SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
I thought I’d seen bad traffic. I thought I’d seen crazy drivers.
Then I went to Chicago.
I’m a small town boy. When I was younger, my idea of heavy traffic was Fort Wayne, which is about half an hour from my home. With a population of 250,000, Fort Wayne is the second largest city in Indiana, which isn’t saying much—but the fact that most of Indiana is not city is one of the things I like about it.
Years ago I drove to Atlanta, Georgia, and got a new definition of heavy traffic. We arrived during morning rush hour, an ironic term considering I could have walked over the jammed-up cars without ever touching the ground—and gotten there faster.
About ten years later, I had the occasion to drive U-Haul’s largest truck model through New York City, while towing a car on a trailer. It was two months after 9/11/01. Naturally, I got waved to the curb the police, who at that point were looking over every rental truck that came along.
The irony, though, is that the proximity to 9/11 actually made the experience easier. The cops were friendly, and other drivers gave us space—whether out of that temporary sense of brotherhood, or the fear that I might be carrying a load of ammonium nitrate, I couldn’t say.
Then there’s Indianapolis.
In all fairness, Indianapolis is the 14th largest city in the U.S., and the second largest in the Midwest, so there’s bound to be traffic. But it’s also the Crossroads of America: Indiana has more interstate highway than any other state, and more converge on the capital than any other city. Whole families have been known to drive onto the 465 beltway, and never be seen again.
I used to think that was the worst this side of Los Angeles, a city I have no intention of every driving in.
But Indy’s only the second largest city in the Midwest. Then there’s Chicago.
My wife wanted to go see The Cure, which is an English rock band, or post-punk, or new wave, or possibly gothic rock. (I’m post-pun, myself.) It’s not normally my kind of music, but I like them okay … or at least I did, until they made me come to Chicago.
By the time we got to the concert venue in the shadow of downtown, I was clenched in a fetal position in my seat, eyes squeezed shut, whimpering and clutching at the dash. This was an especially bad thing because I was the driver.
But I don’t want you to think Chicago drivers are bad. That’s what I thought at first, until therapy for my PTSD. After several flashbacks, I realized the problem isn’t that they’re bad—it’s that they’re very, very good. Like, NASCAR good. It’s the only way to survive.
You see, Chicago traffic is the same bumper to bumper gridlock I found in Atlanta, except they don’t sit there unmoving—they continue driving as if they’re the only ones on the highway. Go watch a NASCAR race right after the start, before the first ten or twelve cars have crashed, when they’re all still jammed up and fighting for position. I’ll wait.
Yeah, it’s like that.
I saw drivers who knew their off ramp was coming, so they dove all the way over into the left lane to get ahead of other cars, then swerved across all three lanes of traffic, including that semi in the center lane that was blocking their view of anything in the right lane, and … right onto the off ramp, easy as a Blue Angels jet flight.
If someone ahead is going 60 and they’re going 90—they just keep on going. The guy in front will speed up, or get out of the way … or he won’t. Whatever. Orange cones aren’t a warning, they’re a challenge. There are signs that say: “Accident reporting lane ahead: If you get into a crash, for God’s sake, don’t stop at the scene.”
Where I come from, everyone wants a car. We passed Chicago’s train depots, where people without cars were relaxing in the knowledge that an hour waiting for a train beats two hours drinking yourself down from the edge after the evening drive home.
When the concert let out, we stayed in the auditorium until the only people left were sweeping up or throwing up. Then we went to the parking lot and sat in our car, shaking quietly, until the security guy pointed out we were the only people left and could he please go home now? He took the train. It was 1:30 a.m. when we finally took to the streets.
The traffic was exactly the same. It might as well have been 5 p.m. on a Friday.
We had to make a left turn to reach our off ramp, but there was a delay ahead and, if we went through the light, we’d end up stuck in the middle of the intersection. So we waited like we were supposed to, and a car load of laughing Chicagoans passed us on the right, cut off the oncoming traffic, and stopped in the middle of the intersection. Then a taxi passed them on the right, and they both stayed there, blocking the cars that had the green light, until eventually they could move on.
We almost abandoned the car right then and there. A few day’s walk home? Good exercise. But we eventually made it out of that insane city racetrack, vowing never to come back again even if Robert Smith personally invites us to play drums for The Cure.
And why did we decide to man up, brave the insanity, and drive on instead of walking?
Well, what are the chances of a pedestrian making it out alive?