Socializing and Uncategorized25 Aug 2008 08:46 am

The weather has cooled overnight from yesterday’s humid and stultifying heat. The sun is out and a strong breeze is blowing making work inside and outside very comfortable. I decide to weed the garden and the overgrown west gangway next to our house by the fence.

The front garden is again filled with quack grass, Clearweed, Lady’s Thumb, Smartweed, Oxalis, late-summer headless Dandelions, and weeds whose names I’ve yet to discover. I admire their persistence in returning for this encore performance. I did this not too long ago, maybe about a month back.

It occurs to me that I should have mulched it then when I had a chance. One little problem: no car in which to run to the garden center and load the cargo area with bags of mulch.

True, I could have ordered a load delivered, which really is the way to have done it, but I got busy or distracted or lazy or some combination of the three. It would have taken some planning. Instead, the weeds had their way with my garden.

Still, this little incident raises the question: what came before cars and drivers were so ubiquitous?

Flashback #1: One-Car Pittsburgh

My Mom, like so many mothers in my blue-collar Pittsburgh neighborhood, did not have a driver’s license and thus did not drive. Our cars were a succession of well-used used cars which ran but also quickly showed their latent rust in bubbly blisters around the wheel wells and chrome trim. Dad used the car to drive to work in the famous U.S. Steel Homestead Works, which was maybe about 5 miles by car but a very roundabout ride by two streetcars via downtown Pittsburgh. I later worked in Homestead at a newspaper chain and often did not have the car because my sister and I were sharing it after my Dad and Mom had died. By then, it was two buses via downtown Pittsburgh and it was a least a solid hour’s trip, maybe more if the connections were bad. I understand why my Dad wanted to have a car, especially when he was working 4-to-12 or 12-to-8 shifts.

Aside from using the car for work, it was used for weekend trips to the Kroger’s for groceries, not even that far away from our house, but still down the hill. This meant up the hill with groceries for a family of five.

How did other household supplies come in during the weekdays?

Flashback #2: Marker Lights in the Night

Rewind not so far to this past winter: very late on a cold, snowy night, I took my dog out for his late walk to do his business.

Sane people were snuggled warm in their beds and most houses were mostly dark.

I heard the chatter of a diesel engine and caught orange and red sparks of marker lights. At this hour, a truck?


On another snowy winter night, a similar vision, but sounds of a different diesel, throatier, meatier.

Milk truck.

How did people get things before everyone had a car or a second car for Mom?

This topic came up several times earlier this year in phone calls. First, my daughter was recounting what a pain in the ass it was to do grocery shopping in Ann Arbor without a car. Sure, the small food co-op was a few blocks from her house but Whole Foods was outside town in the suburban strip. We started talking about what came before because she was the food buyer for her house. She put in the orders and the food was delivered. They also had a knife service that came in and swapped out the knives with sharpened ones every week.

I brought this up later to my Pittsburgh friend Scott, close to me in generation, and we started to tick off the kinds of deliveries and services that came through our neighborhoods when we were kids: The milkman with his stand-up drive Divco who gave us kids chunks of ice on summer days. The bread truck. The huckster (that’s for produce, young pups). The laundry soap truck from Old Honesty Soap out in the Spring Garden neighborhood. The junk man with his idiosyncratic song and lumbering Chevy truck whining in low gear. The knife sharpener with his push-cart-mounted sharpening wheel. The department store delivery trucks for all the things that Moms could not drag home on the streetcar or the bus.

God, that seems like the Early Pleistocene.

But wait:

Add an 800-number phone system and a personal computer and a network and e-commerce to a truck fleet and you’ve got Peapod. Or UPS. Or the Postal Service and eBay and Amazon.

Guys in overburdened pickups still patrol my alley regularly for scrap metal. One regular guy recognizes me and we wave to each other.

We’ve even occasionally had an old-timer with his sharpening cart roll through our neighborhood once a summer. Like other neighbors, we ran out with our knives that had done a better job at smashing tomatoes than cutting them.

Home deliveries are so yesterday.

Home deliveries are so today.

Leisure and Socializing and Uncategorized28 Jul 2008 03:59 pm

We return to the city for yet another party. After the Venetian Night experience last night with Metra, we decide not even to try to bring our bikes and just ride it down to Clybourn, where we will catch an Ashland bus back north to our friends’ house near Wellington and Racine.

At Davis, two women cyclists in bike lycra with road bikes get off the car ahead and walk past our car. What? Bikes on the train today? More cyclists get off at downline stations. Damn, we could have taken our bikes after all. Nancy engages one getting off with us at Clybourn and grouses about Metra but the cyclist defends them as coming a long way. Is the train half-empty or half-full?

