When the Wind Blows (at Marina City)


(Photo: I wonder how much they swayed back then?)

[As I wrote these words overnight, I wouldn’t know someone was also taking their life at Marina City. According to the Chicago Tribune, here’s one unfortunate soul who apparently leapt off of East Tower–my tower (and from my own elevator tier, too)–early today. As always, unfortunate news arrives unexpectedly and in shocking measure here at the corncobs…]

Friends rarely believe me when I tell them about the grandmother on a rocking chair who lives in the walls at Marina City. At least, that’s who it sounds like inhabits the cast-in-place concrete of my high-rise corncob home every time a stiff wind blows through downtown Chicago.

It doesn’t take a tornadic gust, either. Any of the brisk lakefront winds that often pass across the Loop after sundown is enough to set Marina City’s 60-story twin condo towers in rhythmic, cacophonous motion.

I experienced my first unexpected skyscraper dance shortly after moving in four years ago. Having never lived in a high-rise before, I spent my first few days in Marina City gazing into water glasses and at my empty toilet bowl to see if I could detect evidence of movement–of course to no avail.

Then it rained and I almost wet myself in fright.

The howl of thunderstorm winds across a Marina City balcony is off-putting enough. They whistle through the metal railing like a pipe organ as they roar past the towers with the sound of a freight train. Every gust hitting the balconies is felt a split-second later as a sudden vibration in the floorplate.

And then the swaying begins. Civil engineers will tell you skyscrapers don’t really sway, they displace. What you feel isn’t the building being pushed away by the wind, it’s the building snapping back into place after the wind has done its job.

I doubt the civil engineers who built Marina City ever had to live in it. Otherwise, their story might be a bit different.

First you hear a short, muffled creak. If you’re anywhere near your computer, you might mistake it for the sound of your hard drive seeking data. Within moments, though, the muffled creak grows into a sustained to-and-fro groaning. A two-seconds-long-in-each-direction groaning.

A loud groaning. And I don’t mean 2 a.m. screaming crowd exiting the House of Blues down on the plaza level loud, either. I mean, the freakin’ building is yelling into your ear loud.

Now regular readers know I put up with a lot to remain in these beloved corncobs. From fires, floods, and water shut-offs, to condo-board controversies, management company misprints, and at least one (now-convicted) pimp dentist, for better or worse, life in Marina City is rarely uneventful. But how many people can say their apartment accidentally woke them up because it, er, moved?

Last night, as a particularly powerful late-evening wind passed over the towers, I put my Macbook on a shelf near the wall, fired up Garage Band, and hit the Record button. I ended up with a faithful representation of what I heard sitting on my couch five feet away.

When I played it back, the ominous groaning was so loud, I was glad the swaying is usually never apparent enough to be felt. But the fact that I could record it so easily made me realize just how much must be moving deep inside the superstructure. It could be concrete and reinforcing metal making all the racket, though I think the real culprit is the old-school, rigid metal lathe supporting the equally days-of-yester plaster walls.

Not that I’m comforted by that. No matter what’s making the noise, it’s still an entire, 550-foot skyscraper leaning hither and yon that’s actually causing it. But when you live in a building built on stilts, you try not to think of primal causes.

After four years, I’m at least used to the noise. No passing blizzard, tornadic front, or steep temperature drop seems right unless I can hear that grandmother in the walls rocking vigorously enough to divert my ADD-addled attention away from whatever task I’m trying to settle into.

Mind you, there’s no fear anymore. I don’t even get out of bed unless the creaking is at least as loud as the Portuguese danger cat, Camões, meowing about an impending hairball. Even then, it’s only to call a friend and put the phone up to the wall to try and prove the auditory urgency of the event.

Well if this doesn’t prove it, nothing will. Click through to hear last night’s recording of Marina City’s high-wind wall creaking.

And if you still don’t believe me, check the Weather Channel for the next storm front and invite yourself over for dinner. Don’t arrive empty handed.

I prefer a spicy, young red with hints of cherry and black pepper.

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