Errands and Leisure and Uncategorized02 Sep 2008 03:29 pm

Hauling in Good Company

I ran into my friend and neighbor Marie Sprandel this morning as I walked with my hairy sidekick Marlowe. Marie is fresh back from a three-week stint in South India where she was working on a Habitat for Humanity house construction project in a Tamil village. She’s a fellow cyclist and she proclaimed that in India they knew how to carry real loads on bicycles. She was generous enough to share this photo of a man carrying cooking pots on his bike, which you can barely see:

Marie also saw bicycles used to cart construction building materials such as lumber and harvested sugar cane stems.

Pardon me, but my bike trailer load from the Farmer’s Market ain’t shit by comparison.

Making bikes do more work would certainly take the edge off the “cycles only for leisure” attitude in this country. High-minded ideals are a great basis for change but putting change into peoples’ pocketbooks is what sways skeptics in this country. Marie also has sent this New York Times article about bike couriers in New York finding more ways to load up their bikes for profit and, well, profit:

Unburdened by Gas Costs, Bike Couriers See a Chance

But hauling that trailer of produce today certainly made me feel in good company.

Bonus: taking the bike to the Farmer’s Market frees me from worrying about the parking patrol in the white right-hand-drive Jeeps that hand out tickets to unsuspecting Saturday shoppers.

Again, the trip was a study in social connections, as I once more ran into Kelly from tai chi and Elana as well.

Shrinking or Concentrating?

I’m pondering if my world has shrunk by sticking so much to the bike this Summer. I’m not so sure it has, given that so many errands I run are within several miles of my house and that they have often depended on the car out of speed and ease, at least in the past. True, I have not bopped to as many suburbs as I would have with a car but I have covered a lot of territory by transit and bike, excluding the rental car trips.

Late in the afternoon, just as we were wondering what to do for dinner and not coming up with any profound answers, a friend called inviting us to dinner in downtown Evanston. Nothing formal on this eat-outdoors summer night so nice casual clothes would make the bike possible. Which is what we did.

We locked our bikes in front of the closed-for-the-evening main library and walked over to the Irish restaurant across the street. We did eat outside and it was a perfect night for it. While there, we also ran into a woman my wife had worked with and a man who works in the Wilmette bread shop. If my world has shrunk this summer I like to think it’s also become more concentrated socially.

An insight on drinking and not driving came from a poster inside the restaurant: it was for a Beatles-town pub crawl in Liverpool and it was sponsored by the taxi company. Keeping drunks off the road also means giving people more choices. Taxis, however, can be a rare commodity the farther you get from urban centers. Alcohol is not proportionately rare.

We walked around a bit after dinner and we boys decided to take in the music at Bill’s Blues Bar. I just walked back to the library moved my bike in front of the bar while Nancy rode home.

Now, realistically, drinking and biking is more an exercise in suicidal tendencies than a threat to others, so I had no intentions of pushing it. Which I held to and thus was able to unlock my steed and ride home safely in the post-midnight quiet.

And by the way, my car is still parked on the street where I left it the other day.

Errands and Leisure and Uncategorized02 Sep 2008 09:55 am

“Within a century of little Kago’s arrival on Earth, according to Trout’s novel, every form of life on that once peaceful and moist and nourishing blue-green ball was dying or dead. Everywhere were the shells of the great beetles which men had made and worshipped. They were automobiles. They had killed everything.”

Beginning of Chapter 3, Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut, 1973.

Today’s radio broadcast is filled with stories on last night’s acceptance speech by Barack Obama. In a rare use of our TV, we watched it, too.

The loyalists are energized. The Clinton crowd is stinging. The Republicans are gunning. The right wing is just plain stupid and selfish as usual.

I’m disappointed.

He devoted a big section of his speech talking up getting off Mideast oil by pouring talent and intellectual energy into developing a new generation of clean cars that will generate tons of new American jobs but not tons of emissions. I heard not a peep about weaning ourselves from cars and devoting that same level of talent and intellectual resources to creating a viable, fast, and attractive public transportation system in this country.

Now, of course, Mr. McCain is a mixed bag but the team behind him is not filled with people of high moral standing and concern for a sustainable Earth. Yesterday NPR carried a story about the Republican platform committee This quote stood out as I listened, saddened but not surprised:

“He (McCain) has also urged action to curb global warming and favors a cap-and-trade system that many in his party oppose. The GOP platform makes no mention of cap and trade, while it rails against what it calls ‘doomsday climate change scenarios’.”

