I need to get out more, I thought Friday night, as I drove to the near North Side — East Illinois Street, just this side of Navy Pier, for a 50th anniversary celebration with my classmates from the 1972-73 school year at Loyola University’s Rome Center. My single semester in Rome, once upon an innocence, definitely qualified as getting out there. One of the many benefits of that experience was developing confidence in my ability to navigate situations (Rome in particular) that could best be described as “borderline chaos,” more chaotic at least than the environs I was accustomed to.
But life has changed since those youthful days of flexibility and fluidity. Now I’m a senior citizen, living in a semi-urban suburb, who avoids crowds and adventure traveling, content to leave that to the less risk-averse who have more resources and resourcefulness.
My evening out began with heavier-than-normal traffic on I-290. It was not only Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) but Mexican Independence Day weekend also and large red, white and green flags fluttered from the windows of many passing cars.
I arrived late but passed a pleasant evening at Pinstripes, reminiscing about Rome and playing comically inept bocce. We left around 9:30 and two friends asked if I could drop them at their hotels. Two ill-advised turns later, we found ourselves on Upper Wacker Drive in the most amazing clusterfuss of vehicular constipation I have ever experienced. It made the helter-skelter streets of Rome in 1973 seem downright domesticated. Passengers hanging out windows and popping up through sunroofs. Ginormous flags streaming from the ends of gigantic poles. Horns blaring and music blasting from souped-up sound systems. Fireworks soaring from flatbeds of supersized pickup trucks. No one was in any particular hurry to get anywhere — except for me, of course, and my good-natured passengers, for whom I suddenly felt an acute sense of responsibility.
Clearly there is a lot going on beyond the borders of my little fiefdom, I thought, which cannot be adequately conveyed by TV or the internet. You have to get caught in the middle of it.
I thought of a friend who suffered a stroke a few days earlier while driving, which made me wonder if I might follow suit. I would be a goner for sure. So I talked myself down from panic and other sorts of blood-pressure spikes. There was nothing to do but surrender to the ebb and flow of circumstances (mostly ebb). We aimed for the Michigan Avenue bridge over the Chicago River, where I figured we could someday turn and escape all this merrymaking.
No way. The police, whose presence was ample, had blocked northbound traffic with enormous Streets & Sanitation trucks, perhaps worrying about high-priced commercial properties in that direction, so there was no alternative but to discharge my passengers with apologies and let them take their chances on the less-clogged sidewalks.
I, and my fellow motorists, proceeded (more accurately, “evolved”) along wackadoodle Wacker as it angled southwest. On the promenade, flags were waved with “we just won the World Cup” abandon, and curiosity-driven spectators soaked up the atmosphere, which was buoyant and the disorder, which was, well, orderly.
Life (and civilization) takes place in the eternal tension between order and chaos. And this annual street takeover takes place at the thin line between.
Happily, no one seemed overly tense about it, not even the police. The revelry never quite crossed the line. At one point, looking determined, a group of police headed in the direction of a young whirling dervish who was blocking traffic ahead of us as he twirled athletically for the benefit of admiring onlookers. Since Chicago cops are not exactly known as a laid-back bunch, I thought, “OK, here it comes.” But they walked right past him. Clearly, this scene was much bigger than anything they could control, so they focused on directing traffic. It was reassuring to see the forces of law and order allowing such a spirited outpouring to run its course.
Meanwhile, I focused on finding any opening I could squeeze through to move my course along. After about an hour, I managed to turn down Clark Street and was finally able to deploy the gas pedal again. I turned west on Van Buren because Ida B. Wells had been sealed off by blue-lit police cruisers, wriggled past another parade on Halsted Street, and eventually got to Racine, where an inviting entry ramp awaited. Once on the expressway, I started my own celebration of Libertad. Driving unobstructed has never felt more liberating.
All this time, WFMT kept me company, and I gradually became aware of a wild symphonic composition raging from my radio. I don’t normally like music that simulates storms and tumultuous seas, but this one perfectly reflected, on an emotional level, what I had just been through. The finale arrived just as I pulled into my parking space at 11 p.m., feeling triumphant, my navigating skills refreshed and re-confirmed.
The music, I found out later, was Benjamin Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes.” I, too, had been at sea but now my feet were back on terra firma.
And as I walked toward the secure sanctuary of my residential comfort zone, I had just one thought.
I really need to get out more.