Sunday, April 20, 2008

Playaction


The cab showed up. Always a small triumph, even though that’s what they’re paid to do.

“Where to?”

“Ummm, Belmont and Sheffield,” I say.

From the back, I’m immediately impressed by the cabbie. The seat is tidy, no holes in the cushions, and the seat belts aren’t stuck in the crease of the seat where change, and crumbs, and God knows what else gathers. Plus, the guy looks like he was born to drive a taxi -- rugged but not really dingy at all, maybe mid 40's, black-to-grey hair, accelerating out of stop signs too fast, but very smoothly as cabbies are prone to do.

I wonder what that does for his gas mileage.

Anyways, he’s a solid pedigree of cab driver... as if generations of drivers have developed this man -- his dad must’ve been the Archie Manning of the Livery World. He’s even wearing a newsy cap slightly off-kilter -- a half century out of place but still fitting; an accessory that seems like cliché but something I had to mention anyway.


“Lemmie ask you something”, he says, turning a swift left west onto Logan Boulevard and simultaneously taking the lead in the taxi conversations I usually dread. “How long do you wait for a taxi out here?”

“It usually takes a while. I understand though, it’s pretty far west, there’s probably not any incentive for you guys to get this far out because fares are probably sparse.”

Thoughtful Silence.

The run-on sentence was an attempt to empathize with my “tough life as a cab driver” stereotype. But after blurting it out, I wonder if I’m that transparent yuppie-pioneer, considering 3000 West to be “far west”, asking to be dropped off in Wrigleyville.

“We’ve got this new computer system,” he says, unamused or just disregarding my assertion. “It tracks where we get our calls from, and how often ... ‘supposed to make it more efficient.”


After this information he's quiet again. He zips into another turn, headed North-bound now, as the California Ave Starbucks pans out of my periphery. No one's drinking lattes al-fresco today, it's a sharp November morning.

“Turns out, the majority of the calls for us are in your neighborhood. Hispanics mainly.” He’s speaking demographically here, with no obvious nods towards the pending gentrification of the area.

“Huh,” I say.

I know for every rental space that bookends the blocks of my neighborhood, there are still thousands of brick stand-alone houses, some with porches, some without, some have kids in them, some have the curtains on their picture-windows drawn in the afternoon.


We’re stopped at Cali and Diversey. Olympic Carpets has hastily changed their name to Olympia -- a small city-imposed copyright ordinance in the bid for the 2012 games. You wouldn’t notice it, except for at night, when the “C” in Olympic still shines through the “A” on their light-up sign, making the last letter look slightly exotic, Greek even. The sign on the building reads “Olympi”. I wonder if they’ve fixed their business cards.

With the last left the taxi took he’s already disregarded one of two shortcuts I know through the neighborhood. Avoiding the Western/Elston/Diversey intersection is paramount.

He zooms off the green light, cutting off a driver as we pass under 90/94, and it’s the feeling of an amusement park ride -- loose and freewheeling but secure in the knowledge this is a common experience. No one died yesterday on the ride and no ones going to today or tomorrow. ‘Course, the Tilt-a-Whirl never had to dodge bikes.

My taxi driver takes a right at condo development just past the Orbit Room. 670’s barely audible on the radio as he navigates a tricky diagonal across Elston.

“Howabout them Bears?” he says.

Howabout them indeed. The season’s a joke and I could ramble off about it for the rest of the trip. I relish Bears Talk. It’s a source of pride for me, really. As inept as I am about sports talk, usually riffing on whatever I read last in the Red Eye, The Bears is something I can actually go off on. I don’t know if he knows this, but cabbing it into Lakeview 20 minutes before kickoff, it’s a good conversation to take up. And, anyway, when they’re terrible, it makes for better conversation.

“Oh man,” I say, “it’s rough right now, right? I don’t know about Grossman versus Orton, but Rex is our best shot.” He’s nodding and I know he’s got something to say but I’ve got to keep going. “Grossman’s a great fit for this city.” He makes no sign of finding this an interesting thing to say, but lets me continue. “Chicago runs hot and cold, and if we didn’t have something to complain about, we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves,” I wax philosophically.

“I like Orton,” is the assured reply.


Visions of neckbeards flash though my head as we stop-and-go in a part of Avondale I’ve never seen before. We’re making good time. It’s my turn to wait for the continuation of his preposterous comment.

He doesn’t look over his shoulder when he talks, like other cab drivers. He’s ten-and-two as we whiz by lowrise industrial-looking buildings shutdown for the weekend. They line the North Branch of the river -- set up well-before waterfront apartments made a similar location choice. A spot just off the river wasn’t an aesthetic choice when these places were made, it was probably a rustbelt necessity before the city's collar color shifted.

“He’s not the solution either, but it’s the little things,” he follows up on his Orton retort. The right-turn signal is clicking, but he doesn’t lean towards the wheel to get a better view of traffic. We’re taking a right onto Belmont and there’s scaffolding for a new highrise blocking any chance to make a well-informed turn.

The scaffolding that blocks his view is for a building that, when the i-beam skeleton goes up, will be an imposing structure.


Built on an precipice, those that buy on the east side of the building will have quite a view. From left-to-right there’s the DeVry campus and the mid-century smokestack of Lane Tech High School in the distance. From high above the street, looking east, are the strollers and labradors of Roscoe Village. Scanning further right, a stretch of the industrial river winds south. The river, flanked by a new bike path, disappears under the Diversey bridge that divides the two parts of the Lanthrop Homes Project.

“When I watch Orton play,” says the driver, “he does the fundamentals right. When he fakes a handoff, he does it right. The defense is watching him, hell, WE'RE all watching him, and it’s that second of doubt he creates that makes him a pro.”

I think about Grossman; the first-round, Miami-developled, happy-footed gunslinger versus Orton, the unproven, taller, lankier, slightly disheveled 106th pick from West Lafeyette, Indiana.



My driver swings a right onto Belmont, up over the river then swiftly under the Western Ave viaduct: The street that everyone dreads having to cross. I’m taking mental notes.




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1 comment:

Chucklyn said...

Nice slice.

Not sure if it's because I know you or because I'm simply a fan of your style (of oration and writing, both), but this was an enthralling first-person glimpse at your inner-monologue.

I'll be taking mental notes of your wheels turning the next time we meet, good sir!

p.s. - boo to Orton and Grossman both. I know what Chicago needs: Favre! ;^)