Oh, and it also includes a trip to Dominicks using a wire shopping cart to get some groceries we need for our contribution to the ad hoc potluck.
The Labor Day leading up to the 5:30 potluck amounts to staying around the house and relaxing.
And thinking about the Summer that, for practical and emotional, if not meteorologic reasons, has passed.
This includes the Car-free Summer, 2008.
The end of Summer always catches me by surprise and this one is no exception. When I began to consider this idea of trying car-free and pretty quickly decided to just do it with encouragement of my friend Scott Davis to keep a journal, I really didn’t have huge thoughts about what would happen when Summer ended. Now I’m staring at it and it’s staring right back at me.
Mix a little bit sad with that surprise, too.
That sadness alone, though, is probably a positive. I have truly enjoyed this Summer.
How close did I come to my stated goal?
In the next few weeks, I’d like to reflect on what I’ve learned and what I’ve enjoyed. I want to determine whether I’ve come to any grand conclusions. In turn, I want to think out loud and consider next steps. In the meantime, I want to document our transportation needs and desires as they are germane to the discussion of doing without a car.
I hope you’ll come along for the ride. It’s not over yet.]]>
Our transportation needs are minimal because our desire to go far-flung places is also minimal.
Need Number One: A New Sawblade
Talk about pedestrian but that’s what it is. My hand-me-down Skilsaw has what is probably the blade that came with it, a course, gap-toothed blade that still cuts but makes more splinters than sawdust. It is tearing up the edges of the already-coarse plywood I’m trying to cut with some sense of dignity. This calls for a trip to the hardware store again.
I take my bike. It’s fast and the little round sawblade will fit easily into a pannier bag. I probably spend more time figuring out how to hold the blade still while I loosen the nut and then changing the blade.
There are plenty of cars in the hardware store’s parking lot. There is also a mother and son unlocking their bikes when I come out of the store to unlock mine. Despite the parking lot at this store, there are also patrons consistently showing up on their bikes, often with kids on their bikes. It really is possible with kids to do bike errands.
Need Number Two: Dinner with Friends
This one is really easy: dinner with friends at the end of the block. Our contributions to dinner are already on hand: sweet corn bought yesterday at the Farmer’s Market and brought home in the trailer; beer I had bought the other day on a walk with my dog.
Nothing grand and no grand conclusions here, folks.
A couple key concepts, though: closeness and community.
The hardware store is only about 3/4 mile away. The neighbors are about 3/4 of a block away.
The need for a car does not exist in a community with services and people nearby.]]>
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.]]>
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.
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 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=94057387. 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.]]>
Let’s look at the day and that will tell the story.
Errand #1: Donate Blood
They’ve been calling me and calling me and finally they got me. I had to reschedule once from yesterday, when I had planned to donate at Evanston Hospital, a very short bike ride away. Mind you, I regularly donate in Skokie on Golf Road, south of Old Orchard Mall, and typically I drive there. I certainly could ride this minimal 3-mile ride on my bike but the route is definitely less than bike-friendly. I figured a better choice would be to find another location and nicely enough, there are mobile blood drives this week. My alternate choice today is minimally farther than Evanston Hospital: the Evanston Civic Center.
I ride my bike and lock my bike to the old-school pipe rack in front that has a distinctive parallelogram lean to it. Only one other bike is locked to it. The back of this property is covered in asphalt to encourage driving to city hall.
I make it there as they are still setting up. Errand #2 is weighing on me so I want to try and get in ahead of my 9:30 appointment and they allow me to do this.
A thought occurs to me as the blood draw winds down and they give me the usual marching orders about what not to do, which includes, “no strenuous exercise.” Does riding my bike home count as strenuous exercise? I eat extra snacks and juice to compensate.
I do just fine riding home but I know I will be hungry later as usual after giving blood. I have enough time for a little break before errand #2.
