The morning rush hour

Each morning on Clement the street wakes in a certain rhythm. The coffee shops open, first to walking traffic and then cars. The busses begin to run more frequently, passengers accumulating at each stop in waves to match their arrivals. Food trucks begin deliveries, first to super markets and corner stores, and then, a few hours later, to restaurants and cafes. At nine the meters turn on, and commerce commences, quarters deposited and spots filled in neat rows rather than parked across by trucks. The garbage has come and gone and now staff haul the empty bins back in to restaurants and start their prep work.

It is these early hours that fascinate with repetition, each day played out much the same, each morning an echo of those past. To return, after a year or two, would be to see the same folk, the same shops opened by the same staff. The man who delivers pigs, cut in half, to the Chinese grocery still hops from the tall truck with a hog on each shoulder, still swings them onto the tables with the same gusto. Before his arrival an old man sits on the bench in front of the restaurant next door, waiting and watching. Though a smoker he does not yet, as though still waking up. Instead he crosses his legs and uncrosses them, watching busses and cyclists pass between the steady stream of commuter cars. He lives on this street, in a house somewhere behind it, and spends each morning watching the progression of service vehicles to joggers, school children to shoppers. He watches my arrival, coffee purchase and departure. Clement street is part of his life, and he part of it, his patient eyes proof that not everyone need hurry.

On a brisk morning in late October another city hustles. Seven thirty on a Wednesday and Dunkin’ Donuts is packed. The man holding sway in the center is wearing a witch’s hat and a long wig. This is Chicago, on Halloween, and the wind is sharp but not blustery. The remnants of Hurricane Sandy stormed through the day before, chopping Lake Michigan into muddy froth near the shore. In the Loop, at the heart of down town, the sense of motion is energizing. In great coats and business attire each person on the street outside the hotel has purpose and the sense of urgency that comes with big city routine. These blocks are filled with overhead trains and the honking of taxis, and coffee shops on each corner do the brisk business of rush hour. This is their peak, unmatched by the ten am break or noon lunch. From seven to eight forty five there are lines to the door at the Starbucks, the Caribou, the Dunkin’ and the McDonald’s, all within one full block. This is urban America, and it shows, the chains dominating by prioritizing efficiency and recognition.

As an east coast native the pace is thrilling, and some part of me is excited by Dunkin’ Donuts, a chain that dominates New York but has no presence in California. The experience at seven thirty, all interactions precisely packaged and refined through endless repetition, bears just enough similarity to my normal routine on Clement to be understood: the act of buying coffee. Outside of the Blue Danube the Chinese man sits on the bench of Burma Superstar, waiting for his friend to arrive and offer him a cigarette. After that ritual they will chat and watch the grocery store’s opening, where the pigs are delivered, and then wander off down the block, disappearing from the street. In Chicago a city employee sweeps trash from the gutter, and workers in suits file in to tall office towers.

Mornings, in cities, on week days, are studies in practice, in shared space and short time frames. Comfort comes in the form of a well-executed routine, a perfectly timed bus, a well-made coffee acquired with speed. The differences between places are not so vast, and yet, underneath, in the pace and dress is the place.

Clement’s feel, easy and welcoming, with random pedestrians and old residents, is that of home, of comfort and connection. Downtown Chicago’s rushed pace and commuter nature gives it the rare sense of the truly metropolitan, with no homes, few locals and small, pre-outlined exchanges done in incredible volume. More than anything it feels like New York, a rare thing in America. For a few days I’m glad to swap one routine for another, and even more to know both.