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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Already late at 7:45 AM. I’m pretending to check my tires. Pinching them. Still wondering what exactly I’m supposed to be feeling, even after three months of owning the bike. I grimace in a way that I hope suggests studied concern and cock my head to signify the process of diagnosing a problem—just in case anyone sees me.
Before I climb into the saddle and set out onto Chicago’s privates-jarring streets, I hit “START” on an app designed to track my speed, elevation, and location. It posts stats of my ride to a social network of bikers whom I’ll never meet, and whom I sometimes suspect may not exist. It places a layer of virtual information over the real world, ostensibly to help me track my body’s performance over time. To understand something about myself. Probably to share with my friends just how great I feel after a workout.
And almost certainly to get data-mined. Eventually to receive emailed messages from marketers of bike shorts, headlights, bottled protein shakes, saddlebags. Maybe to get watched by the NSA on a slow day at the office.
I zip my phone into my bag. A muffled robotic voice urges me to “START WORKOUT.”
So I do. After all, part of why I’ve been biking to work this summer has been to shed the modest belt of beer wrapped around my midsection, at least before winter forces me back inside. But the rides also gave me time to think about the relationship that one has with an urban space, and how bikes change/complicate/deepen/alienate that relationship. How they morph our vision of the spaces that we occupy on a regular basis, estranging us from our everyday way of occupying them.
Maybe this is especially relevant now, given that biking has suddenly become an inherently political “thing.” Or given that discourse about green design and public resources for living sustainably or more healthfully almost always leave out the poor, the “wrong side of the tracks,” the South Side. (Ironic especially in Chicago, whose public spaces were designed specifically with the “working man” [always man, of course] in mind; to legislate spaces for him [always him] to expend his revolutionary energies in the park).
Unfortunately, my capacities for social reportage run out pretty quickly. I can only say how it feels to move through Chicago at roughly 20 mph a few times a week, what it makes me think about, why it seems to matter, and wonder if that’s enough.
When I leave in the morning, the air sits leathery and damp over Logan Square, a mixture of ozone and bus fumes that—weirdly—isn’t altogether unpleasant. Maybe I’ve just gotten used to it. This summer has been mild, pleasant, with Canadian fronts keeping away most of the armpit humidity. Corn yields are up 28% after last year’s drought disaster. But cycling during the last few weeks of summer in Chicago can still feel like you’re an ingredient in a molecular gastronomy recipe: sucked into a vacuum-sealed plastic bag with some local sweet corn, cooked sous-vide in diesel, and left on a counter to boil for three weeks before getting flash frozen.
I’ll emphasize that I don’t know anything about bikes, so of course I bought a tricked out Bianchi in June: a black, steel-frame Campione model (I named her Cami) with down-tube shifters and Italian leather toe cages. The purchase was a catastrophic financial decision, cratering my bank account for weeks. When the Sun-Times reported on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s completion of a recent triathlon, they mentioned that he often refers to his custom-built Parlee—$6k retail, easily—as his “mid-life crisis bike.” I’m not suggesting that buying Cami necessarily represents another stupid symptom of my own constantly unfolding quarter-life crisis (which these days seems less like a discrete event and more like a decade-long acclimation to the ordinary dissatisfaction of being, like, an adult).
Rather, it’s simply faster and enjoyable to get around by bike than via public transportation in summertime Chicago, a city whose emphatic flatness, middling population density, new bike share system, and expanding network of protected lanes make it pretty ideal for urban cycling these days. At first I couldn’t believe it. It’s sixteen miles each way from my apartment on the Northwest Side to the emerald quads of Hyde Park, where I work at the big bad University of Chicago. To cover that swath of terrain takes about 55 minutes on the bike, or an excruciating hour and 25 on public transit. The physical pain that cycling entails can’t compare to the spiritual inferno of a packed L car on a hot July Monday.
