Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Chicago Journals: The Journey Downtown

We were up in the darkness getting ready for the long day ahead and eating our hard earned pizza from the night before. My wife was about to take her final test for her medical license and I was planning how I was going to kill the next eight or so hours. Despite the fun day ahead for me, my heart just couldn't get into it while knowing my wife had to spend it in some cramped high rise taking a test. At least not yet.

The CTA Blueline stops at a station just a block north from the hotel and the testing building was a block further north of the train station. So in theory, it should only be a couple blocks to walk. However when we walked it the night before, it was a slightly different story. The exit from the train station is behind a parking ramp on the opposite side of the road from the hotel. After walking around the parking ramp up to the road with the hotel literally just a hundred feet away, we found that we would have to cross six lanes of a heavily traffic filled road to get to the hotel. Looking north, the bridge and cloverleaf interchange of the Kennedy expressway loomed and didn't appear to offer any crossing opportunities. Looking south, about three blocks away was a stoplight that intersected with another six-lane road. Now in my limited experiences in Chicago, crossing major thoroughfares even with stoplights is an exercise in faith. Who is going to give first, me or the 2500-pound taxi barreling around the corner? So we stood along the edge of the road and when a gap in traffic appeared, we made a mad dash to the median and scrambled over the bare dirt to the edge to wait for another gap in the remaining three lanes. Fortunately it hadn't rained in awhile so the dirt was solid but had it rained, we would have been in a big messy situation. After awhile, another gap appeared and we completed out dash.

So this morning with my wife all dressed up, we decided to be lazy instead and use the complementary hotel shuttle to take my wife to her test building. I hitched a ride along with her and walked her up to the sixth floor testing center and wished her luck. Back out in the parking lot, I merely had to walk across the parking lot to a pedestrian walkway that crossed high above the Kennedy Expressway and to the train station. Within seconds, I was whizzing my way downtown.

Two major observations seemed to reach out and slap me while riding the transit. The first is seeing the people on either side of the train (running down the median of the expressway) sitting in ten lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic stopped. Some were applying makeup, shaving, talking on a cellphone or reading a newspaper but the large majority sat there slumped in their seats staring dejectedly out their windshield at the car parking a couple feet in front of them. All this while the train whisked us downtown at a brisk pace. Why the transit system should be hurting for passengers or money is beyond me. The second observation had to do with the occupants of my transit car. Everyone in my car were either looking out the nearest window in a thousand mile stare, staring out their lap or staring at a book. Nobody smiled or made eye contact with other passengers.

When I was in college and rode the transit system there, everyone always seemed to make eye contact and it wasn't unusual to strike up a conversation with someone. This seemed in stark contrast with my fellow riders now. Even the two gang bangers in the car weren't menacing other people with their stares, instead preferring to pull their wool caps and hoods over their heads and slump down in their seats despite the 90 degree temperatures. Do gang bangers have no sweat glands? So for the entire journey downtown, I was free to people watch as nobody was looking back at me. I had brought my boomer bag that I used in my college days along with me, which helped me to fit in since almost everyone else had one of those or a briefcase. But most everyone else were dressed in suits, khakis or colored pants and I was the sole person in faded blue jeans. However, since everyone kept their eyes focused on their laps, I don't think anyone noticed.

I had decided to visit the Marshall Field's Museum first but had to first transfer to the Orangeline when I got downtown on the loop. Since the transfer point was at the start of the loop and the train was now packed with people heading for their jobs, it took a little doing to reach the door and off the train but I managed. As I typically do when in a strange mass transit system, I followed the locals since I assumed they know more than me. This time it didn't work out and I was found myself back up on street level with no signs in sight pointing me to where I needed to go to catch the Orangeline train. I walked awhile on the crowded sidewalks but got spooked since I didn't have a map for this area and went back down into the subway and paid another toll with my unlimited 3-day vacation pass. Back on the train platform, all signs were painted in blue pointing towards the street where I had just been or the Thompson Center, no idea what it was. I walked down the platform contemplating my options when I saw a CTA official in a shack in the middle of the platform. I told the lady that I was looking for the Orangeline and she simply pointed towards the direction of the signs for the Thompson Center. So I walked clear to the other end of the platform.

Once there, I entered into a huge atrium with escalators running here and there and doors heading out to destinations unknown. But one lone orange sign with an airplane and an arrow pointing up one escalator caught my eye and since it was shoulder to shoulder with people walking, I followed it blindly. After heading up at least two more escalators, down lots of hallways and through several doors, I finally found myself on a platform full of orange signs. With some breathing room, I found an empty corner and pulled out my map seeing that the airplane probably designated Midway airport and that was the very direction I was headed on the Orangeline train. So when the train appeared a few minutes later heading to Midway, I hopped on and headed out.

Sitting in the car orienting myself on the map, I realized my mistake. The Blueline train is mostly under or on the ground while most of the other trains are elevated above the streets. Realizing that, I should have known that any transfer from the Blueline to any other train was going to involve some elevation gain, a piece of knowledge that came in useful the rest of my trip. By the time I worked this all out and felt confident again, my stop arrived and I found myself on Roosevelt Avenue a few blocks west of the Field's Museum. Although the sun was out, amidst skyscrapers blocking all but the sky directly overhead, I had no idea which way was east was unless I could orient myself with the streets or the Sears Tower, which wasn't visible at the moment. However, if I looked to my left all I could see were more tall buildings and to the right, a few more buildings and then lots of sky. Assuming that plethora of sky to be over Lake Michigan, I headed that direction and saw from the intersecting streets that I had chose correctly.

The only remaining obstacle was to cross over another major intersection with six lanes of traffic in all directions, but because they had one of the corners (the one right across from the Field's Museum) blocked off and labeled as do not cross here, I saw that I was going to have to cross three sides of the intersection. Even though there were traffic officials blowing their whistles and waving orange sticks at the traffic, they seemed to ignore me all together so when I got the little green walking guy across the street showing, I kept my eyes peeled and started across. Traffic seemed to stop inches short of me and I made me way across. I then did it a second time. Once across, now diagonal of where I started, I saw signs directing me down through an underpass to reach the Field's Museum instead of across at street level. Despite it being the long way around, I gladly took it and soon found myself on the steps of the Museum.

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