We wouldn’t want to confront the possibility of doomsday now, would we? Things are going to get better, trust us. Don’t listen to those whiners who say there’s not enough oil and not enough food. Our “can-do” American spirit can conquer anything if we put our minds to it.

Who is this really serving? My unvarnished opinion is that the Republican Party, especially since the horrific days of Ronald Reagan, have successfully convinced huge swaths of American voters to vote against their own best interests while wrapping that punch of the voting card in feel-good patriotism and misty-eyed conjurings of “family values.” As marketing goes, it was a pretty damn successful campaign that continues to this day. So much so that Mr. Obama now must pander to some of the same thinking when he invokes visions of freedom from foreign oil in 10 years and domestically-produced cars that will be part of that solution.

God and country forbid, would he actually tell us that we need to be using less of everything, including automobiles.

Let me offer a little counterpoint to this thinking from the British Medical Association Journal:

Worth a read. Short version: our rate of population growth is such that we are consuming resources at a faster rate than the planet can keep up with and even attempting to wipe out poverty and hunger would depend on increased use of fossil fuels, which, you guessed it, causes climate change.

Of course, we can deny this thinking in the name of getting elected. Wouldn’t want anybody to panic and stop driving now, would we?

My wife has pointed out many times lately that in all the discussions of climate change no one seems to be talking about that old concept of “Zero Population Growth” from the good old Seventies. I doubt McCain or Obama have read this BMJ article but I hope someone on their staffs are sensible enough to do so. In McCain’s case, his choice of Sarah Palin has pretty much dashed that hope, so I’m left with Obama.

I don’t want to downplay Mr. Obama’s message and his thinking and potential for leadership and even what was an encouraging speech, even if it was not rousing.

But on the issue of cars and fuels and climate change, I hope he changes.

A Little Bit of Cycling

This pre-Labor Day Friday is slow for many people and moreso for me in my between-jobs state. I really don’t have many places to go during the day beyond walking errands.

Again, my evening tai chi class requires a bike ride there and back. On yet another sterling evening, other cyclists are out on quiet Lincoln Avenue and cars give us all a wide berth without honking.

After class, I talk with some of my classmates for a while before I ride home without making any other stops.

I’m feeling good, a product of the rides and my class. This is my tangible reward for not driving.

My second hope for today:

I hope I’m doing some good for the planet.

Errands and Leisure and Uncategorized30 Aug 2008 10:38 am

Summer days are so rare in Chicago that I feel guilty being inside on them, even when I have inside work to do and I open the doors and windows to take as much of the outside in as I can. Yet today, I sat inside long stretches at the computer. Granted, I wasn’t driving and I wasn’t running the air conditioner but I strongly suspect the carbon footprint of my computing still had an impact. For now, though, I will focus on transportation.

My errands today are local and I use them to relieve impact of my derriere on the chair. At mid-morning, I walk my dog to Harold’s True Value, the other local hardware store that allows me to bring him inside and make my life easier. The woman who waits on me give Marlowe some of the attention he craves. My quest is a better solution to the much-delayed and unresolved shower diverter of weeks back, one that will not require me to cut the copper and attach a nipple using heatless solder, a good idea in itself but not the Number One idea given the difficulty making that cut. There would be no turning back, whether I did it well or not.

They have a very close replica to the current faucet which will require minimal changes and no additional parts or soldering. Bingo. So that means I have to return the other parts but I decide to make that my dog’s afternoon walk and try to get something done in the meantime. I cannot honestly say I did that but I did fill the time. Oh, well.

So around 3, I took another local walk in the other direction and returned the other parts to the Ace, where true to form, my dog got a lot of attention from the staff, this time from a woman at the cash register who waited on me. Granted, these errands take longer with the dog but they always make me feel part of the place I live.

Within about an hour after getting back to the house, the dog’s ears perk up and he looks alert towards the alley. I hear the garage door and then the gate, too.

As expected, the car is back from exile. I have mixed feelings about this.

My daughter is driving it and I’m thrilled to see her and help her move her stuff into the house.

At the same time, this idea of a car is suddenly a strange thing after having done without it.

It also will not make it into the garage in which projects and bikes have taken over despite the absence of the other car, donated to charity weeks ago.