I urge Nancy to drop this line of discussion and run with me to the northbound Ashland bus waiting in traffic at the light. We just missed another one as the train rolled in and I don’t want to miss this one. The driver opens the doors for us. The ride is brief to Wellington where we walk east through our old stompin’ grounds and size up what has changed. Little Bucharest is long gone with its heavy food and flocked wallpaper and layered creamy tortes. I remember an old party at an apartment she shared on Racine. It’s a nice memory.

This party is fun, too. We see parents and teachers from the old grade school. We tell stories and catch up and meet the handsome young men who used to be little kids my son played with and went to Cub Scout camp with. I drink Margaritas with no guilt whatsoever: I am not driving and I am not cycling, so there. This is freedom you don’t get with a car.

One of the Moms offers to ride us to the Ravenswood Metra as she goes home with her son and daughter. Her old Saturn has over 140 thousand miles on it with no rust, she says. This is her contribution to the environment, she says. I’m OK with not treating cars as mere disposables after three years.

At Ravenswood, we have time to spare, over 30 minutes, and plan to read on the spartan platform on this pretty summer late afternoon. Before I sit on the comfy asphalt, a woman on the southbound platform yells across the tracks, “Are you going to Chicago?” “No, where are you headed?” I ask her. “Lake Bluff.”

“Come on over to this side,” I say, and direct her down the steps and under the tracks to our steps.

I’m on the platform as she and her three friends come up. They are in a good mood. They are wearing Cubs shirts and hats. She compliments me on my Converse Skulls and I thank her. She offers us an Old Style and I accept only after asking her if she has enough for her friends. “Nah, she’s already over-imbibed so I’m cutting her off,” she says, indicating her friend sitting on the platform with her head down. But they are chatting and laughing and teasing each other, sometimes coarsely. “Those are some real cankles you got there, bitch,” says one woman looking at another’s legs.

I drink my beer and we chat and my wife laughs. They take pictures of each other a nice digital and I offer to take some of the four of them. They cluster and hug and smile and look very nice in the viewfinder. Zzzttt-click. They are pleased with the photos and laugh reviewing them.

Party on a platform.

This is what I like about riding transit, remember?

Commuting and Socializing28 Jul 2008 03:36 pm

I have another late afternoon Metra ride into the Loop, this time to have dinner with a friend and former colleague at 5;30. This means missing Critical Mass again but I hope that the summer night’s crowd will forgive my absence and two wheels.

This is an odd but interesting change of pace for me, riding inbound trains in the afternoon when they’re light in this direction. Too bad I have no confidence that Metra will ever let me on the train even when they say they will. More on this rant later.

I had a nice time catching up. I have definitely had the pleasure of working with some really good people who are real professionals. We talked more personal than professional, which is fine by me.

After dinner, my friend and I get to extend the conversation as we walk across the loop to the Ogilvie station, he for the 8:40 PM West Line, me for the 8:35 PM North Line.

I appreciate my community.

At home, my wife reports she has worked out the details of donating the old car. We just have to do it. Stay tuned.

Commuting and Leisure and Shopping and Socializing and Uncategorized21 Jul 2008 12:51 pm

My wife and I have separate missions at different times in The District today but we both start the same way: walking to the East Falls Church Metro station. The scenes along the way remind me I’m someplace else where the issues remain the same. Take a look:

Not the Beltway but related: the ubiquitous HOV lane signs to expressways that let the buses ride the shoulders at rush hour at 25 mph.

The encouraging bike lineup at the Metro station. Can’t say I approve of the motor scooter in there. Park in the parking lot, dude, save this for bikes.

Not quite clear why they taped over “Covered” and “In Bus Area” but at least I know that there is “Bicycle Parking Along Wall.”

And the Metro, of course. Not perfect but they key to the kingdom when I visit DC. The outsides are looking a bit tatty these days with faded brown paint. The insides have some dingy carpeting but carpeting alone on a transit vehicle still intrigues me, coming from Chicago.

In Georgetown, where I walk from the Foggy Bottom station, plenty of people are on foot. Some cyclists are out, too, in the increasingly hot and muggy morning. A cyclist on a road bike is powering up the hill in the bike lane on Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Natch, a big black SUV gets a big idea to make a big fast move to the right to get around a car in front and almost hits the cyclist but stops in time.

Doesn’t the SUV driver know yet that no one is first in traffic? Oh, and bikes are traffic, too. There, I said it.

I’ve arrived at Georgetown in a little less than an hour door-to-door and I’m early. I forgot how much I like Georgetown and the C&O Canal and the commercial energy.

