The sounds of Chicago change dramatically with the season. It’s always loud and busy, but in the winter I become hyper aware of my surroundings and their noises. Even the air seems sharper in the winter, and not just because the edge of winter cuts like a knife.
There’s a specific sound the El trains make when it’s cold. It’s not the sound of the snow on the tracks, the soft swishing and wet mashing of metal on snow on metal. It’s not the icy slip sound of, well, ice. It’s the cold that gets so intense that when the train runs by, you hear a crisp, almost bitter/tangy click. It sounds sharp, like a knife cut, with a metallic bite that brings to mind the taste of blood on your mouth.
The cold also makes the little noises louder. Maybe it’s because there are fewer people on the street and as such, there’s less ambient noise. But when I step onto a metal bridge, I can hear the creaking. Unlike the warmth of wood creaking, the cold induced sound is a snap. Almost like a breaking bone, but without the sickening sensation associated with that. The same crack, but no pain.
Then there’s the sound of the river below me, when the water strains against the pressure of temperature, trying to move and not freeze, but failing. When the ice moves, like tectonic plates, the result is not an earthquake but a drawn out creaking, a sudden cracking, and a soft groaning. It pushes and pulls, fighting a battle it can’t hope to win until April.
But it’s the train that makes a dramatic change. I suspect it’s about the metal being so cold that the wheels can’t warm up and bend and meld with rail. It also causes more sparks, making a night time El ride full of lights second only to fireworks.
I like the El in winter. I like the solitude you can achieve, I like the fact that it’s the one time of year you don’t mind feeling like a sardine in a tin. I like standing on the platform away from the heat lamp, knowing I’ll get a primo seat. I like the smell of cold metal.
This probably makes me weird, but I love my city.