Of course, every single morning I consider bailing: leaving the bike and making the quick sweaty walk up Kedzie Boulevard to the Blue Line. Even on days when I wake up determined to pedal, there will be a moment where the prospect of getting a few minutes of fitful, drooling sleep on the inbound train strikes me as a better idea than flooding most of my lower body with lactic acid, just to shave 25 minutes off of my commute.
Sometimes, it can’t be helped.
Matters of pride and convenience aside, the ride takes me through a big chunk of Chicago and maximizes my outside time, which comes at a premium in a city that’s frozen over for six months out of the year. My route extends from the outer reaches of gentrification’s solar winds, through the Loop, down along the Chicago River, and onto the Lakefront Trail.
And it’s there, friends—out on the trail—that I really get it about the bike thing. Where I understand why folks get so obsessive about their equipment and the Kumbayah emotions that it seems to produce in them. It explains why I find them gathered in coffee shops at 11 am on Saturday mornings, already post-40-mile ride, wearing taut gear and clip-in shoes, drinking espressos and comparing wattage stats on their own apps.
By contrast, I feel like the Lone Ranger of the Lake Path. Almost no one rides south in the morning, past the Field Museum and whipping around the narrow semicircle concrete seawall at the Shedd Aquarium. Everyone seems to be heading north to the Loop, wind at their backs, to office towers and law practices. They fly past me as I slog into the wind, wearing a pair of cranberry red Regis High School shorts that I’ve owned since 1999, and any one of my 400 v-neck Hanes undershirts. The outfit is the rough equivalent of wearing a parachute. When the breeze cartwheels off Lake Michigan, I become a sail on two wheels, a billowy cloud of white and cranberry fabric.
Grinding my teeth to dust as I strain South.
Along Burnham Harbor and past Blue Moon and Perseverance II, the city’s two largest yachts. You can look up stats on both. The former has 22 plasma televisions, and there’s a discussion board dedicated to spotting the latter around North America: Montreal, the Upper Peninsula, the Caribbean. I added my own comment last week: “Saw her in Burnham Harbor this morning from the Lake path in Chicago”—the 103rd comment in a thread running for the last five years.
At last check, no one had posted any more updates. Perseverance II was gone the next time I rode by.
South of McCormick Place, the trail opens up into restored prairie landscapes. Milkweed and tower mustard and wild plum. Un-manicured acres of sagebrush and sedges buzzing with dragonflies. I whir along in the relative solitude of early(ish)-morning, the beach-combers kicking up the imported sand, and traffic on Lake Shore Drive shushing on my right to match the sound of wind in my face.
Behind me, I can feel the skyscrapers looming, the downtown hive filling with life. To the West are the mansions on Drexel Boulevard in Bronzeville, water taxis heading upriver to the dock at Navy Pier, schoolteachers in darkened summer-dusty classrooms getting ready for the fall, Safe Passage employees being trained in their yellow vests to protect children this year, the heaving and complicated tumult of neighborhoods that become the subject of documentaries and sociological studies on violence. Whose joys and miseries, like any other neighborhoods, seem too complicated ever to be captured by them.
But on the path, it’s a few burly guys running parcour in the grass; a shirtless tatted jogger air guitarring to his headphones; the silhouette of an older man fishing off of a concrete outcropping.
Two elderly African-American ladies in matching pink workout suits power-walking in tandem.
I say “Coming left, ladies,” and they say “Thanks baby be safe.” Voices receding behind.
To the east, it’s just lake and sky. A mass of water, huge and shapeshifting, separated from Chicago’s rigid gridlines by a ribbon of green and the thin path that I’m riding through. The water shimmers or glows or splits and crashes in wind-driven purple and white waves.
Every morning, biking out onto the path, I think of my parents taking my sister and me to Jones Beach on Long Island, back home in New York. One time, as my father and I stood looking at the ocean, I asked my hin what was on the other side. My sister and mother were walking ahead of us in the sand, picking up shells and putting them into a yellow bucket. We held hands just beyond the reach of the foam. My father doesn’t like to swim, and he seemed to have passed a genetic suspicion of the ocean to me.
“England,” he said. We stood there, not swimming, looking at the Atlantic together.