This is very weird. I don’t even want to drive this car around to the front of the house so she does that.

It’s great to catch up and clutter up my house with her things. Nearly at 6:30, I realize I need both catfood and dogfood. A quick call to the pet store in Wilmette confirms that they are open until 7. I really don’t want to take the car and I don’t. Instead, I pull out the wire shopping cart but leave the dog behind this time in the name of moving very fast. I leave the house around around 6:34 and make it back home, all petfood weighing down the cart, by 6:57. Not too shabby.

Being a motorist means not having to say, “I give a flip about pedestrians.” One block north, at 6:36, one of the ubiquitous long white Chevy contractor vans roars to life to my left and wheels towards me as I approach the curb but he does not stop, instead just making a perfunctory glance to his left and and roars around the corner. I manage only to see his plate which includes 1533 YR.

There is no Stop sign here but did he need to blow through that intersection like that? Does a person like this have any clue how dangerous his driving is to pedestrians? Why doesn’t he care?

Errands and Leisure and Uncategorized25 Aug 2008 08:18 am

Saturday again. The Farmer’s Market awaits me and the bike trailer. This is a comfortable routine by now and so again by late morning, I’m hooking up the trailer and heading off to meet my wife in downtown Evanston.

Soon, I meet a neighbor and we talk. I meet Kelly from my class. My wife shows up right after that. People are everywhere. The sun is getting hotter and hotter. We take our time but soon, I’m getting ready to go and the money’s running out. My wife snaps up the cover on the trailer and I head out ahead of her pulling what feels like a heavier load than usual. Maybe that big cantelope pushed it over the edge this time. It sure isn’t the cheese corn we’ve already dug into, that’s for certain.

I’m within blocks of my house when my wife calls me to tell me she’s decided to take a detour and buy some towels my son needs at school. We forgot and he wasn’t paying attention. That should challenge his resourcefulness or his roommate’s olfactory sense.

She comes home with towels on bike, we box them up, and she walks them to UPS to send them off.

I’m not the only one shopping with a bike trailer today.

I walk with my dog this afternoon to Dominick’s and as I round the building to tie him up, a family on bikes is there. The girl exclaims at my Collie and then the mother comes over to pet him, which he laps up with tail in full wag. Then I notice as they pull away: The son, about 10 or so, is pulling a trailer full of groceries. The girl is on a half-bike behind her dad and the mom is on her own bike. They ride north through the parking lot together.

The evening has a plan: a play with neighbors. They don’t want to drive and that’s fine with us. We consider the public transportation options to the Halsted and North Avenue area: one, a 4:57 PM Metra to Clybourn and either take the Armitage bus or hope to grab a cab; two, walk to the CTA Purple Line and transfer to the Red Line to North and Clybourn. We decide on the latter.

Here where things go wrong.

We are a little late leaving the house but not terribly so. They are ready at their house 5 minutes away. The walk to the El station takes about 15 minutes. We get up to the platform to see a lot of people there for a late Saturday afternoon. Soon the loudspeaker crackles as if wanting to say something but it does not. An older lady tells us they’ve had power problems at Howard and she’s been waiting 30 minutes for a train. Uh-oh, not good. The plan for dinner before the play looks iffy. Other people are chatting but a northbound train comes and just as it does the loudspeaker springs to life as if on cue with an announcement we cannot hear because of the train. Wonderful. We hope this train turns around fast at Linden.

Another northbound train comes. As before, the loudspeaker springs to life. We strain to hear and manage to catch that the Red Line is now running but shuttle buses are serving the Purple Line. Delightful news, indeed. What do we do? Go to the street and look for the bus and risk what might be a southbound train soon?

Another man and I strain to look north for headlights of the southbound train. Miraculously, it appears to be moving towards us in the distance and in fact is moving towards us. He suggests that we give the train “The Wave” when it shows up. He’s a cheery sort in hospital greens and in fact gives the motorman The Wave when the train pulls in. Everybody seems to be taking it in stride except me. My inner German is acting up again. Who’s running the railroad?

We’re moving, though. The motorman comes on the speaker with a pleasant but cautionary note: there could still be delays at Howard. Unfortunately, he turns out to be right and we sit on the tracks ramping into Howard, watching a Red Line train and then a Yellow Line train head into the station. And we sit. And we sit.

