Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Escape Route

This morning, the brightness pouring in through my open windows woke me early. I laid in bed for a little bit, contemplating throwing the covers over my eyes for another hour of sleep, but then decided to fight the laziness, get dressed, and go for a walk. It was a gorgeous morning--temperatures in the sixties, accompanied by full sunshine. The pedestrian traffic was light as I headed toward the beach.

I like to observe Division Street at different times of day (this is the street I take to get to the lake). It's a dirty street for the first couple of blocks, lined on both sides with pharmacies, bars and hole-in-the wall restaurants. It seems dingier in the morning, when the remnants of the night before are visible along the gray, gum-wad-dotted sidewalks. In the morning, there are no bouncers greeting you as you walk past doorways, no eyes ogling you from patio tables adorned with beer bottles. The pedestrians consist of joggers, dog-walkers, and professionals headed to the El. I enjoy the general calm of the early hours as I head toward the lovelier, leafier blocks of Division, which are lined with vintage apartments and condos. I drink in the architecture and wonder what it's like to live in one of those places, with their personal parking garages and restored interiors. (It's always good to have aspirations.)

Soon, I approach the roaring traffic of commuting autos on Lake Shore Drive, but I duck into the underground pathway that takes me beneath the buzzing highway and I emerge on the other side at Oak Street Beach. When I get to the lake, I just want to run. My back is telling me that it's not an option this morning, so I listen to it and walk instead. As my feet fall into rhythm, my mind wanders off...

I can't help but wonder what it is about large bodies of water that adds so much to the quality of life. Perhaps I'm fooling myself, but I believe that there is something much more satisfying about my general outlook and mindset when I know that I can escape to the lake whenever I need/want to. Perhaps water is just a necessity for some people. Perhaps because I am a crab (July baby, after all), I feel at home on the beach. All I know is that the simple awareness that the lake is there fills up something inside me.

I am reminded of a quote from Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon that I displayed on my facebook profile for years. I used to feel that this quote defined me in some way, but since moving away from and then returning to the Midwest, the words of Morrison's narrator impact me very differently. This is the quotation:

Truly landlocked people know they are. [...] But the people living in the Great Lakes region are confused by their place on the country's edge--an edge that is border but not coast. They seem to be able to live a long time believing, as coastal people do, that they are at the frontier where final exit and total escape are the only journeys left. But those five Great Lakes which the St. Lawrence feeds with memories of the sea are themselves landlocked, in spite of the wandering river that connects them to the Atlantic. Once the people of the lake region discover this, the longing to leave becomes acute, and a break from the area, therefore, is necessarily dream-bitten, but necessary nonetheless. It might be an appetite for other streets, other slants of light. Or a yearning to be surrounded by strangers. It may even be a wish to hear the solid click of a door closing behind their backs. (Song of Solomon 162)

Morrison's narrator was right—-a break from the area was necessary, and it was necessarily dream-bitten, because I left the Midwest to live in an area next to my favorite vacation spot in the country—-the Smoky Mountains—-and I did not find the idyllic place I had imagined. While I enjoyed the mountains as often as I could escape to them, and I made some lasting friendships during my two years in Tennessee, I yearned to return to the Midwest. So, I found the other streets and other slants of light, but they didn't fill me up. Perhaps because I left and returned, I now find that those five Great Lakes are enough to keep me from feeling landlocked. I still feel like I am on the edge of the world, living on a body of water that ultimately connects to the Atlantic. I think that maybe that's what the lake does for me. It allows me to sense, at all times, that life is fluid and moving and that there is always escape from the confinements of daily life...

As I finished my walk, and headed back toward the city, I felt refreshed and alert. My daydreams slowly dissolved into the schedule before me. With the sunshine on my back, I strolled back to my apartment, freshened up, and felt an extra spring in my step as I fell into the mass of pedestrians headed to work.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

City Car-nappings and Parking Predicaments

Last week, after putting in a long day at work, showing up late to beach volleyball, and then playing a rather humiliating game (my talents do not lie in sports), I was shuffling home in a bit of a funk; I decided that I needed to do something to boost my spirits. When I remembered that my favorite pair of heels was sitting in the backseat of my car, I decided that I would retrieve them for a quick pick-me-up. See, in my head, wearing a sharp outfit and heels to work the next day would completely compensate for the fact that I couldn't set a volleyball to save my life.

As I headed away from the beach, and closer to my car, reminding myself that I'd joined the volleyball league only to have fun, I was really starting to feel better. As I closed in on my parking spot, however, a sinking feeling overtook me. Expecting to find my colorful little car, I suddenly realized that a string of gray autos lined the entire area where mine should have been. Hmmm...

