Today I took a morning bus ride through Chicago, starting in its trendy Lakeview neighborhood and arriving in the Loop, the city’s commercial center, before nine o’clock. It was an express bus filled with smartly-dressed business people and seemed specially fitted for them: sleek, black seats lined the interior of the vehicle instead of the usual faded cushions I’m used to seeing on evenings with friends.
I had spent the night on a friend’s couch after an evening of drinking. He needed to get up early for work and I intended to sleep a few more hours before letting myself out, but was wakened at seven by the sound of the shower running in his small studio flat. Unable to to return to sleep, I decided to check the morning news.
Bad idea. I have this peculiar sort of mental affliction in which the merest thought of someone else’s discomfort, however marginally related to myself, can ruin my mood. I’ll be seated at a dining establishment of dubious quality, about to sink my teeth into a burger that cost hardly more than two dollars – that may, in fact, not even be real meat – when the image of a hungry African boy will flash before my eyes. Suddenly I’ll feel like a capitalist pig, like an aristocrat in a frilly wig right before the French Revolution. So when I saw the images of people fleeing their homes, a few possessions strapped to the front of their motorcycles, of clouds of smoke rising through the Bangkok morning, I felt my heart sink as I lay there, like the worst sort of scum, on my friend’s sofa. Unable to slacken back into sleep, I caught the bus downtown with my friend.
As the bus crossed the Chicago River, the morning seemed to reach the height of loveliness: a mild sun beamed down upon the tall buildings and the river looked like a stripe of green against the broad, white pavement that surrounded it, which shone in the sunlight. All around, the sidewalks were crowded with busy, prosperous-looking people on their way to work.
I started to picture the city in revolt. Can you imagine if some of these people, just a portion of the thousands making their way through the city, were to find some aspect of the Chicago government so wrong, so abjectly disagreeable, they decided to take the streets in protest?
Invoking their right to peaceful assembly, they converge in Daley Plaza by the hundreds, forcing major businesses and government buildings within a four-block radius to close. Beneath the watchful gaze of Picasso’s steel sculpture, they erect a stage from which to decry the current administration and call for its undoing. Around the perimeter of their protest grounds, their security forces construct a barricade. Can you imagine wooden poles, sharpened into stakes, poking above car tires stacked five to six in a pile, which the guards threaten to set aflame at the nearest approach of police?
As I pass Michigan Avenue, I see protesters in the street, shutting down the shopping centers there, and the important tourists attractions as well. The Art Institute and Millennium Park are closed, and even the animals at Lincoln Park Zoo have to be moved to other facilities for fear the noise and ruckus will spook the larger beasts. Can you imagine? Traffic in Chicago would be three times as bad as during the worst rush hour; the protesters force the closure of several major streets throughout the city, as well as major subway lines.
Worst of all, they’re not moving. Multiple rounds of negotiation have ended in stalemate, and the government grows increasingly peevish with the demonstrators, less open to talks, until they all clear out. Can you imagine what it would be like to live in such a city? Schools in and around Bangkok – including Mahidol University International College, where I did a semester abroad – have delayed the start of their semesters back a week, and extended their terms by an equal amount of time.
Can you imagine not being able to attend classes due to political unrest? As someone who lived in a peaceful Chicago suburb during the relatively peaceful 90s, the thought was alien to me. I pictured myself in the Mahidol school uniform, black slacks beneath a white dress shirt, but with nowhere to go, and realized: no matter who is “right” in this clash of political colors, it must be the average people, the regular Bangkokians, the students and shopkeepers and families, who suffer the most. A shiver of recognition ran through me.
I was born in Bangkok. The hospital, named after Saint Louis by the archbishop who founded it during a mission to Siam, is only a few blocks away from the protest grounds. My childhood home was further away, on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River, which splits Bangkok into halves, but my grandparents’ old home, the house my mother grew up in, is just a few minutes from the site of other clashes. If fate had turned a little differently, I could be living in the center of Bangkok.
Disembarking from the bus, now emptied of its office workers and corporate employees, at the southern end of Chicago’s Loop, I thought of the people I saw in the photographs, people who could have been my neighbors, whose lives could have been my own. And my heart went out to them.