The automated female voice says we are waiting on signals and should be moving shortly. What does she know?

I’m crabby. How hard is it to run a railroad? This is not a new thing. It takes care and planning and signals and people and electricity and operational savvy. Unpredictable and unhappy things happen on a railroad but this is not a new technology or uncharted territory. I had similar delays at Howard in February on a Saturday morning because of construction and power outages. I was 45 minutes late for the last meeting of a two-hour long Access class. That was 6 months ago and it’s still happening.

Eventually we move. By now, it is nearly 6:30 when get off the train at Howard. Over an hour for a 20-minute ride. The two center tracks are out of service due to construction. Yellow construction webbing keeps everyone from that side of the platform. A large woman in civilian clothes with a walkie-talkie asks us to clear the area around the steps to the pedestrian overpass. Who the heck is she? She asks again. I notice she has two very big bunches of keys like supervisors and railroaders have.

Clearly, she is some kind of CTA employee. But what kind? Why no uniform? Does she wonder why we are slow to respond to her directives?

She asks yet again for everyone to clear the step area. My wife suggests a train in the station would do the trick because then we could go somewhere and get out of her way.

I ask when the train is supposed to show up. She nods to one on the northbound track and suggests that it should turn around soon. The words are no sooner out of her mouth when a different train pulls into the station. Everyone piles on without much talking.

We are soon on our way and the next wrinkle hits: our Red Line train will not be using the subway due to construction there and we will be rerouted over the Elevated track through the Loop. Our plan for getting off at the very close North and Clybourn station are now nixed along with saving any precious minutes. We get off at Armitage and walk. It takes a while but we near the theater at 6:55. Kitty breaks off to grab the tickets and the three of us order some quick food on the corner. From this point on, things go well in our hands.

On the walk Toby ponders his idea of driving partway to the Loyola campus and catching the train from there but said it would have defeated the purpose of not driving.

Steppenwolf’s production of “Superior Donuts” is superior. It is laugh-out-loud funny and a real homage to Chicago and its character and its characters. It is sad and it is touching and it is hopeful. We have a great time. I’m glad we made the effort.

The sound of the elevated rumbles in the background of this Uptown stage set. Romantic now but not so on the trip here.

Why did it take such pain to get here on public transportation? Two and a half hours that we allowed should have given us time at least for bar food and a drink with time to spare. Who at the CTA is responsible for the colossal and repeated mess at Howard on this day and others like the one I had in the winter? Who will be called on the carpet? Does anyone care?

True, the employees were polite and the motorman warned us of trouble ahead. But the trip almost wrecked our evening out.

It makes it hard for me to defend public transportation at times like this. The pro-car people just use this as ammunition for driving. They blame public agencies and haul out every bias they have against government.

Blaming the bigger issues of transit funding in this country doesn’t wash at times like this.

Who in the hell is running the railroad at the CTA?

Can we save the drama for the theater?

Errands and Uncategorized23 Aug 2008 12:59 am

Rental car time again. Number One Son is heading off to college at Northern in DeKalb, Illinois.

A dear and long-time friend had offered to let me use his very large Ford SUV for the delivery. I’m tempted. I know it will swallow enough people and cargo to empty out half the North Side. Besides, I haven’t driven something this big since I drove that antique 1954 GM transit bus, all 40 feet of it, in Minneapolis a few years back. Let’s not talk about things from 1954 being antiques.

Just for the heck of it, I do some quick calculations to see what, if anything, I would save over a rental car. Even with conservative numbers, I would save possibly $10-15 over a rental car. The downside is time: I’d have to cycle down to West Rogers Park to pick it up. I’m grateful for his generosity, which he has in abundance, but decided on the rental car last night. And so, I picked it up this morning, a black Nissan sedan with a Bluetooth-enabled keyless start. I asked the young woman, “But what if someone hacks my car from his Blackberry?” She’s polite but doubtless thinks this is one geeky customer she needs off the lot right now.

I like the dashboard: Tokyo by Night.

Tokyo by Night Dashboard

If it weren’t for the distance to DeKalb and two other people riding along, I probably could have done with borrowing a shopping cart from Dominicks and pulling it behind my bike: a young male does not travel with as much stuff as a young woman. This is not a sexist statement. This is the way it is. The heaviest item was the lead-encased computer monitor, followed by the CPU. The rest literally filled a shopping cart provided on the campus by the moving staff.

