Last Thursday was a little weird for me. It was the day I went down to Chicago for WorldCon. I took the bus, because I hate driving for road trips, and Sylvie was bringing her car down later that day. I had a nice time, revised a bit of a thing to send off for critique, then started reading War for the Oaks.
I’ve done the trip down to Chicago enough since leaving there that I’m intimately familiar with how it’ll go. I’m bored and focused all the way through Wisconsin and northern Illinois, and then I get the first glimpse of skyscrapers and turn into a distracted thing. It’s all impatience and cussing traffic from there, because I’m going home and I want to be there and have tons of strangers to ignore while I’m surrounded by tall buildings and loud streets. I adore cities, and Chicago is mine.
It went exactly as it always does, except this was the first time I had a smartphone and Twitter so there was a bonus “Traffic, I am in you!” during the frustrated stage. The bus stops at Union station at Jackson and Canal, and I always, always wind up sniggering at myself the first time I tried getting there from Hyde Park, nigh unto a decade ago. That was the day I figured out that Chicago is gridded, and one navigates it like one plays battleship. I should, perhaps, have figured that out before leaving to catch a train.
The bus stop at union station is ugly, dingy, and full of white-person-sketch. (By which I mean, things sheltered why people find sketchy beyond their actual qualities) I’m fond of it – there’s something to like about the unabashed utilitarianism in how they’ve deployed concrete barriers there. It’s ugly, but it’s cheap and functional and nobody wants to spend money to make bus passengers feel cozy and welcome. It’s honest.
Under other circumstances, I’d have been stupid enough to walk from Union Station to the Hyatt, even with my too-many bags full of baked goods and the weather aggressively sucking, but I knew I was tight on time for making it to my first panel, so I opted to catch a bus over to Wacker instead. And that’s when I did a double-take.
The thing I’d been revising on my way down is set in Chicago. It’s semi-post-apocalyptic, and I don’t give a year for when the big diverging events occur, but I’ve been seeing the divergence point as being a rolling “today” with the story happening twenty-five years from now, whenever now happens to be. The CTA’s still around, because one should never kill things one can torture better by letting live, and it’s used in the bit I was revising. Except there, in front of me, is a bus stop with a digital sign scrolling through which buses are coming and their ETAs. This is new since the last time I saw a bus stop in Chicago. This detail isn’t in my story. I was gobsmacked. Home, you’re changing when I’m not looking.
Things are changing all the time. Little things. In retrospect, the signs were obvious. It’s the sort of thing that’s made trains more convenient for years and we have the technology now to do the same effectively for buses quite easily. If I’d thought about it, in my world building, I’d have predicted that and included it on my own. But I didn’t think of it. I’m in love with a Chicago from three years ago and today’s Chicago is still mostly that place, but not entirely.
I’m prone to get hung up on the giant meaningful impact of a small detail nobody else cares about; power lines in Iceland, closing the Capitol during the protests, the fantastically powerful stories buried inside Objectivist fiction. You don’t want me to get started on the details that have been fascinating me about phone numbers of late, because even I know the gushing is long and boring. But here I am, a week later, still gobsmacked. There are new signs on the bus stops. Things inched forward without me. They caught me by surprise. This was a change I adapted to quickly, which was only remarkable because I had so much invested in remarking it. Someday it’ll be a change that fuddles and confuses me, that I can’t adapt to immediately. And then I’ll know I’ve grown old.
Welcome to the future.
One thought on “Modern Surprises”
If I were to run into something like that in Philadelphia – like, say, if they finally put in a card-based system like they talk about doing every few years – I think it would have a similar effect on me. I mean, it’s weird enough all the things that have changed around campus here since my undergrad days, but public transit, for me, is one of those things that is simultaneously in the background despite being frequently relied on, which makes me expect it to stay the way it is.
Plus, well, in this country, if public transit changes at all, I expect it to involve service cuts, not fancy new changes that cost money and serve only to make life a little more convenient for people using public transit. If the scrolling displays had replaced someone’s job, that would at least make some amount of depressing sense.