Western Lament

One of the greatest perks of working from home lo this many months has been my sustained total avoidance from traveling on Western Avenue in Chicago. Now, I love to drive. Drive time has always been a blank canvas of possibility. Moving to Chicago and now having lived here nigh two decades, I’ll admit the canvas differs from the unclogged and open suburban Cleveland thoroughfares. Chicago’s canvas is tightly woven and pothole-studded. I feel less freedom and more a mix of claustrophobia and stress, knowing your life is subject to whatever crazies happen to be traveling in your “pod” (the group of cars you’re inevitably stuck with for your entire trip because of the congestion) on whatever road you find yourself. The good news is, one rarely travels faster that 25mph, even on the freeways, so…that’s an upshot.

In my experience driving in Chicago has to mean knowing the traffic nuances of our ever-famous grid set up. East-West streets will predictably take forever to traverse because of all of the city shenanigans: busses, bike lanes, speed humps, you name it. They’re a necessary evil. North-South streets, usually cut wider and built for speed will generally move more efficiently and give you more of a “driving” and less of a “rolling slowly” feel despite busses and trucks everywhere. Diagonal streets, few and far between, make for the best of every world really: they’re wide, move quickly, few unnecessary stops, more space. If you can work a diagonal into your life, you’re good. And then there are the unicorns of Lake Shore Drive and Lower Wacker Drive that really just make one giddy what with their views and incredible warp speed capabilities, respectively.

That brings me to Western Avenue, the opposite of the unicorns, the decacorn of driving. As inefficient, awkward, hideous, and stupid as a horse with 10 legs, Western Avenue breaks my heart every single day.

Western is a North-South street so, by Chicago road rules, it should be relatively efficient and no-nonsense. In fact, it has somehow managed to showcase all of the worst that driving in Chicago has to offer. My stretch of Western, though it runs deep into the South Side of Chicago, begins at Belmont and travels due north about five miles to the Chicago border with Evanston. This is strictly northside which means you shouldn’t be in mortal, non-traffic-related danger and will pass at least four Starbucks no matter where you’re going, one of which will be a drive-thru backing up onto the road. This also means in each commute I work my through a diverse universe of neighborhoods, from those with single-family homes in the 1-3M dollar range, through blue-collar older neighborhoods with small, brick single-family bungalows and used cars parked on the street, straight through the heart of the most racially-diverse and immigrant-populated area in Chicago, through the more affordable neighborhoods on Chicago’s north side, and then into Evanston which…let’s not talk about Evanston here. If Lakeshore Drive is the express train, whizzing past the nuances of these communities, Western Avenue is the local train, making stops at every single station and with a resident homeless person sleeping on their cultivated pile of plastic grocery bags.

So as not to hopelessly shade Western Ave., that experience of seeing so many different people in the city on a 5-mile sojourn is actually something that I treasure. It’s the reason I have a hard time imagining moving from this city. I like when I am surrounded by different cultures and can remember that the greatest challenge and success of a city is the day-to-day acceptance and embrace of different cultures by those who live next door to each other. It’s the social contract in action. It’s exciting and and impressive. Unfortunately, this is juxtaposed with the utter chaos, rage, and complete lack of social contract that appears to every driver on Western Avenue itself.

Partly, I blame this syndrome on infrastructure. In just this five mile section alone, every major intersection and traffic light presents a weird, hapless problem. From Lincoln Square with it’s three lights within 150 of each other to Foster which routinely sees left turns from semis onto an already packed Western, to a center divider that appears and disappears at random, to parking on both sides of this road, these structural hiccups make it hard to know where one should be when driving on Western. Add in three safety zones,two school zones, and four speed traps and the expectation for speed is never steady or known, really. The number of lane shifts and clearances necessary to be successful is perilously high.

Partly, I blame this cesspool of driving failure on congestion. At no point is Western not utterly packed, almost bumper to bumper, with cars. Backups are unavoidable but also detestable. Add, then, that it’s also a major artery for semis coming from the freeway. And busses. Also delivery trucks frequently double-parked, creating ad-hoc lane closures at any moment. It’s frankly too many axels for one road.

Mostly, though, I blame the Western problem on a diverse array of drivers fighting for primacy on a packed road. There are two breeds: 1) Slow Coagulators and 2) Aggressive Weavers. Slow coagulators really set the tone for Western which is part of the problem. These fine folk drive, on average, 7mph below the speed limit at all times, leaving sometimes an entire car-length of distance when stopping, and are slow off the blocks at green lights. They also tend to slow for no apparent reason at random intervals and may or may not have a driver who’s head cannot be seen from behind over the headrest of their seat. Certainly aged drivers almost always fall into this category. They do not seem to work together intentionally but their dawdles mean they find each other and “coagulate” on the road, often hemming one in by driving slow in front and then having another ride directly in one’s blindspot indefinitely. This breed, gives rise to road rage and, thus, to the 2nd type: Aggressive Weavers.

Aggressive Weavers (my own clan) frog-hop through slower traffic creating an ever-shifting horizon of car arrangement on the road. Close lane transitions are a badge worn proudly which in turns makes everyone overly jumpy and defensive. Turning signals–what are those? Given the fact that these breed is also highly likely to suspend any kind of discretion in moving from Point A to Point B, including passing in left turn lanes, passing in open parking or bike lanes, texting or Zooming holding their phones while driving, eating, drinking, Aggressive Weavers are a real nuisance on the road but often so far apart from each other, having been hemmed in by the Slow Coagulators, their power for destruction is neutered. Slamming the steering wheel, swearing, and making gestures are all symptoms and signs of the Aggressive Weaver.

I’ve already written a novel and I’m only now just getting started. But even from this brief-ish discussion here, Western isn’t an ideal commute route. My main goal over time has been to learn how to cope with this road and our toxic relationship. The only answer I’ve ever found is to return to the blank canvas of driving time and know that I have a choice about how to come to Western Ave. It never matters how fast I go or how slow, how aggressive or passive I drive, how much I hope for just a little stretch of open road: I always get to my destination in 30 minutes. Always.

So I have to remember to choose to spend that time enhancing my life, going internal, and to remember that, like an Aesop’s Fable, the Slow Coagulators will always win. The key is to figuring out how to accept that inevitable truth.

Western Avenue, this is far from over.

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