The longest way home

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The long ride, cycle, train, walk home

chicago

It starts with a seven-minute walk from my desk to the bike rack at the entrance to Navy Pier.

There’s an elevator ride in there too.

For most of Chicago’s bitterly cold and blustery winter that walk is fairly benign if not altogether banal.

You wave to bored shopkeepers walking down the middle concourse of the pier or get out in the brisk wind and chill air to enliven yourself after a long day of work. Usually the former.

But in late spring, on nice days by our standards, they begin to show up to the pier like zombie hoards.

Just a few at first, then small groups, then by the dozens. Drawn to god-knows-what, they mosey about, and I use that term lightly, for I can’t really think of a term to depict the kind of slowness with which they mill around more accurately then that, seemingly at peace with the idea of spending ungodly amounts of cash and untold hours at the mysteriously most popular tourist attraction in Illinois.

It’s as if Chicago, the greatest city in the world, was left off the list of the best things to do in Illinois.

But I digress.

On a good day, I make my way unaccosted to Illinois Street, where I grab a Divvy bike, the not-so-little, baby blue bicycles fairly newly provided as a transportation alternative by the city of Chicago, and make my way up to the Lakefront Trail.

On a bad day, it can take 10 minutes or more to shoulder your way through the abysmally slow moving crowds that seem to amble at a pace even slower than amble really conveys.

divvy

Once out of the clutches of the zombie hoards and their souvenir Bubba Gump Shrimp t-shirts and Margaritaville glasses, I mount my trusty baby blue steed and peddle away in a rush of fresh air and speed, glorious speed.

That is until I reach the Lakefront Trail, which I previously mentioned.

On a nice day, one with a minimal amount of sleet and wind, there are only dozens of trail users to navigate, most of whom stay to their respective sides.

But on a really nice day, basically anything over 40 degrees and no rain or snow, or wind, the trail is as dicey as navigating Michigan Avenue with a Ferrari.

Early spring is worse, because the cyclists who’ve been cooped up using trainers to get their mileage in tend to want to get out and really let their lightweight speed-machine road bikes bare their teeth.

They don’t abide tourists and Divvy bikers, skaters, roller bladers, runners, walkers or anything else that does not move at a smooth 18-22 miles per hour.

Then there are the amblers, those who walk the trail at a pace slightly faster than pier walkers. They are on vacation, so I try not to malign them too much, but getting from A to B with walkers and bike racers to navigate is like playing Frogger with a handicapable frog.

Eventually you arrive at lower Randolph, a veritable oasis of cover and solitude after dealing with the denizens of the Lakefront Trail.

Or it would be, if it were not for the seventeen CTA buses that park there with their exhaust pouring out like so much wasted tax revenue.

I have tried holding my breath, but it simply results in my breathing toxic diesel fumes that much further into my blood stream when I inevitably take a breath for fear of passing out in the dark passageway.

There is relatively little danger in this section, but once in a while a car will pull out of the underground parking without really realizing a cyclist is riding right in front of him or her, and they will proceed to pull out just barely clipping your rear tire as the look to their left for oncoming traffic.

Finally, you come to the light at the end of Lower Randolph, and you prepare to merge into Chicago’s version of California’s I-405.

You ride out of the dark right into a left-hand turn onto Michigan Avenue. But not just anywhere on Michigan Avenue – the beginning of the Magic Mile.

Or what essentially amounts to 5,280 feet of prime, high-end, 1-percent retail space.

This is not optimal, but this is the preferred route home for me for various reasons.

Once I make the left-hand turn to Michigan Avenue, things get real really fast. It’s buses, taxis, pedestrians, and it’s every man, woman and child for he,her and itself.

Riding two blocks of Michigan Avenue is a sweat-inducing, panic stricken way to spend your precious after-work minutes, but it’s a necessary evil.

It gets me to Madison Avenue and a bike lane that is all but respected by the city’s professional and non-professional drivers.

One feels somewhat safe even if that isn’t the case.

Here the pace lessons a bit. It’s not altogether leisurely, but a rider begins to breathe again and is offered the first real chance at small rests between lights.

Madison is a busy avenue, and one must resist the temptation to people watch, which is all too easy while waiting for green lights. And in certain seasons when the fairer sex unleashes their summer dresses.

Other than making sure a bus does not pinch you between a merciless Mercedes Benz driven by someone who doesn’t really notice anyone who makes under six figures and a taxi being driven like a stunt car in an apocalyptic action movie is really your main concern on this stretch of the commute.

If you make it down Madison, you’re a quarter of the way home.

At Wacker, you really desire to get through the light, though the walk light shows 10 seconds left. In truth, it will take you 13 seconds to make it over four lanes.

And once the train-bound pedestrians that inhabit the suburbs start to cross the street, you might as well give up and wait, because not even Moses could part that sea of people.

