Having a Blast

By Mario Kladis

When my alarm clock started buzzing at 7 AM Saturday, I was a little confused. I don’t have a paper route, I don’t go to church, and I’ve only gone hunting once, when I was eight years old, and they wouldn’t even let me wear the orange vest. So why would I want to get up so early? I turned off the alarm, and a second later the phone rang. It was my brother Erik.

“Hey,” he said. We’d gone out the night before, and the last I’d seen of him he was gulping down a pint while paying for two more. One of them was for me.

“It’s 7 AM,” I grumbled. “Why are we up at 7 AM?”

“You don’t remember? The buildings?”

The buildings, I thought, the buildings. For a few seconds I acted like I was trying to remember what “the buildings” could mean, but I was really thinking I shouldn’t drink so much. “What the hell are you talking about, the buildings?”

“The high-rises. The high-rises the city’s demolishing today. Remember?”

I had a fuzzy flash of the two of us in the alley behind the bar. Erik was pissing behind a Dumpster when he asked if I wanted to see the city blow up some CHA high-rises on the south side.

“I remember,” I said.

“Well, let’s get going. Get your bike and get over here. It starts at 8:15.”

I thought about hanging up and going back to sleep. But I knew Erik would just keep calling until it was too late for him to go, and then he’d blame me for making him miss it. Besides, I’d never seen a building demolished before, and since I was already sort of awake–and still a little drunk–why not go?

“Gimme ten minutes,” I said.

Once we were on the street I cheered up. It was cold out, but the chill felt good, like an ice pack on my head. The sun was up and the sky was clear and blue. It seemed like a good day for a demolition.

We rode south to Roosevelt Road, then cut over to the lakefront bike path. The best thing about the south lakefront trail is that it’s never crowded. Every now and then you pass a ponytailed professor with side-view mirrors and an odometer on his handlebars. But other than that it’s pretty clear sailing from the aquarium to the U. of C.

Not today though. There were bikers everywhere, all riding south. A lot of them were dressed like bike-shop models: helmets, multicolored spandex, goggles. “Is there a race today?” I asked Erik.

He was steering his bike with his coffee hand. With the other hand he was trying to light a cigarette. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.” I looked around. If there was a race, it was a family affair. Many of the adults were flanked by kids on dirt bikes.

When we got to 31st Street Beach, the parking lots were jammed with cars. You see that a lot in the summer, when people go down there to swim and barbecue. “You think all these people are here for the demolition?” I asked Erik. He didn’t hear me. He had spilled coffee on his pants and was trying to wipe it off with his sleeve. At least he got his cigarette lit.

There were seven blocks to go. The people lucky enough to find parking places were walking south in herds. I want to say it looked like the scene in a disaster movie when everybody leaves the burning city. But instead of wounded family members and cherished possessions, the people were carrying old blankets and Starbucks cups. It was a lot like Venetian Night.

By the time we got to the Oakwood Boulevard bridge it was swarming with people. Cops blowing whistles. Cars honking. Radios blasting. There should have been somebody selling hot dogs.

For some reason I was surprised so many people had got up early for this. I guess I’d thought me, my brother, and maybe a few protesters would be the only ones here. It kind of annoyed me. I wanted to enjoy this in quiet.

Cars lined both sides of the bridge. We got off our bikes and stopped behind a double-parked Saab. Two kids poked their heads out the sunroof. On the sidewalk a balding man with a ponytail pointed a Nikon at them. “OK, kids,” he said, “move a little to the left. Your heads are blocking the building.” The kids tried to move, but the sunroof wasn’t wide enough. The man shook his head and rolled his eyes. He looked frustrated enough to back the car up a few feet so he could get a nice picture of his kids and the projects. He settled for a head shot of each child alone against the high-rises. You’d have thought he grew up there.

“Come on,” Erik said, “let’s get a spot over there.” He pointed to the south side of the bridge, where the people were smashing themselves against the rail to get a good view of the blast. We bumped our bikes through the crowd and fought off a couple teenage girls for a spot overlooking the railroad tracks and a strip of six high-rises. The two buildings closest to the bridge still had cars in their lots and old bikes and toys lying in the grass, but the other four looked deserted. Their windows were covered with what appeared to be black canvas. On the bridge there were at least a dozen video cameras aimed like mini howitzers at these four buildings.

“Those are the ones going down,” said the guy next to me. Except for him, everyone within 20 feet of me and my brother was white. The balding ponytailed man with the Nikon was white. His kids were white. Me and my brother are white. Well, Greek anyway.

I leaned my bike against the rail, climbed up on the frame, and looked around. There were a lot of white people on the bridge. “Hey Erik,” I said, pointing at all the white people. Suddenly the bridge was rattled by a BOOM. I looked at the high-rise at the far south end of the strip. Its top was blurry. It started crumbling inward, as if in slow motion. Then the first building north followed suit. There was another explosion, and the last two buildings wavered and collapsed into chunky gray hills. Dust blew up into the air, and since the sun was still pretty low, a shadow was momentarily cast over the bridge. Everybody cheered. It was better than Venetian Night.

The blasts set off a bunch of car alarms. People raced back to their Volvos, Range Rovers, and various minivans. In a few minutes, a lot longer than it took the high-rises to fall, most of the white people were gone or stuck in traffic. The balding ponytailed guy hung around to take another picture of his kids. This time there wasn’t anything for their heads to block, but he was still frustrated; they weren’t smiling the right way. You’d have thought he just bought the property.