Originally written for Open Books’ Read All About It blog, September 13, 2011. Re-posted with permission. Support literacy in Chicago by supporting Open Books.
I bought this post card about 11 years ago at a bookstore in Paris (jealous?!). Speaking no French at all–and really only surviving that leg of my trip with the help of my dear friend Erwan–I looked for things that were either in English or had no words at all. This little piece of art work speaks many-a-word in all languages. The road itself, the urban street-scape of varying opportunities for bustle, the little indie bookstore. The red and white triangular crossing sign. We know it.
And I am totally that guy in the street sign. I am a street reader. I even often dress like him–especially come this time of year. Brimmed snap hat, a blazer or flannel jacket. All that.
I moved to Chicago in 1998, away from the car culture of various Michigan cities and towns. And I discovered this brilliant thing: Commute Reading! A valuable resource of time in my increasingly adult world–and increasing computer staring habits. In addition to home, Caribou Coffee, and the Golden Apple diner, I could read on the El platform, at the bus stop, in the public transport vehicle of choice. And even, the walking portions of journeys connecting my various apartments with my office and restaurant jobs! I was totally that guy with his head down in his book, walking the side walk and cross streets, looking up occasionally from Wicked, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I Know This Much is True, or my Joe Orton plays anthology to make sure I didn’t smack into fire hydrants, sign posts, and other non-reading pedestrians. Once, shortly after emerging from the Grand Avenue Red Line station, a gaggle of tween girls passed me on the opposite sidewalk. I looked up just as one snapped my photo with her disposable Kodak–the single muted flash of the throw-away Paparazzi made me wonder who she thought I was. A reader in the wild.
Since buying this card two years after my move, it has been a constant companion, taped up for easy inspiration in every bedroom or home office since. It evokes a world of possibility in which we readers are just as municipally protected as deer and children in our quest to get to the other side! Where cars and pedestrians alike brake for us, where children laugh with us instead of at us. Imagine a world where the ducks of the iconic Wonderful Copenhagen poster are replaced by a line of readers of various shapes, sizes, and ages crossing the road with a police officer holding back a happy crowd of onlookers (and a palace guard?) cheering for them, turning the person next to them saying. “Look, they’re reading! We can do that too! We can be that important and revered!” We don’t have to be ashamed or make excuses or feel like we’re getting in the way.
When my partner Ernie and I moved to South Bend, Indiana in 2006, we had to buy our first car together as we had returned to urban-suburban-rural car culture. No more Commute Reading for us (we would see South Bend buses rumble down our little street but were never quite sure where they came from or where they were going.) Even the four and a half minute walk from our house to my restaurant job wasn’t substantial enough for street reading, and I drove to the area IU campuses for class (both teaching and as a student). I felt the loss of my valuable resource right away and had to readjust my reading habits–or else.
Back in Chicago since 2009, I found another restaurant job right away whose commute is a 15 minute tops bike ride–and barring a major blizzard, I pretty much exclusively take advantage of not having to wait for late night buses. So my Commute Reading didn’t return to its full glory. Now that I’m at Open Books regularly for these late summer and fall months–and now that I have class in DePaul’s Loop campus–I am once again able to enjoy my train reading. Sure, I’ll text Ernie that I’m on my way home, or if I’m feeling a little brain dead I’ll try to beat that level of Angry Birds I just cannot get past, but more likely my time will be spent with whatever real life paper book (or classwork…) I have in the queue. And I’ll keeping going on the walks between by day- or street-light. And in a world where people think it’s okay to text and drive, maybe folks will give me–a fading relic slipping into the nostalgia of a golden age–safe passage.