for Vets program. Appointments take me to Capitol Hill, Walter Reed Military Hospital, Georgetown University and the Pentagon.
D.C. is a far cry from Chicago. Height limits based on the Capitol dome keep structures low. Parks and open spaces make it green. There are homeless here, but their surroundings aren't as bleak as in Chicago's glass-and-steel canyons. Maybe it's easier to see homeless here in mild weather, in sunlight, in greenery. But is it ever easy to see the homeless, to deny them sympathy?
For three days I'm rushing from legislative offices to the commander of the Wounded Warrior Battalion to lunch with a political insider and to the next meeting. I ride the Metro — clean, quiet, safe. Restaurants are excellent, people are affluent, the air is clear, and the sky is blue. A livable city with bike trails and river parks.
I wear a blazer, dress shirt and dress slacks. I carry my briefcase with the laptop that holds my PowerPoint. I'm a player, maybe making a difference. The city becomes exciting and alluring. I realize this with a tremor that shakes my predilection for the mountains, the deserts and the open spaces of the West.
We stay with friends on the 15th floor of an elegant high-rise in Arlington, Virginia. Their rooftop view reaches to the Capitol dome, the Washington Monument, the Kennedy Center and the Potomac. We take in a concert at the Kennedy Center, where the National Symphony performs with guitarist Sharon Isbin. It's all so rich and beautiful!
Flying home to Aspen, I gaze down at glacial cirques, high-mountain lakes and ragged peaks. I suddenly see it with city eyes — a measurable topography upon the immeasurable globe.
What lies below, I realize, is but a remnant of what was, historically, the bigger world of the wilderness frontier, that which honed the American character. Today, the cities represent the still bigger world of globalization.
"Most of life doesn't take place on the mountaintop," a mining executive once told me in defense of industry. "It takes place in the valleys, in the cities."
Maybe so. But spirit soars from the peaks.
Paul Andersen's column appears on Mondays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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