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August 2008


Uncategorized30 Aug 2008 01:34 pm

This turns out to be a fuller day of errands than I had planned but that happened by layering on new commitments to old ones. Will I avoid the car or not?

Nope.

Why not?

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?”

Uncategorized30 Aug 2008 11:08 am

I have been wanting to make the trek to Kenosha, Wisconsin, to see the new residential development that includes a trolley circulator using historic streetcars, not the diesel-powered cartoon trolleys that have faked their way into our cities. Couldn’t they just be honest about it and use antique buses?

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

Folding Bike, 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:

Bike locked to fence at Central

The train arrives late.

Cyclist waits as late train arrives at Central Street

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.

Kenosha development from streetcar

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.

Kenosha streetcar with housing development

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.

Uncategorized30 Aug 2008 10:51 am

Give me some time, I’m thinking.

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.

Stay tuned.

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?

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?

Peapod.

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.

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?

Uncategorized25 Aug 2008 08:02 am

The week is ending with a bang, I tell you. Be careful what you ask for, Georgie.

A day in two appointments, 16 miles apart and a little closer together than I would prefer, but my “meet-ees” have made themselves available at 10:30 AM in the Loop and 1 PM by phone at my house.

Why not the cell phone? On Sunday, it was as blank as my mind when I appear to be daydreaming, so I told this caller to use my house phone. I got the replacement on Wednesday.

And I can’t get through to change the call number to my cell-o-phone. So it goes.

With my back wheel replaced, which I picked up last night after arriving in Evanston from DeKalb, my bike is ready for a run downtown. As usual, I’m trying to squeeze in a few last things and don’t leave as soon as I should, giving myself only one hour and 15 minutes to make it to downtown Chicago because I leave at 9:15 AM.

There’s a bit of a headwind today so the trip turns into one hour and 25 minutes. I’m not too late after all: the person I’m meeting has had yet another one of the CTA Blue Line’s delays, this time stopping her right under the Chicago River in the subway tunnel. I can tell from her retelling that this is not one of her favorite places to be stuck in the subway.

We’re done by 11:45 AM and I talk with my good friend there to consider his invitation to have coffee. I’m strongly tempted so I check if there’s any chance my intermediary for the 1:00 call can get through with my cell phone number but no answer. It’s now 11:50 AM and I decide to bike it. This is going to be tough to make it home by 1:00. 16 miles, right? “Good luck, sucker!” I sneer to myself.

My start is good but I get some crosswinds and headwinds as I head west to Milwaukee Avenue to turn northwest. There, things change for the better, and I’m catching a tailwind. I check my digital speedometer as I head more northerly on Elston Avenue and I’m doing 18 and 20 MPH pretty consistently. I’m also catching some important green lights at intersections that add minutes to your trip.

Looking good but I don’t want to take a chance with missing this call, so partway home in my old neighborhood at a light, I pull out the cell phone and call my wife. Yes, she’ll be at home, so I tell her to take the call and tell him I’m delayed and to call me on my cell. She reads me some info from an email as a briefing for the call. OK, push ahead. I take the turn at California Avenue and head north on the shorter but less scenic route home to save time. Light traffic and the tailwind is still pushing me hard. I’m pushing myself pretty hard, too. Will the old legs hold up?

Then the fun starts at the Evanston border, as it has so many times before this summer: it begins to rain. Not hard, but steady. Aw, crap. My brakes squeak and slow me less efficiently. The street is covered in that rain-and-grease slime that makes stopping a heart-stopper. But I’m still making good time and I don’t let up, except to turn on my bright taillight and my front lights. Before I know it, I’m past the High School, past the Sanitary Canal, and in the home stretch. I can’t believe it’s still only about 12:50 on my speedometer but that’s slow. I get the last green light I need at Central and wheel north and into my alley and my garage, wet, dirty, but close to on-time. I unhook my bag and run into the house: my wife says he has not called yet.

Wet shoes off, I do a printout, and grab the laptop as the phone rings.

