Friday, August 18, 2006

Gettin' through Chicago, the phenomenon of Eastness, and the Cline Avenue Sniper

It’s unavoidable. If you’re making a roadtrip from Milwaukee to Cleveland, you’re going to have to go through Chicago. Now, I’ve got nothing against the place, mind you: I think of it as the crown jewel of the Midwest and one of America’s unquestionably great cities. Still, this doesn’t make it any easier to drive through. The freeways are twisty, clogged and perennially under construction. They teem with maniacs who revel in cutting you off and riding your tailpipe. You must contend with Lexuses and taxicabs lunging in so close to you that you can count the hairs on the backs of their drivers’ necks. You must watch helplessly as the lane you happen to be traveling in disappears over and over again, while the exit you need is revealed to be coming up in 1500 feet and, invariably, on the left. All the while, the awe-inspiring and magnificent skyline distracts you. You want to look at it, not the bumpers of a bunch of madcap Illinois bastards. But that would mean certain death, or at least an inconveniencing fender bender. As Run DMC put it, it’s tricky.

And it takes a long time. And once you’ve finished, you’re usually in northwestern Indiana. There are few suitable places to pee in that stretch of the country. We found this out on our recent voyage. You see, it’s recommended by medical professionals that everyone drink something like eighty gallons of water a day. When on a roadtrip (and pretty much the rest of the time, to be honest), I tend to disregard this advice in the name of making good time. Why “consume liquids” and “hydrate your body”when you could make it to Cleveland fifteen minutes faster? It seems like an easy choice to me, but others in our party were not of the same mindset. The lovely and wise Mel, in particular, was intractable on this issue. She refused to sacrifice a healthy equilibrium in the name of slightly-speedier motoring and, as a result, she requested bathroom breaks with alarming regularity.

As we were cruising past the steel mills and the sad casinos of that region, she decided that she needed to go. Greg, who was driving this stretch, was instructed to pull over will all due haste. In my helpful way, I suggested that maybe she could “hold it” until we reached the city of South Bend, a mere fifty or so miles further on. This didn’t go over so well, and soon we were leaving the turnpike and shooting down a bumpy road into the desolate end of Gary, Indiana. The thing about Gary: it’s not the nicest place in America. This isn’t its fault, of course. Gary has been screwed over by polluting industry, bad politicians, racism, economic upheavals, and the neglect of pretty much everyone. The times have been hard on Gary and Gary, in return, has become a hard, hard place. A deserted place too, because there was nary a bathroom in sight. There were only weeds, abandoned factories and piles of discarded tires.

A left turn a bit later brought us over the border with East Chicago, to an unattractive gas station that offered for sale an impressive array of 2Pac t-shirts. It had a functioning toilet, however, and so we trooped in to use it. I wouldn’t have to go until Toledo, of course, but since we were stopping...

Anyway, while I was waiting for my turn, I reflected on the phenomenon of “Eastness”. I have, in my travels, visited or passed through the following places: East St. Louis, East New York (technically part of Brooklyn), and now East Chicago. Also, in a few days, I would make a trek into East Cleveland. Besides the tell-tale “East” label, these places all have overwhelming poverty, appalling racial segregation and massive unpleasantness in common. Why is this? Has there ever been a tidy, prosperous suburb called “East Someplace”? What’s the deal with “East”? As an experiment, I think that we should re-name St. Paul “East Minneapolis” and see what happens to it.

Anyway, after I was finished with the toilet I went up to the front of the place to rejoin my travel companions. They were staring down at a local newspaper, its headline screaming something about the “Cline Avenue Sniper” having struck again. This was an important thing to know since the empty, spooky road we had been driving down was, in fact, Cline Avenue. After chastising our dear friend Mel for allowing her bladder to put us in such grave danger, we bravely climbed into our car (code name: “El Diablo”) and tore ass out of there. Roadtrips are supposed to be about wacky hijinks, not depraved maniacs with guns.

This, I think, just goes to show you the perils of drinking water when you’re in the car.