We won’t talk about the prices for now.

I walk back to the Foggy Bottom Metro to meet up with my wife for an all-too-brief visit to the Afghanistan treasures exhibit at the National Gallery. By now the DC heat and humidity is living up to its reputation. The escalator is not working but I’m at least going down.

The air conditioning is not working in the Metro car I take one stop to Gallery Place from Metro Center. It is oppressively hot.

We get the boot at 5 PM. Dag.

Off to Bethesda for dinner with other friends. A hot walk back to the Metro. On the way, we stop for a traffic light and a cyclist powers his way up the grade as we wait. These DC cyclists seem to be favoring light road bikes and lycra. Makes sense with the hills and the heat. New bike, George? I’m banned from wearing lycra, though.

A stop for flowers in Friendship Heights means finding them first, but a pedestrian points us to the nearby Giant store. We cannot find the entrance at sidewalk level. Nancy is wise: find the parking lot. Which we do. Up the hill. In the heat. I’m losing it and she suggests a cab to our friends’ house for dinner. Great idea and we do it.

The evening is fun catching up but I’m paying for last night’s late catching up. The prospect of a night walk to the Metro and two trains back to Falls Church is daunting but I’m determined to do it.

Greg offers to drive us home. We want to protest but not really. We’re happy for the ride.

The ride to the Beltway takes us past the revived Glen Echo Park, a “streetcar park” once served by the DC Transit system and like other streetcar amusement parks, built to generate traffic on car lines and boost revenue for equipment otherwise idle in off-peak hours.

The neon glows like a beacon over the streetcar they have parked in front.

The old rail right-of-way is a bike trail now.

I can live with that. Sweet dreams, indeed.

Leisure and Socializing and Uncategorized21 Jul 2008 12:47 pm

I’m not Jimmy Stewart and they did not make a movie about me. But I did go to Washington with my wife.

We made it to Midway without a car or taxi but it took a while and it took some planning.

We lined up neighbors with keys and instructions on the pets and the plants. We gave both pets and plants attention this morning and earmarked the 9:26 AM Metra train as the one to catch. Without too much stress or scrambling, we made it.

It was late.

It’s entrance to the station was dramatic, though: very fast. So fast, it looked like he was going to breeze us all at Central Street. Only when the first car or so was at the platform did I hear the burst of air indicating a brake application. With the acrid smoke of brakeshoes filling the air, the train finally stopped far to the south, with about a car and a half beyond the end of the platform and a conductor keeping running passengers from running to the open door over the Lincoln bridge.

His stops at subsequent stations were considerably slower, I note to my wife.

We got downtown and headed up two blocks to the Green Line el station where we waited a little while before the train came. Just one stop and we were off again waiting for the Orange Line train to Midway.

We waited. And waited. And waited. Pink and Green and Brown line trains paraded by.

This is not too impressive airport service, methinks. I’m glad we had extra time built in.

The Orange Line train finally squealed through the junction at Lake and Wells, rounded the corner and picked us up. It poked and poked and poked through the Loop and the South Loop and Chinatown. This is not the way it’s supposed to be.

Finally, it picks up speed and gets us to Midway, where we walk and walk and walk to the terminal. Looks like the cab and bus companies made sure the train was not convenient to the terminal. Keep yourself in good shape for this walk.

After all this, we are through security at 11:04 AM for an 12:08 PM flight. Time for food and reading material.

The Southwest flight is on time and is hosted by a lead flight attendant named Scooter who is a small woman of mighty comedic proportions: she is flat out the funniest flight attendant I have ever had. Great lines, great delivery. We arrive on time in Dulles.

Never been to this one out in the boodocks. Dave has already volunteered to pick us up by car. My wife didn’t realize that National (don’t tell me to call it “Reagan”) is the close-in airport with a Metro stop. Oh, well, this happens. She knows for next time.

While waiting for Dave, I notice intercity-size brown buses marked “West Falls Church Metro”. File these away for next time. Dave drives us to his house by the East Falls Church Metro station. Ah, that’s better: we’ll need that tomorrow for sure.

Dave needs to stay close to home to be around his aunt so he can’t go out to dinner as we offer. So, we offer instead to do carryout car-free and walk up the hill to the gigantic Vietnamese plaza with the gigantic parking lot to find dinner.

We have great success. Even buy a six-pack of Vietnamese beer, heartily recommended by the man at the cash register.

It was indeed a fine accompaniment to Vietnamese dinner as he suggested. We head home burdened with out booty. It is a downhill walk mostly.

I stay up way too late talking but hey, I’m on vacation and it’s fun catching up.