I made it, with minutes to spare. The call goes well. I’m glad he’s not looking at my physical state of wet clothes and dirty, gritty legs. I’m exhausted and hungry and happy with myself. I would not have made it without that mighty tailwind, though. I’m believing in higher powers right now.

With food and rest and water and soap, I’m ready for the evening. I ride to tai chi and back.

I still feel it in my legs.

It feels good.

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.

Uncategorized22 Aug 2008 06:54 pm

I can’t call it cabin fever in the Summer but I am now more grateful to have reasons to get out of the house. Today, I have reasons. A story in three trips.

Trip #1: Meeting in the Loop.

A vendor rep I’ve dealt with generously offers to meet me and catch me up her company’s online ad serving tools. We’ve agreed to 9:30 AM at a Starbucks on Wacker Drive, so it’s almost like I have a real job and join the folks on the 8:35 train to the loop in decent clothes. Again, the train is late and I make it to my meeting a few minutes behind. She’s already waiting with her laptop open and online.

We talk and she gives me a great update in about 45 minutes before she has to get going. After we agree on next steps and part company at her building, I look at my cell and see I might just make the 10:35 AM train back north again. Should I try? Yep. No more business in the Loop and I had already planned a bike trip to the Botanic Gardens with my wife.

I do the commuter trot: moving with the Walk signs and diverting my route to keep moving when I get the Don’t Walk signs. I’m antsy like a runner when I get stuck at a light with no choices and prepare to blast off when the light changes. Light mid-morning traffic makes this a lot easier than at rush hour.

I make the train with about 4 minutes to spare.

It is surprisingly full. A bike is parked in my coach at the side fold-down seats. Will they get to ride? The conductor enters this end of the car and eyes the bike, looks up, and asks who the bike belongs to. Oh-oh, I think, but I am fortunately wrong. A man quickly gets up and asks if the conductor wants him to move it. The conductor politely reassures him it’s in the right place but tells him he has to secure it to the seat frame with a bunjee cord, which the cyclist does. OK, I’m relieved and happy the bike gets to ride Metra, unlike other times I’ve experienced.

The conductor runs a tight ship but politely so. A sleeping man has his large suitcase on the seat with him and the conductor tells him he has to put it in the overhead rack or in the handicapped space. I can tell the guy’s thinking about whether he will do this or not but he shakes out the sleep and finally does it. The conductor also gets a man with headphones and an MP3 player to turn it down. “I can hear it from here and that’s not doing you any good.” Nice way to phrase it, nice customer service skills.

I run into a neighbor in the vestibule as we are about to get off. He’s a lawyer in a suit and now works from home. He said he did the commute for 30 years. He likes the Loop but now only goes when he has to and tries to keep that during non-rush hours. We talk about the techniques and the discipline of working on your own from home and I realize I’m doing the same thing as he. I’ve been here before: Dot-Bomb made me learn things I never knew I could learn. It’s weird to be dusting these skills off…again.

Trip #2: The Chicago Botanic Gardens

One of my absolute favorite refuges during the Dot-Bomb era was the Chicago Botanic Gardens in Glencoe. When the phone wasn’t ringing and my mood was down, I mounted the bike for a long ride to the Gardens and it did wonders for me. It still does. It’s a stunning garden and we’ve been members for years. That allows us to breeze in past the guard house and not pay for parking if we’re in a car.

A bike allows you to do the same thing without a membership.

My trip start threatens to be inauspicious: my back tire feels soft and my wife concurs when we stop a few blocks into Wilmette. She goes on and I double back to pump it up hoping it will hold. It does and I catch up with her just past Indian Hill Station by New Trier High School.

The main bane of my bicycling existence: flat tires. I dodged the bullet this time.

It’s uneventfully pleasant after that and quite a few people are riding their bikes on the trail, along with some runners and roller bladers. Late summer is lush and vegetation pours out everywhere. In the depressed cut excavated by the Chicago North Western and the Chicago North Shore in the late 30’s, a patch of prairie plants has established itself north of Elm Street in Winnetka.