If you have 16 seconds on the pedestrian light, it is usually safe to make it through, but be warned that some pedestrians further up Madison will try to cross with their light, effectively making a super obstacle course for you to dodge.

This is in addition to the bunching up of traffic on the Madison Avenue Bridge, where taxis will do their absolute damnedest to pinch you off from passing them on the left or right sides of the bridge.

They have heard every swear word in the book and are not at all affected by a road-raging cyclist. Believe me, I’ve seen it.

If you haven’t given up and started walking by now, you are just a few quick turns of the peddle from Canal, where you will dismount and walk your bicycle up to the bike rack a block south.

That’s if you’re a well-behaved citizen. If you’re not, you’ll ride up the sidewalk or turn down a one-way street further inflicting yourself on the already inflicted traffic.

I have wondered if there is a special place in hell for these people many times, and it’s that which keeps me from the same behavior.

You dock your bike and beeline toward Union Station after checking your smartphone and realizing that you have 8 minutes to catch the 5:40 train.

Now you are a pedestrian waiting for the little white man to tell you to go. All the rules you wished pedestrians would keep when you were a cyclist have completely disappeared.

Here where every second counts, you will cross against any light to make your train.

As soon as the first pedestrian twitches, it’s go time. You bolt out into the intersection praying that drivers and cyclists value their freedom too much to hit you.

platform

Then you’re into the bowels of Union Station, a labyrinth of joy and despair, depending on the little red messages flashing next to your train’s number on the boards.

You’re either delayed or on-time. If you’re on time, that only means you’ll get out of the station relatively close to your scheduled departure, it does not guarantee a delay free trip.

You skip the escalator, because it’s America, and it’s the escalator, not French Fries that is killing us.

You recognize three or four other runners desperately hoping to make the 5:40.

You follow the lead one through the gap until they run into a crushing wall of people pooling around the tunnel to their delayed train.

You pray it is not your train.

You duck, shove, push, poke and ram trying to get to your platform.

It’s number 10, usually, but sometimes they change it.

You strain your neck to see if it says Southwest Service, and when you find the list of stops, Wrightwood, Oak Lawn, Worth, you breathe a little easier.

It is 5:38, and for some reason they turn the lights off in the train as you’re bolting down the platform looking for open seats before boarding.

They do this every day.

I park at the far end of my lot in Palos Park, so I usually try to get to the end of the train.

But time is running out.

It’s 5:39, and you know the conductors are standing back down the platform with sadistic grins on their faces watching you race time and yourself home.

You’re halfway between train entrances and you hear the female robotic voice come over the loudspeakers.

{{The doors are closing}}

Four cars from the end of the train, you dash through the double doors just as they start to shut.

Breathing hard and sweating profusely, you find an empty seat in one of the old cars that is either too hot or too cold. It’s the only place you’ll have your own seat.

The next 45 minutes, well, 35 minutes giving the time it will take you to calm down and gain your composure, are the first few minutes of your day to relax and try to unwind.

But like everyone else on the train, you will pull out your phone or your tablet and start looking for information.

At some point you will check your email, because there is a red number 5 over it, and you will peruse a few late work emails.

Inevitably, someone will have waited until you left the office to send you that nastygram they’ve been writing in their head all day.

You read it and your blood pressure rises, your fingers shake and you lose that precious 35 minutes of relaxation you could have had if you didn’t check your email.

But you will check your email. You always check your email.

You write a reply in your head, but you’ve learned that you have to let some time pass, so you let it eat away at your soul while trying to peruse Facebook and resist the temptation to write passive aggressive posts that mean nothing to anybody.

Eventually your stop rolls up and your make your way to the train doors where the conductor is standing, and if he’s not standing there, he will appear out of nowhere and ask you to move.

That first breathe of fresh air is a good one. Good country air, or so one imagines it.

You plod down the platform with the 50 other passengers and cross the tracks after the train finally departs.

train

You have to remind yourself that you are not home yet.

Those 50 passengers are getting in their cars and scrambling for two bottle necking exits to the parking area.

The more zen of the passengers sit in their car until things have cleared out.

But you don’t have your 20-year commuter badge yet, so you pull out quickly trying to beat the four people around you fumbling for keys in purses and briefcases.

You, smart guy, found your keys on the train and carried them in hand to your car.

Fat lot of good that does you.

You are now log-jammed in as some idiot six cars up decides he wants to try and make a left turn.

This close to home, this close to supper time, no one is in the mood for this.

Honking ensues, angry fists, angrier fingers, shouts and profanities fill the quiet suburbs as the city unleashes itself on the the tree-lined streets.

“You can’t adapt to commuting, because it’s entirely unpredictable. Driving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day.” – Daniel Gilbert

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