I pay for it tomorrow.

Errands and Leisure and Shopping and Socializing15 Jul 2008 08:30 am

Having a car lets you take energy for granted: not only fossil fuel but personal energy as well.

To wit: do we run errands because we need things or because we need to feel accomplished?

Sometimes we do need things and sometimes they all pile up when we work all week long. On the other hand, does having a list of stops as long as your credit card statement and spending all Saturday in your car so you can check things off the list really define “accomplishment.”

Knock yourself out, then. I’m finding that without a car I pick and choose a bit more carefully. That extra side trip to the bread store got nixed when my wife rightly pointed out we had plenty of bread right now.

I instead walked to the hardware store to return an unused toilet handle from last weekend’s plumbing caper. I took the dog along and doubled up a chore.

On the way back, I ran into my neighbor with the collie mix heading in the opposite direction. She was pushing her son’s bike to the bike store for repairs. Of course, we stopped to talk as the dogs sniffed and socialized.

After we parted, I realized she was doing the same as I: combining errands. I also realized, she could just have easily put her son’s bike in the car and driven it to the bike store. She didn’t.

Missions, plural, accomplished.

With energy to spare.

Without driving.

Commuting and Socializing and Uncategorized11 Jul 2008 02:49 pm

Four guys and a turbocharged Bobcat are in my backyard this morning requiring my attention so my regular departure is delayed. I opt to stay even later and dial in to a 10:30 AM client call so I don’t miss it. I end up taking the CTA elevated and subway to work.

My ride reminded me why I like public transit: friendly random encounters with a real cross-section of the city. This time it was international.

After transferring from the Purple Line to the Red Line, I decide to entertain myself by listening to my iPod and working on my MacBook. Somewhere south of Loyola the man next me gets off and I notice a young African family, mom, dad, little girl, board but split up to take the seats available. The woman sits next to me and is wearing a beige dress with embroidered designs and matching headwrap but I don’t stare and offhand I can’t identify from what country she might be. They are fair-skinned, slender, and the little girl sitting on her mom’s lap is just a bundle of smiles and enthusiasm, looking out the windows and at me and other people. Just about as cute as kid could be, in my estimation.

Eventually, despite my electronic haze, I notice the mom look at me and ask a question. Out come the earbuds and out comes a piece of paper she has on which is written an address. In slow but understandable English she asks how to get to East 79th Street. I explain that they should get off at the 79th Station and I point to the route map above the opposite doors. “How far?” she asks and I refer to the paper which has an address in the 2500 East block. “About 3 miles,” I say, referencing Chicago’s convenient “8 blocks to a mile” system. I am pretty sure there’s a 79th Street bus and tell her that, to go up to the street and talk to the bus driver. I point east to help her with the direction. She gets it.

An older white woman on the sideways seat is taking this all in. She smiles, then tells the mom in Slavic-accented English that she can get a CTA map in the train station. She then compliments the little girl, asks her how she is, and the little girl holds up three fingers. The woman then asks the mom where she’s from.

At first, it’s the broad answer: “Africa.”

“Where?” I ask, being a stickler for details and just wanting to keep the conversation going. “Do you know East Africa?” Of course, the countries I say don’t include her own country of Eritrea, although I’m embarassed not to understand her pronunciation until about the third try, and only after she makes the association with Ethiopia.

The older white lady volunteers that she is from what used to be Yugoslavia. “Where” I ask. I just can’t stop myself, it seems.


Turning to the Eritrean mom, she now says, “Tito was a special communist. Things were good. Tito and Haile Selassie were good friends” and she indicates their closeness with two fingers together.

The conversation had pretty much reached its limit by now but was a friendly, random exchange of the kind I really enjoy. I’ve had others like this on the train as people dare to engage strangers to ask for help and most strangers willingly accommodate in Chicago, still a fairly friendly city for its size.

I wrap up the iPod and the laptop. Who needs “entertainment” after this encounter with my community?

Leisure and Socializing and Uncategorized10 Jul 2008 05:04 pm

My office is closed today for an extended holiday weekend, so I don’t have to commute. My wife does bike to work as usual with a trip to downtown Chicago for an appointment. She uses the el down and back to the end of the Purple Line at Linden, from which she rides her bike. The wheelchair ramp at that station makes rolling a bike on and off the platform a snap.

A friend recently pointed out the ancillary but unpredicted benefits of accommodation. The Americans with Disabilities Act was intended to make work and transportation accessible for a whole population of people who had generally been excluded. Benefits to the rest of society were not part of the mandate. These same potential benefits were often ignored by those opposed to the expense and effort to accommodate disabled people.

