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.

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