Errand #2: Take Daughter to O’Hare
I’m crying “Uncle” on this O’Hare trip: it’s a terrible location, bike-hostile, roundabout on transit, and it’s just starting to rain. I want Amanda to make her flight to San Francisco and I’m out of work and I don’t want to pay for a $40.00-plus taxi ride for her or make her pay for it. I will use the car for the first time since its return but I will combine this trip with errand #3.
It’s drizzling now as we go to the car out front, still not allowed in the garage because of bikes and projects. I can’t see its tears because of the rain. Right.
Dempster Street is light but still an unattractive local speedway. The Tri-State Tollway is still under construction but moving. Amazingly, the toll gate on the branch 190 road to O’Hare actually records my 80 cents, unlike last time and other times before. I drop Amanda off with time for fun stuff like going through security and hoping American is actually flying today.
I rejoin the hyperkinetic northbound flow on the Tri-State but soon slow to pay my cash toll. I have not bought an I-Pass and thus am not the beneficiary of “open road tolling.” I will buy a CTA card and I will buy Metra 10-rides but I refuse to buy an I-Pass. I don’t want them earning interest on my money while it sits there and they continue to add more lanes and push for more toll roads to build more ugly suburbs sprawling every farther out.
God, the Illinois toll road is an ugly gash across the landscape, I recoil as I drive it and yet use it. It’s so ugly and noisy that they have raised new ugly sound barrier walls along the reconstructed road. I’m at a loss for words here: if the topic you’re discussing is ugly upon ugly, can you call it “gilding the lily”?
Errand #3: The Sick Mac Laptop
This is getting tedious: my fourth hard drive has failed this year, this time on my “old” G3 iBook. Two work MacBooks and my old iPod preceded it in platter death. I have an appointment at the Genius Bar at 12:20 at Old Orchard. Ostensibly, I could have given blood nearby after all. So much for not using the car earlier except for one important difference: I got the exercise.
Predictably, I’m hungry, so I eat a slice of pizza in the food court. I don’t know when the last time I was here but it was a long time ago. For a while at least, I’ve successfully avoided getting malled.
I spend about an hour total and I give up my old Mac to the maw of the repair department. Computers are another toxic waste scourge and I’m at least trying to get my use out of the ones I have. More conflict here: I like computing and make my living at it. Argggh.
Errand #4: The Doctor’s Appointment
I have time for a dog walk when I get home and leaving again around 1:40. The sky is clearing up and I have enough time to include the bike in my plans but I want to make sure I make it to Diversey and Sheridan by 3 PM. I decide to do a hybrid trip there at least: ride to the Central Street el station to avoid the long walk and dealing with the long bus intervals. A wise choice, I’m there in no time. I miss a train, as usual, but try to recharge my CTA card. Some women apparently are having trouble with the machine so the agent comes out to let them through the gate for free. She does the same for me and she does it with courtesy and a smile and I appreciate it. Another train comes soon and soon after that I’m tranferring to the Red Line at Howard. Things are going way better than they did the other Saturday going to the play.
I make it Belmont delay-free and heave my bike down the steps into the still-under-construction station. The agent has come out to let a woman with a rolling suitcase ahead of me out the handicapped gate and holds it for me with a smile. Again, I thank him. I’m grooving to the CTA employees today.
I ride my bike across ever-busy Belmont and down Sheridan Road to Diversey. The ride is about 5 minutes but would have been who knows how long waiting for the bus and riding it in narrow, trafficky Belmont. Wise choice bringing the bike: I arrive 10 minutes ahead of my appointment.
I’m done quickly but I’m hungry again. This always happens when I give blood so I find a place to eat. The choice of a Chicago dog and fries is hardly a nutritionists choice but it hits the spot and I eat it at an outside table so I can watch the show on Diversey, always a fun time even when it’s not 3 AM. Besides, I’ll burn this off by riding all the way home on my bike. Remind me to ask my heart how it feels about Chicago dogs.
I take the Lakefront bike path, something I rarely do since I tend to ride the streets for speed. It is still a nice ride with lots of natural and human scenery to distract or entertain me.
Here’s what to watch out for: cross traffic that doesn’t stop at Montrose, Wilson, and Lawrence. Here’s what happened: cars stopped.
