The nationwide rail strike was the big story here this week, crowding the Lebanon massacre and other world events off the front pages. This was not due to any solemn Midwestern regard for the health of the nation's transportation system, but because Chicago was hit harder by the rail shutdown than any other city. More than 125,000 commuters here rely on Amtrak and private trains to make their way into the congested downtown district, and all of them had to find other ways to get to work.
The result took on the air of a full-scale crisis. Thousands of additional cars poured onto the expressways that all seem to converge in a 10-block stretch near Lake Michigan. Traffic slowed to a crawl as early as 5:45 a.m., and by the time I got from the airport to the Loop every parking garage in sight was filled.
Other frustrated commuters ventured onto the city's aging, elevated subways, while still others boarded buses arranged by something called the Regional Transportation Authority, but the buses then proceeded to get stuck in traffic like everything else. Harried businessmen in Irish bars said they were staying in hotels overnight to avoid the morning crush; others simply stayed home. A General Motors plant in St. Louis closed and sent its 2,500 workers home because it couldn't get its parts shipped by rail.
Still, Chicagoans managed to cope, determined to keep their image as "the city that works," if only barely. "It's not always this bad," several people assured me.
The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Sun-Times, which face each other along the Chicago River, kept updating the situation in their all-day editions. They were all over the event in a sort of cavalry-to-the- rescue flavor: Senate Passes Emergency Bill; House Set to End Rail Walkout; Trains Ready to Roll Thursday.
Worn tempers were frayed a bit further by an unexpected cold snap that sent temperatures into the 30s. After a balmy weekend back home in Washington, I felt that the calendar somehow had skipped wildly past autumn. The waitress at the State Street luncheonette was already talking about the outlook for snow this winter, and I seem to recall that it was a blizzard four years ago that brought down the incumbent mayor and the Democratic machine. It isn't hard to figure out who the incumbent is these days. Her name is on nearly every street in town. "Join Mayor Byrne's Clean-Up Campaign," one billboard says. "Mayor Byrne's Consumers' Day -- Fresh Produce Picked Daily," another sign trumpets.
A recent street fair called Chicagofest also was hosted by Her Honor, and white banners hang from street lights proclaiming some award for "Our Lively and Livable City -- Jane M. Byrne, Mayor."
Byrne has her own City Hall machine these days, and she's using it to raise huge amounts of money for an expected race in February against State's Attorney Richard Daley, son of the late mayor. Byrne took in more than $1 million last fall at an intimate cocktail party for 15,000, attended by many who do business (or hope to) with the city. A similar $100-a-plate gathering next week is expected to produce more than $2.5 million for Byrne's coffers.
Strangely enough, the other big nationwide strike was greeted here with unusual sympathy. While football fans everywhere else act terminally depressed, those who follow the Chicago Bears actually seem relieved at the respite from their team's awful 0-2 start.
In the fourth quarter of the Bears' embarrassing 10-0 loss last Sunday to the less-than-awesome New Orleans Saints, the long-suffering patrons at Soldier Field began to chant "Strike! Strike!" On that point, the people of Chicago got their wish.