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?

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