“Guys are so easy,” said one of the girls volunteering unloading cars. “They move in with T-shirts and jeans and their computer and TV.”

“This is the lightest load I’ve had all day,” said the young man driving the mini-truck to which we transferred my son’s belongings for the trip to the dorm shopping cart.

Son\'s belongings in a shopping cart.

After I park the car in a parking lot that is in the suburbs of the parking lots, I walk back to meet my wife and son waiting to get up the elevators. Nancy says that some girls’ loads filled up the entire elevator car. I myself notice some very generous mountains of belongings at the curb with girls standing beside them. This is yet another epiphany on maleness that comes from having a son and a daughter. Our car was absolutely packed with her stuff four years ago. I’m surprised the door latches held for 900 miles.

I also noticed the bike rack by the dorm. There are quite a few bikes here but one sad specimen has been knocked down to the ground while still being locked to the rack. It seems an orphan: the cluster on the rear wheel is orange with rust and the wheel itself is “taco-ed.”

Orphan bike at DeKalb dorm

Eventually, we get his belongings into his top-floor corner room with a commanding view of the campus and a nice breeze. We prevail upon him to take care of administrivia, minor things like books and banking while he has us and our credit cards. He would rather have his fingernails pulled out with a Ferrari but Mom knows what’s up. Good thing, deeds done.

We take him out to a nice Mexican restaurant in DeKalb for a final meal before dorm food. A beer would be nice as would a margarita but I’m driving. I asked the waiter, a nice Caucasian man, if they had liquados. “What’s that?” he asked. I guessed he didn’t have them. “I’ll just stick with water.”

We dropped James off after dinner at his dorm, said our goodbyes, and headed off leaving him to fend for himself. Not quite like Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue but he’ll just have to figure it out himself.

We drove home again through the cornfields and the soybean fields and the depressingly persistent marching developments around Elburn.

Route 38 east of DeKalb on the way to Elburn, IL

Will all this green get swallowed up by suburbia, too?

My wife in her opinionated moments contends that cars are the devil. If so, then suburbs are the spawn of demon seed.

Heaven help us.

Errands and Humor and Uncategorized20 Aug 2008 12:13 pm

I’m going local again today just because that’s the way it is. A mid afternoon dog walk takes me back to the North Branch LIbrary to pick up Breakfast of Champions. I open it to one of the simpler but cruder drawings by Vonnegut and laugh out loud. This is what our friend Martha laughingly told me about when I drew a similar “sunshine” image as part of a tasteless visual joke last Friday on the back of a restaurant’s daily special menu. I am looking forward to this book and must force myself not to try to read it now while walking the dog and crossing Central Street traffic.

Bread is low so I decide to go to the Heavenly Hearth bread shop in Wilmette but on my bike to save time. I just don’t feel like I’m getting as much done as I would like: even with discipline, working at home is a challenge. Not so much from my family but from phone calls and emails, which are mostly and fortunately about business. I end up staying up past midnight to compensate. I chat with the bread shop proprietor about his vacation.

The main observation today is how far into the week a bike trailer full of produce will take me. A dozen ears of corn at 2 or 3 per meal gets you 4 to 6 days. The blueberries and blackberries are holding up well despite daily topping our cereal. Peaches, two bags/green boxes, doing well but they do need to be eaten given their ripeness. Radishes still looking good but forgot some from a week or so ago but they’re OK. The watermelon half is still there so I need to remember that.

Dinner came from the Farmer’s Market load and miscellaneous Whole Foods stock ups and our garden. My wife has imparted to me the philosophy of whipping together dinner without a gratuitous rush trip to the store, so today’s is corn on the cob, a salad of spinach and FM vegetables, and leftover pasta with pesto made from basil from Nancy’s container gardens.

The bagels from Sunday’s bike errand are holding up but disappearing fast, thanks to Number One Son for whom the term, “low hanging fruit” applies to any food easily prepared and applied to his mouth at mid-afternoon or middle of the night.

One late night walk with the dog under the waning moon and that brings today’s mobility to a cool close.

Errands and Uncategorized20 Aug 2008 12:03 pm

My day is a transportation desert. The grand tours of the neighborhood with my dog are the highlights as I pry myself off the desktop laptop and the cell-o-phone. Not so bad, just not much to say.