The trail has ended after only about 7 minutes of riding and I’m back on the streets again. After the speed bumps and Stop signs of Kenmore I shortcut through Loyola’s campus and end up back at that other speedway, the north end of Sheridan Road. Should I chance the ride in traffic? I’ve done it before and I can’t resist.
Bonus: it’s rush hour and parking is banned so I have the parking lane to my self. I’m doing about 20 and even though the cars are rushing past me I’m catching green lights and making great time. The choke point of narrow sidewalk along the lakefront in Evanston is slow and slower still because of heaved concrete but I’m soon back on quiet residential streets I normally never would drive on. It is very pleasant and I ride much more slowly.
Errand #5: Drop Off Film
I had planned another stop on this route home, dropping off some film to be processed at Wolf in downtown Evanston, which I do, rolling my bike into the store to save locking time. They will have the film done and digitized by 6:30, less than two hours from now.
I ride home.
Errand #6: Pick Up Film
I ride back to Wolf at 6:30 and make it by 6:44 or so. As I leave the store, the sky is dark again in the west. I must have sensed this in the store because I put the prints, CD, and negatives in a plastic bag in my bike bag.
Amazingly, I make it home before it rains.
A Random Catcall
My day, despite the drive to O’Hare, has been successful and mostly car-free. Don’t worry, I’ll revisit this because it’s bugging me, too. But the transportation day isn’t quite over and is ending on a stupid note.
My wife has returned from her yoga class just west on Central Street to which she had ridden her bike.
As she was walking her bike across Central to the yoga studio, a young white man in a green car yells out the window at her as he sped by: “Bitch!”
There had been no prior words or confrontation.
Why are so many motorists threatened by the bicyclist? It seems to me that the balance of transportation power is hardly in favor of the bike.
Gas pains? Inconvenient truths? Or just plain rudeness combined with testosterone and auto-entitlement?
Did I hear someone say “auto-eroticism?”]]>
Anyway, my partner in crime today is my good friend George Kanary who lives in Hinsdale. We decide this whole trip will be by train. He has business in the Loop in the morning so takes the Metra Aurora line in. After that, he boards the 12:35 North Line train on which I will meet him at Central Street
Also waiting for the train is a teenager with a folding bike ready to board as a long southbound pulls into the station. There is also another bike locked to the railing under the northbound shelter:
The train arrives late.
George K. is retired and he reminds me that he rides free, thanks to some transit funding horse trading in Springfield earlier this year. That’s another story, though. George also tells me that the dwell times have been long at the stations from Ogilvie downtown. The train, while not packed, has plenty of people aboard this afternoon.
It also gets later due to trackwork north of North Chicago. 25 minutes later.
I have never ridden Metra this far north. It has always been by car so this is like new scenery. I’ve ridden my bike as far north as the North Chicago Navy Base. I feel like I’m somewhere else, and I am. I see some wetlands I’ve never seen. I also see a coal-fired power plant I’ve never seen. I see that the Great Lakes Naval Station calls itself “The Quarterdeck of the Navy.” What the hecks a “quarterdeck”? Turns out its the aft part of the upper deck of a ship, usually reserved for officers. There, I learned something.
The short version of Kenosha is this: like so many old industrial towns, the plants that made the jobs and the prosperity closed or left taking with them the jobs and the prosperity. In this case, it was the American Motors plant, formerly the old Nash Rambler plant. Chrysler became the owner and closed it. According to George, they tore it down and donated the land to the city of Kenosha. Eventually, the auto plant site was developed with expensive townhouses which were attractive to leisure boaters using the nearby harbor. A new streetcar line was included in the development to connect it with the Metra station to the west and with the Kenosha bus routes serving the rest of the city.
We soon boarded the streetcar for the 25 cent ride. George tells me it’s a dollar ride if you transfer to a Kenosha bus, still a deal. From the window of the streetcar, I check the wide side streets of the housing development.