Now, I knew for a fact that I had parked on Astor. I had made a mental note of it when I'd parked there a few days before. Trying to rationalize away the panic in my chest, I decided that perhaps I had parked farther from the intersection than I remembered. Okay, we'll stroll a little farther. A little farther. Maybe just a little closer to the... dead. end. Crap. I'd gotten towed.

I knew immediately why. The signs were posted all up the street: "No Parking 9 am - 1 pm Tuesdays: Street Cleaning. TOW ZONE." And I knew that some part of me had known this when I parked there, but my own stubbornness had gotten the best of me. Because the fact was, I had somehow registered both that these signs existed, and what they meant, when I'd found the parking spot. But, the thing was, it was such an event to find that parking spot. The weekend my dad and I drove from Toledo to move my things into my apartment, we faced a never-ending battle with parking. In fact, the best parking we found all weekend was with the U-haul trailer in the alley, where we had free license to park during the moving process. Once we dumped the trailer (thank God Dad came along to drive that thing around the city--you couldn't have paid me to do it), we were forced to face the perpetual parking challenge.

We wound up feeding meters until 9 pm on Saturday, and then getting up early Sunday to find a spot for my car (we resigned to leaving Dad's at the meter). So, after spending about thirty bucks on meter-feeding, and an hour and a half trolling for parking, when I found that spot on Astor I was determined. Determined never to move my car again unless absolutely necessary. Determined (apparently) not to see any signs that might potentially indicate that leaving my car parked on Astor forever was not a possibility. I was in denial. So, I gleefully headed away from my car, and didn't think about parking again until two and a half days later when I came to retrieve my heels.

Now, while all this information was replaying in my mind, I started to feel the urge to cry, despite the fact that I knew this was the farthest thing from a solution. I held myself together until I reached my apartment. I even held it together pretty well when I called KT and asked him to cart me over to the impound. But when I called my mom, I lost it. I was sure I had made a mistake not looking into parking before moving downtown. Maybe I had made a mistake moving there. Maybe everyone said it was so expensive to live in the Gold Coast because you spend so much in parking tickets and car tows. Maybe I was just an impostor in the big city. Maybe I was over-reacting.

I was grateful that KT came over that night and drove me around to all the non-permit spots in the area where I could park in a pickle, and made proactive suggestions. The following night we retrieved my car from impound on lower Lower Wacker (Wacker has, like, four levels--did other people know this?), where I discovered that the city had added insult to injury by leaving a whopping parking ticket on my windshield in addition to the pile of money I'd just forfeited to the tow guys. With a few more rolls of my eyes and considerably lighter pockets, I followed KT back to my neighborhood where his parking radar found me a spot near my building (I don't know anyone who has more parking luck that KT, except maybe my dad), on a street that gets swept only once a month. My car has been sitting in that exact place for almost a week. I go and check on it. I still feel a little nervous about parking and a little worried for my cute little car. This time I am determined to see any and all posted signs and to follow the street sweeping schedule online. I am determined to protect my car from the wiles of the Chicago parking police. Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Subway Bob-n-Weave

People amuse me. At least once every day (except maybe a Saturday or Sunday here or there) I stand on an El platform awaiting a train. Like everyone else, I generally orient my body toward the expected train. Last week, while following this daily ritual, the familiar bob and weave of impatient bodies struck a funny bone inside me. I stopped watching for the train, and focused on the entertaining movements playing out in front of me.

I grinned as I watched my fellow commuters repeatedly bending their bodies forward to look for the train, as though their visible impatience would make it come faster. They reminded me of a whack-a-mole arcade game. Their movements were as futile and as funny as the electronic moles bobbing up and down while you stand there with your padded mallet. You might not know which one was going to pop up next, but you could be sure that one of them would.

Just as the moles speed up the longer you play, at rush hour I noticed the tempo of bobbing heads became exacerbated by the anticipation of dinner and evening plans. With growing impatience fueling their movements, the moles emerged from the mass of commuters with increasing rapidity. Yesterday, I watched a woman ignore the conversation she was having with her girlfriend at least seven times in a minute while she turned around, bent forward to peer up the tunnel, and then retracted with disappointment when she saw no train lights. Either the girl with whom she was speaking was exceptionally boring, or she felt that the train would sense her impatience if she exhibited it enough times.

Of course, I do the bob and weave, too. But I'd never really stopped to watch the action, and the futility of it had never seemed as palpable or hilarious as it did a few days ago. I could envision the entire scene playing out to a sprightly classical score, each head poking out to the rhythm. I almost busted out laughing at that thought right there in the subway. Sometimes ordinary things just seem so funny. I enjoy finding the humor in minutiae.