“Local” is nice, though. I stop in the North Branch of the Evanston Public Library to request Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. After all, why make an extra trip, even by bike, if someone else can do the trip for me? It will be here Tuesday. Deal.

I combine that with trip to Dominicks for a prescription that came in Friday when I was having the time of my life traveling to the west suburban frontiers.

A late afternoon soiree across the alley and I meet with my neighbor to advise him more on his website. This business meeting is conducted in his shady backyard, populated by plants and three dogs, the shyest of them all, a small Shitzu, managing to insist her way onto my lap to share that space with Macks’s MacBook. Beer and chips make this much nicer than a conference room meeting. We’re sharing expertise here: he’s advising me and my wife on building a water effect in the backyard. We are sitting facing his homemade waterfall and pond, an impressively handsome and comforting spectacle and soundscape. Only the roofing job next door disturbs the peace.

What does come from two phone calls of the morning starting at 9 is catching up with colleagues past, one now freelancing himself in the western suburbs and living in Vernon Hills. There’s a drive for you, folks.

The other is in the Cincinnati area, through which I have only passed on Amtrak years ago in a past life when I worked in On-Board Services. The Amtrak station was a pre-fab 70’s box in a lonely industrial place and sadly, we only passed behind the grand art deco Cincinnati Union Station. Happily, CUS was preserved.

As am I, preserving myself for the next commute.

Errands and Miscellaneous12 Aug 2008 12:48 pm

We decided to keep the car the extra day because the nominal extra charge of $12.00 before taxes at the weekend rate was no comparison for sending my wife to O’Hare in a taxi, provided one would come. My own taxi rides from O’Hare have been in the $40.00-plus range.

Around 2:30 we leave to get her there for a 3:59 flight and arrive around 3 PM. Uneventful except that a taxi is holding up the line at the toll baskets getting onto 190 to O’Hare. The other lanes are moving. When he finally clears the gate after throwing in more money, it’s my turn for delay. I put in the required 80 cents and the light stays red. I go and decided to report it. After leaving O’Hare, I get the required numbers and complaint cards from a sympathetic attendant at the northbound toll gate after giving up my $1.00.

Even at this, is mostly simple, easy, and time-efficient. Only later after the scheduled departure time does she call me to tell me the United flight is delayed at least until 5:40. So much for efficiency.

On the way home, I’m still thinking of what I can use the car for now that I have it. Most are gratuitous or certainly not critical. I opt only for stopping at the liquor store on Dempster to see what interesting beers they have and opt for the bargain singles in the shopping cart. After all, it makes sense to watch my money, right?

I parked the car at home and ended up not using it any more. I still rode my bike to 5:00 class because the weather was still nice, borderline cool.

Errands and Leisure12 Aug 2008 12:33 pm

This will not be a car-free weekend and with very good reason.

There’s a family party in Janesville, WI that is in the “must attend” category: Uncle George’s 80th birthday party. No, not this Uncle George, another Uncle George. Sheesh. I’m not quite that mature yet.

This promises to be another fun blowout so I made sure to reserve the car last weekend from the same local rental place. I get there earlier so I have more selection unlike last Saturday when only two compacts were left to choose from. Not a huge deal, mind you, but this is like car shopping “lite” when you go out to the lot with the rep. Woo-hoo! I choose the mini-Magnum, a metallic red Caliber. Like someone will notice. Or care.

The car sits in front of the house while we do who knows what this morning. We debate the bike to the farmer’s market routine. Nah, things to do, we can use the car on Sunday to go to Skokie’s farmer’s market if we feel like it, right? Ah, the options a car gives you. It’s so easy.

Come time to leave, we decide to squeeze in the nearby smaller Wilmette farmer’s market by the Metra station. A fine choice, mind you, but it takes longer than we think. One big reason: traffic. As we are leaving, my wife points this out as we sit in a line of cars waiting at Green Bay Road to cross it. “You be halfway home if you were on your bike.” She’s probably right. I’ve walked here with the dog plenty of times, too. Take note, fair readers.

We drop the goods off at home so not to drag them to Janesville and back. Fine idea for the food, bad idea for the departure: we’re a full half hour late for a “quick” stop at the farmer’s market.