But can a wheelchair ramp benefit a cyclist? How about a Mom or Dad with a baby stroller? How anyone just walking who finds it easier to walk up a ramp instead of stepping up or down a curb?

How would better accommodations for cyclists and pedestrians benefit everyone else, including drivers?
My thoughts are along the lines of, “less traffic for those who must or insist on driving, perhaps less pollution from stop-and-go traffic, and better controls at intersections that make life safer for pedestrians and less frustrating for motorists?” Could jobs be created? Would national heart disease rates decline? Might a city or suburb be a bit more livable, or a lot more livable? Can it possibly be so?

I rode my bike to a local restaurant and had dinner with my daughter, her friend, and one of my best friends. Two came in one car, one came in another car.

How deeply are cars embedded in our lives and our culture?

Pretty deep, I would say. Of course, I remember a time when smoking was ubiquitous, too.

Leisure and Socializing and Uncategorized08 Jul 2008 03:58 pm

Before any car-crack addict goes, “Tish-tush, snicker-snicker”, allow me to say that significant family events trump a lot of things in my life. Our extended family lives in the real suburbs, defined as suburbs having few sidewalks but which people rarely use. Not my choice but I love them anyway. The family, not the sidewalks.

My daughter drives into town for this 80th birthday party. The three of us get in the car with presents and the intention of having a good time and that’s exactly what we do.

So there.

Is this somehow an admission that we and our American society are joined to the car at our mutual rearends and that somehow separating us would leave us both half-assed? I don’t get this logic because we’re kind of half-assed right now: no clear transportation policy, rising gas prices, few alternatives for working and poor people dependent upon cars for jobs, massive highway subsidies, and a highway lobby powerful enough to stop speeding trains?

Oh, by the way, Southwest Airlines successfully managed to help kill a Texas high-speed train initiative back in the 90’s because it would have encroached on Southwest’s core market cities. Having both driven and ridden the train across Texas, I would like to submit that the state’s distances and dense urban/suburban clusters would have been well served by high-speed trains.

At least the airline industry is doing really, really well these days. I’m so happy for them.

So what do we have here? I’m not trying to prove that having a car is easy and convenient.

I am, however, trying to prove to myself that I can cut my car use further, possibly drastically, without feeling like I am somehow deprived.

Right now, I have to say, the less I have to drive a car the less I care about having one.

And for me, that’s an important first step.

Commuting and Leisure and Socializing and Uncategorized05 Jul 2008 12:29 pm

The bike stays parked today and I take the train again. Evening plans that are a little, uh, “fluid”, inform this choice.

Herding cats with cell phones can actually work and the extended family ends up enjoying an 8 pm show of Cirque Shanghai at Navy Pier.

Horrific rush-hour traffic, Edens Expressway construction, and a severe storm in the north suburbs makes the drive long and miserable for the rest of the family. My wife gets there from a downtown appointment on her bike. I walk most of the way from my office and only jump the free “trolley” shuttle (really a bus, folks, who are we kidding here?) after showing a suburban family where to get it and looking up at the dark and threatening sky.

The shuttle is packed but the mood is cheery: everyone’s a tourist today and this vehicle represents a lot of cars not going to Navy Pier. Frequent, easy, pleasant, convenient. Did I mention “free” already? Who’s to argue with transit like this?

The ride home later that evening is different but informative for those of us not in a car.

The Metra blackout days because of Taste of Chicago mean that Nancy unlocks her bike and rides to the subway station where the CTA wisely still accommodates bikes.

I take a different path using the 124 Navy Pier bus that serves three Metra train stations: Millennium Park Electric Line, Ogilvie, and Union.

This bus earns its keep: it’s packed and democratic.

Young and old, Chicago’s variety of races and economics, and a man in a motorized wheelchair who maneuvered in on the ramp after the driver politely had passengers vacate the folding handicap seats to make room. People were accommodating and patient as he put the wheelchair in the space, turned it around, and parallel-parked it facing forward. Not simple but impressive.

More people packed in and the bus finally was underway. People talked noisily in groups and with the man in the wheelchair. The bus earned its keep and a little discomfort of crowding did not seem to bother anyone.

I got the train with time to spare but I admit to worrying about this. What if I missed the train? I would have had to wait another hour to get home.

But I didn’t, and managed to best Nancy’s time on the subway/el by only about 20 minutes. I avoided the heavy rain through the North Side and she was at least sheltered as she changed trains.

Now I’m thinking: Why do people drive? Why do people take the bus? Why do people avoid the bus?

Stay tuned, I’m working on this.

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