The fog tiptoes into the streets. It walks like a great cat through the air and slowly devours the city.
The office buildings vanish, leaving behind thin pencil lines and smoke blurs. The pavements become isolated, low-roofed corridors. Overhead the electric signs whisper enigmatically and the window lights dissolve.
The fog thickens till the city disappears. High up, where the mists thin into a dark, sulphurous glow, roof bubbles float. The great cat's work is done. It stands balancing itself on the heads of people and arches its back against the vanished buildings.
I walk along thinking about the way the streets look and arranging adjectives in my mind. In the heavy mist people appear detached. They no longer seem to belong to a pursuit in common. Usually the busy part of the city is like the exposed mechanism of some monstrous clock. And people scurry about losing themselves in cogs and springs and levers.
But now the monstrous clock is almost hidden. The stores and offices and factories that form the mechanism of this clock are buried behind the fog. The cat has eaten them up. Hidden within the mist the cogs still turn and the springs unwind. But for the moment they seem non-existent. And the people drifting hurriedly by in the fog seem as if they were not going and coming from stores, offices and factories. As if they were solitaries hunting something in the labyrinths of the fog.
Yes, we are all lost and wandering in the thick mists. We have no destinations. The city is without outlines. And the drift of figures is a meaningless thing. Figures that are going nowhere and coming from nowhere. A swarm of supernumeraries who are not in the play. Who saunter, dash, scurry, hesitate in search of a part in the play.
This is a curious illusion. I stop and listen to music. Overhead a piano is playing and a voice singing. A song-boosting shop above Monroe and State streets. A ballad of the cheap cabarets. Yet, because it is music, it has a mystery in it.The fog pictures grow charming. There is an idea in them now. People are detached little decorations etched upon a mist. The cat has eaten up the monstrous clock and people have rid themselves of their routine, which was to tumble and scurry among its cogs and levers. They are done with life, with buying and selling and with the perpetual errand. And they have become a swarm of little ornaments. Men and women denuded of the city. Their outlines posture quaintly in the mist. Their little faces say, "The clock is gone. There is nothing any more to make us alive. So we have become our unconnected selves."
Beside me in the fog a man stands next to a tall paper rack. I remember that this is the rack where the out-of-town papers are on sale. The papers are rolled up and thrust like rows of little white dolls in the rack. I wonder that this should be a newspaper stand. It looks like almost anything else in the fog.
A pretty girl emerges from the background of fog. She talks to the man next to the rack.
"Have you a Des Moines newspaper?" she asks.
The man is very businesslike. He fishes out a newspaper and sells it. At the sight of its headlines the girl's eyes light up. It is as if she had met a very close friend. She will walk along feeling comforted now. Chicago is a stranger. Its fog-hidden buildings and streets are strangers and its crowds criss-crossing everywhere are worse than strangers. But now she has Des Moines under her arm. Des Moines is a companion that will make the fog seem less lonely. Later she will sit down in a hotel room and read of what has happened in Des Moines buildings and Des Moines streets. These will seem like real happenings, whereas the happenings that the Chicago papers print seem like unrealities.
This is Dearborn Street now. Dark and cozy. People are no longer decorations but intimate friends. When it is light and one can see the cogs of the monstrous clock go round and the springs unwind one thinks of people as a part of this mechanism. And so people grow vague in one's mind and unhuman or only half-human.
But now that the mechanism is gone, people stand out with an insistent humanness. People sitting on lunch-counter stools, leaning over coffee cups. People standing behind store counters. People buying cigars and people walking in and out of office buildings. They are very friendly. Their tired faces smile, or at least look somewhat amused and interested. They are interested in the fog and in the fact that one cannot see three feet ahead. And their faces say to each other, "Here we are, all alike. The city is only a make-believe. It can go away but we still remain. We are much more important than the big buildings."
I hear an odd tapping sound on the pavement. It is faint but growing nearer. In another moment a man tapping on the pavement with a cane passes. A blind man. And I think of a plot for a fiction story. If a terrible murder were committed in a marvelous fog that hid everything the chief of police would summon a blind man. And the blind man could track the murderer down in the fog because he alone would be able to move in the thick, obliterating mists. And so the blind man, with his cane tapping, tapping over the pavements and able by long practice to move without sight, would slowly close in on the murderer hemmed in by darkness.
A newsboy cries from the depth of nowhere: "Paper here. Trains crash in fog. Paper."
A friend and I sat in an office. He has been dictating letters, but he stops and stares out of the window. His eyes grow speculative. He says:
"Wouldn't it be odd if it were always like this? I think I'd like it better, wouldn't you? But I suppose they'd invent lights able to penetrate mist and the town would be as garish as ever in a few years. But I like the fog because it slows things up. Things are too damn fast to suit me. I like 'em slow. Like they used to be a century ago."
We talk and my friend becomes reminiscent on the subject of stage coaches and prairie schooners and the days before there were railroads, telephones, electricity and crowds. He has never known such a time, but from what he has read and imagined about it—yes, it would be better.
When I come out it is mid-afternoon. The fog has gone. The city has popped back and sprawls triumphantly into space. For a moment it seems as if the city had sprung up in an hour. Then its sturdy walls and business windows begin to mock at the memory of the fog in my mind. "Fogs do not devour us," they say. "We are the ones who do the devouring. We devour fogs and people and days." Marvelous buildings.
Overhead the sky floats like a gray and white balloon, as if it were a toy belonging to the city.