“Can you see it from here?” I asked. I thought I could see a grey outline at the edge of the horizon.
“No. But it’s there,” he said.
In memory, it was a cloudy day that we stood there, and I squinted—hard—at the ocean, trying to see England.
Lake Michigan isn’t nearly as big, obviously. On clear days, the tufts of smoke rise up over South Chicago and Gary in the distance. And when I ride up onto the trail, I find myself always trying to see across it, locking due east to Michigan. From Chicago, the East Coast can feel like it might be as far away as Europe.
Riding the path separates me even from the rest of Chicago, and from the part of my ride that plows through the Northwest side of the city, mostly along Milwaukee Avenue. A rare diagonal in a city of grids, Milwaukee extends Northwest from the Loop, through some of the city’s more prominent sites of economic explosion in the past fifteen years. By the time I get to the Lake, I’ve already biked past the new artisanal coffee roasters, pie shops, and cocktail places in Logan Square (where, just to be clear, I found a syringe outside my condo last week). All the newcomers to the neighborhood wear plaid and frayed jean shorts, walking in caffeine-addled fogs, thinking of apps to design, or how to optimize their bar’s “ice program,” or how to streamline the user interface for their blogs.
In Wicker Park, it’s a struggle not to get killed in the six-way intersection at North Avenue, where gutter punks and “creative types” and late-to-the-game hipsters collide at the Damen L stop. At Division, Ukrainian women in flower-print dresses sway atop Schwinn cruisers, and middle-aged men inch along on Trek hybrids wearing rolled up khaki pants and loafers. Just before Chicago Avenue, I climb up over the Kennedy Expressway, the seven inbound lanes crawling and snorting. Then into River North where Metra commuter lines converge and clang, and a line outside Donut Vault extends around the block. The morning commute peloton of bikers thickens as we get closer to downtown. Together, we press through a cloud of fudge smell around the Blommer Chocolate Factory.
Waiting at traffic lights, I put one foot on the ground, eyeing the crosswalk signals, and sneaking forward into the intersection to get ahead of other riders. There’s the decommissioned drawbridge frozen vertically where the goopy river splits at Wolf Point. The white Wrigley Building’s reflection off the Trump Tower’s blue glass curtain. The River Walk clogged with French and German and Chinese tourists getting an early start, veering out of my way. Marveling at and judging, I imagine, my American determination, my insistence on speed, my obvious lack of appreciation.
I can glimpse things only momentarily from the bike: long enough to create only impressions, snapshots, instances, before they’re deposited into memory.
Only through a process of giving narrative shape to the motion through the city can I try to give it some kind of coherent meaning. Chicago everywhere around me, the contact points brief intensities of feeling. On the bike, motion, inertia, momentum, and staccato alertness rule. To experience the city this way produces sets of observations that only get assigned meaning afterward—and even then only by choice.
But then the Lake, the trail, the wind and grasses and warm sun in my eyes from the east—the sun rising over the Central Time Zone, and the city ready to sweat one more day, one more week.
I suppose I never thought I’d be a “bike person,” though I remain a bit unclear about what I thought constituted a bike person in the first place. I think I worried most about having to get sleeve tattoos and Lycra shorts (I won’t tell you what I thought a “fixie” was). I’ve gotten used to those packs of 35-year-old advertising creative directors biking in their form fitted outfits and aerodynamic helmets, seeming to chuckle as they fly by me. They draft off of each other and pass me, talking about whatever.
I get to Hyde Park—leaves and paver stones and the campus bereft of students for a few more days. Before I even get off the bike I reach into my bag and pull out my phone, which I never touch during the ride (one more form of freedom, to be sure). I love that I can only press “PAUSE.” There’s no option to “end” or “stop” the ride. I touch the screen and my stats come up.
I pause, between rides, legs burning, the city awake everywhere around me and the bells at Rockefeller Chapel telling me that I’m late for work again.
A. J. Aronstein lives on Chicago’s Northwest Side and teaches in the Humanities Division at the University of Chicago.