In a dramatic demonstration of phototropism, the tall stalks of the Prairie Dock lean hard over the fence, pointing their yellow flowers towards the western sun beyond the Metra tracks. Their big flat shovel-shaped leaves at ground level are minor players compared to this display, unlike earlier in the summer when they are so prominent. I decide that I will head first to the Prairie Garden.

Lunch on the patio at the Gardens cafe, another favorite activity of summer. We’re downwind from the outdoor grill and the sparrows are dive-bombing crumbs thrown by a brother-sister team but it’s still a pleasant place to be.

My wife has business in Northbrook and heads out on her bike to leave me to my own designs in the Gardens. Between the plants and Kurt Vonnegut, I’ve got a plan for the two-plus hours. I also managed to squeeze in a nap on the grass by the lagoons, too. Who’s to complain?

She meets me back at the Gardens and we take another walk through, retracing many of my earlier steps, but the Gardens never fail to please. We find one of the trees we are considering for the backyard, American Hornbeam, a native species. The smooth, distinctive bark gets it the nickname of “muscle wood”.

The bonsai display is serene and surreal.

CBG Bonsai in courtyard 1

CBG Bonsai in courtyard 2

As I unlock my bike, I find a broken spoke on the rear wheel. Uh-oh: Trip #3 in the making tonight.

We leave on our bikes around the 5 PM rush hour meaning that Lake Cook Road ought to be a brush with death. Instead, it is a brush with yet another driver who feels she bought the road when she bought her car, this time a big, red, late-model Corvette convertible with the vanity plates, “KID DR”. A vanity plate on a red Corvette is so redundant.

The hill eastbound up to Green Bay Road is always a challenge but my wife is riding her heavy old brown Schwinn and I wait for her to crest after I do. I no sooner turn to see her behind me and avoiding the right-turn lane of cars about to turn south when KID DR lets out a loud blast from her horn. My wife’s rejoinder is basically, “What, I’m not supposed to be in the road?” My two-cents’ worth is less articulate but just as vocal.

Mind you, KID DR has not heard either rejoinder: on this sunny, perfect day with a cool breeze, her black convertible top is up and the windows closed with air conditioner on. Why the ragtop, then?

Happily, the ride home is more pleasant than this encounter with the entitled and my wheel holds up, too. Folks are out on the trail more now but we pass a man in a sportshirt and dockers wearing a small backpack. He nods and keeps going northbound. He bears the focused cycling style of a commuter.

Trip #3: Bike Repair and Bus Ride

I call Turin’s repair team and see if they can take my bike tonight and have it ready tomorrow. I got riding to do on Friday morning. They can and I head off knowing that there are only a few hours left of CTA bus service on the 201 line past my house.

A quick assessment of my rear wheel turns up a second broken spoke. John, an experienced mechanic, quizzes me if this has happened before on this wheel. It has not. “Do you load up your rear wheel?” This answer’s a “yes” but not sure why I feel so guilty: my work changes of clothes, Blackberry, laptop, bike cable, tire repair kit, and tools are one kind of load and groceries are another kind of load. No new wheel this time: I’m still looking for work, remember?

Speaking of groceries, I walk to Whole Foods to do double duty on the bus ride. The net result is two grocery bags of tonight’s carryout dinner plus those heavy things I’ve passed up on recent bike trips: olive oil, milk, wine, cheese.

Unlike having a car to load my groceries into, two things are different when taking the bus:

One, I’m watching my cell phone for the time and checking against my printout of the 201 schedule: two more buses left. I focus and get checked out.

Two, I tell the bagger to balance the bags out because I’m walking.

I catch the 201 bus a few blocks west where it arrives right on time. I’m having flashbacks of my native Pittsburgh where the housewives, yes even in my lifetime, would dress up and board the red-and-cream streetcars for a ride downtown to shop at the big and aromatic Diamond Market. The ride home would include shopping bags of meats and produce and breads.

So, this is how it got done, huh? This is also how it gets done now.

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.

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