The Great Flood of ’92*

View from Orleans Bridge to Marshall Field’s Third Basement

Cynthia Gallaher

Between Sociology 101
and Ancient City Planning 404,
I took to posing
for Italian Playboy posters,
kept the professional savvy
or plain chutzpah to turn down fold-outs,
instead, let Skrebneski focus on close-ups,
while I focused on the sample dresses,
cheap shoes and subway rides I needed
to attend elegant cocktail parties
with aging stars, jejune wannabees.

Yet by college graduation,
it was all over, washed out, as if a flood raged
through my thin dwelling,
carried off my trappings of success,
left me standing on the wobbly
wood planking where Uncle Stevie
first laid linoleum on Hamlin Avenue.

Could it be worse, when afterward,
elevator doors closed on strobe lights
and shot down three floors
to those gallows in Marshall Field’s,
the first full-time job, a buyer trainee,
pushing a book cart
and a bag of dust rags down a narrow hall,
instead of swinging a photo portfolio
down Hubbard Street,
and in place of hot pants, heels and boas,
a blue smock, sensible shoes.

Recession liberal arts BAs
agitate redundant,
so I took the name “rag lady,”
from those funny fellow workers in hardcover books,
and as last hire, became initiated
as had each one of them,
twice a day, my footsteps echoed
in the third basement past
locked cages of Dostoyevsky,
while full-story washing machines
churned suds and rags all night long.

It’s where book department’s cobwebby rags
greeted dust rags soaked in spilled perfume
and pricey lotions from cosmetics
met oily rags that mopped janitors’ brows
and wiped escalator banisters
all the way downstairs.

And the rag lady started dreaming
in languages with frayed edges,
hearing Spanish, Polish, Lithuanian,
and sweet talk from black
candy kitchen workers there at 6a.m.,
dreaming in the subterranean cafeteria’s
endless hum where workers sipped cold coffee,
where air’s chill grew so strong
the clock hands stuck,
and as if in the engine room
of an ocean liner,
topped by ten floors of luxury,
we heard a spectacular steam whistle blow
while steel ceilings weighed heavy and low.

Up high, in the book department itself,
raced its eternal stockboy, Larry,
kind, chatty, simple, yet swift-footed,
who never finished high school,
never read a page of the merchandise,
and died in the third basement,
where another worker found him collapsed
like a limp dog inside a stock cage,
cradling an armful of books he saved from falling.

And I, while a steady worker,
was destined to join the ranks of late-century job drifters,
despite degrees and determination,
wove in and out of stories and personas,
wrote out of tight corners,
read my way through lonely nights,
to not remain rag lady,
at least not for long, if I didn’t want to,
a ten-story luxury inside my head,
where another day brought another floor
of scenes and phenomena,
and hours asleep brought images of buses,
trains, airplanes, always a way out,
options left to the rise and fall of elevator cables,
with no place to go but up.

A dry landing, Orleans Bridge,
today, my last day from a plush River North
window office in River North, to unemployment,
to a cramped cubicle in the northern suburbs
somewhere in the future,
and from here watch the Great Flood of ‘92
rise in my mind’s eye through all three basements
to the main floor of Marshall Field’s.

I send a plea to just this once
witness a swab and salvation
of the never-see-daylight decks of unseen workers
from subterranean waters,
a deluge of the wealthy’s furs in storage to dance
in the same fishy whirlpools as those rags
I used to wad up and wheel around,
and finally, a scouring of the grave marker
of my fellow worker, Larry, his only way out,
a sweeping of his clean slate to a complicated cuneiform,
a purging of the unadorned pain of simple employment,
for the caretaking of what isn’t understood
by which the company profited.

Though today the city finds me
between connections, on the street once more,
the flood waters will spare me,
far more than others,
my feet to rise above disaster
thanks to the power of the pen,
to complete another chapter, the next stanza,
to bide my time before crossing
another Chicago bridge.

chutzpah–audacity, guts.

*The Great Flood of ‘92 (April 1992) was Chicago’s biggest disaster since the Great Fire of 1871. As new wooden pilings were being replaced in the Chicago River near Orleans Street, workers were unaware they were directly above part of Chicago’s intricate, unique underground freight transportation system, which hadn’t actively been used for decades, but nonetheless snaked throughout the downtown Chicago area, linking major buildings. The pilings broke through the underground casing and waters from the Chicago River rushed in, flooding basements, boiler rooms and lower levels of hundreds of Chicago buildings.

Cynthia Gallaher, a Chicago-based poet, is author of four poetry collections, many with themes, including Epicurean Ecstasy: More Poems About Food, Drink, Herbs and Spices, and three chapbooks, including Drenched. Her nonfiction/memoir/creativity guide Frugal Poets’ Guide to Life: How to Live a Poetic Life, Even If You Aren’t a Poet won a National Indie Excellence Award. She was recently selected to be the final judge for the 2022 Prairie State Poetry Prize.