The line uses postwar late 40’s President’s Conference Committee (PCC) streetcars mostly bought used from Toronto and painted in the colors of various city systems around the country. Today, a car painted in Chicago “Green Hornet” colors is doing the honors as the townhomes rise behind it.
The load is light at midday when we ride, mainly with some families on board. There seems to be plenty of pedestrian and even some bike traffic around. At the Joseph McCarthy transit center, Kenosha buses wheel into curbside transit bays for their layovers and their connecting passengers.
We walked a couple blocks north of the transit center for a late lunch early dinner in a family restaurant. The old buildings of Kenosha are all around us. George said there is talk of extending the car line this way as well as into the second shopping district of Uptown.
We walk back, take some more photos, and then make sure to get to the Metra station so we do not miss the only train for hours, the 5:51 southbound. George has gone ahead of me but as I head into the pedestrian tunnel a northbound train has unloaded and passengers are streaming down the steps. Two men are carrying bikes down and they look like commuters to me.
The southbound train has a lot of people on at Kenosha already and it continues to fill up all the way down the line on this reverse commute. The bike rack at Lake Bluff appears to be completely filled with bikes.
The train is only a few minutes late and after I bid goodbye to George, I get off at Central Street. A man with a bike helmet boards my car as I walk away.
George still has a hefty ride home made heftier by the connection downtown: this train’s 7:27 arrival will probably preclude his making the 7:40 train at Union Station, so he will have to wait until the 8:40 train.
But on the train we were able to talk for hours and look out the window and not have to think that hard about our means of transport.
These are the pains and pleasures of doing without a car.]]>
I am not car-free any longer, again. Does this mean the experiment is over before the summer actually ends? Seems a little hypocritical to continue it under the circumstances.
I look at the car parked in front of my house. It’s bugging me to see it out there. I wasn’t missing it a whole lot.
I’m actually disappointed that it’s back so soon. I’m just getting up a head of steam here.
Driving Four Blocks
An interesting diversion takes my attention away: a friend invites me to lunch and I suggest a local restaurant on Central street, a few blocks away by the Post Office, very, very walkable, I’ve done it so often I cannot count the times. He’s on his way from Chicago, driving.
Driving? Don’t worry, it gets worse. We drive to the restaurant in his car.
There is a backstory here: his mobility is greatly impaired by pain and a spinal condition made worse today by his over-exerting himself over the weekend. He said he might make it to the restaurant walking but would not make it back. I wish there were another way to avoid the car but today is not the day.
Key point: walkable communities depend on your being able to walk to take advantage of them, or at least have prosthetic assistance in the form of wheelchair or walkers. It’s just that using the car to solve every disability movement problem seems like killing a fly with a shotgun. Now I’m thinking about this car challenge instead what to do with my own car, haunting me like a spectre.
I’m stewing about it but have no answer.
I’m also stewing about my own car. Use it? Use it selectively? Call the whole thing off and admit defeat?
No, not that yet. This car-free summer always was about understanding the impact of not having a car. I’ve not yet plumbed the possibilities even for the good weather seasons. There are some things I want to try yet where the car doesn’t figure in.
My wife offers two choices: keep it and use it sparingly or truly get rid of it and call it a day.
I’m thinking about that, too.
An Eco Bull Session
Late tonight, Amanda and I have another bull session catching up like last night. The subject turns to global warming, a topic lost in the current hoo-hah over high gas prices. My own experiment this summer never had anything to do with the rise in gas prices. It was inspired by a combination of our increasing ecology awareness and household economics overall.
But Amanda brings up the very dark topic of global warming feedback loops. In other word, the scenarios in which global warming folds back upon itself, worsening other climactic conditions to the point that there is no recovery. She cites three: loss of polar ice making the earth warm more rapidly once it lacks the reflective snow and ice; interruption of the thermohaline effect that creates the Gulf Stream; and the melting of the Siberian permafrost, which will release enormous amounts of carbon now trapped in the ice.
I’m realizing there is real reason to continue the attempt to go car-free and that one summer is just not enough.
“Now what?” indeed.
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?]]>
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.
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.
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.]]>
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?]]>