We finally hit the road and drive through Skokie, Mt. Prospect, Arlington Heights, and get on the beloved Northwest Tollway. It’s moving so no delays but the dreaded toll plazas are a constant slowdown and expensive: 80 cents muliple times, $1.60 once and the same coming back. I have long refused to buy an I-Pass for my occasional driving but I pay for this refusal in toll-plaza peskiness. These are oppressive roads. I’m so happy that “open road tolling” has sped my less-stubborn fellow drivers on their way. In the meantime, I will do my damndest to not use the damn toll roads.

We make good time despite a few short-lived raindrops, unlike this past Monday. Now the hitch: County A looks like the place to get off from the map sent with the invitation. When we get there, there’s no County A exit. We drive about five miles to the next exit. We have to figure out how to get there through Milton. I’m predictably crabby at this detour but it’s not really my navigator’s fault. A helpful homeowner in Milton points us to the country road M that we need. Her directions include a significant landmark: “When you see the big ethanol plant, you’re on the right road.” We soon find the ethanol plant: three enormous silver tanks with a set of mini-cracking towers nearby and a railyard filled with grain hopper cars to fuel the fermentation. Can’t say I’ve ever seen a separate ethanol plant although my trips to Archer Daniels Midland in Decatur probably included some sightings.

Across from the plant, my wife is taken by a more interesting sight: a property lined with large, hand-painted plywood signs, the first one we read being, “Ethanol Stinks”. According to another sign, something is also rotten in City Hall, I am assuming this to mean Milton’s City Hall. Is this a protest about ethanol as a fuel? Surely, there’s a fair amount to support that given how much fossil fuel it takes to produce ethanol and grow the barely-edible starchy corn used to make it.

Nope, not quite. Our host points out that the smell from the plant is literally what overwhelms this homeowner’s property. I didn’t smell it but understandably it is some very ripe and pervasive odor of fermentation. Judging by the size of those big round silver tanks, this person has something to beef about. Jimmy, our host, is sympathetic.

Looks like there’s another price for freeing us from that damn foreign oil. I’m grateful for the detour after all. I just got a little extra education out of it.

Of course, the party was a total blast. I am grateful to be able to attend, despite whatever exotic blend of ethanol and foreign and domestic oil got me here. I just wish there was another way to get in this mobility. Not for now, though: everybody came here in a car. Not even a Prius in sight, much less a bike or a train or even a bus. Quite a few long-bed pickups, though.

On the way home that night, my wife makes a comment about this relative novelty of having a car. She’s right: it seems more like a luxury than something we take for granted.

Errands and Leisure10 Aug 2008 01:17 pm

I have a full day and evening planned downtown. The Metra train is the better choice today but the CTA lends a hand in the Loop.

On my way in I read the Tribune which features a notable article on Chicagoland transportation with this headline: Traffic congestion’s toll is $7.3 billion a year in Chicago area

It’s a stunning but not surprising study by the Metropolitan Planning Council reported bythe Chicago Tribune Getting Around writer. Read the whole article but think about this quote:

Time wasted in traffic jams is costing commuters and their employers an average of $879 a year in the collar counties and $3,014 in Chicago, the study estimated. For the six-county region combined, the cost of congestion comes to an average of $1,579 for each worker and his or her employer.”

Yikes…and yet Hilkevitch reports that it remains a hard sell to get people to pay more taxes to solve this issue. Drink deeply of the whole article:,0,6010193.story

Metra is running late again and I’m sweating the noon meeting I have. I opt for the 124 Navy Pier bus, a new friend for me in the Loop area this summer. It gets me closer and I transfer at Michigan to a Sheridan Road bus. I’m only a little late and yet still earlier than my lunch host. All’s well and my CTA card is doing right by me. I reload it after lunch with $10 in the Red Line subway and ride to the Harold Washington Library until a 4 PM call that I take in a study room there. Let me get started another time how much I still like libraries.

After that mental challenge, I ride the Red Line back north again to meet friends at a bar pub on Grand Avenue. This bopping around the Loop on the CTA buses and trains is something I haven’t done for a long time. Kind of like getting back on a bike after a time away: I still have the hang of it.

The fun evening with my friends winds down and I decide that I will catch the 10:35 Metra train. I have time to walk but I’m on a roll with the CTA: a 22 Clark bus pulls up to the stop and I take it into the Loop. I just miss a connection with a Madison bus westbound but I have lots of time and the summer night is fabulous for walking, which is what I do. Lots of people are still out in the Loop.

Lots of people are on the train, too.

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