Under the el

The el (above right) just 20 yards from our condo.

The el (above right) just 20 yards from our condo.

Last month we rented a condo for four days in Chicago’s Old Town, a few miles north of the downtown Loop.  What the owner didn’t reveal in the property description angered us.

“It’s under the el!” I wrote in my notebook.

Yes, the condo all but set directly under the city’s noisy elevated rail, commonly known as the el.

When we first sized-up the situation, thoughts of eating the $200 a night rent and fleeing to a quieter place immediately rushed in.  A lawsuit crossed my mind.  Surely there was a Clarence Darrow out there somewhere willing to hammer the condo’s owner in court.

But it was already evening.  We decided to endure one night of hell under the Brown Line.

From our bedroom window, a Brown Line Train passes.

From our bedroom window, a Brown Line Train passes.

Looking at the Chicago Transit Authority’s schedule for the Brown Line, it is almost impossible to reach a precise figure on the number of trains, coming and going, that passes on the el each day.  I used basic arithmetic to come up with a rough figure.  That figure is 300 trains every week day, 22 hours a day, from 4 a.m. to 2 a.m.  That comes to about 14 trains per hour, or one every 4.3 minutes.  The frequency is slightly less on weekends.

Our condo on Cleveland Avenue is a short walk down the alley to the Brown Line’s Sedgewick Station.  It is the train you take to see a Cubs game at Wrigley Field.  From our smudgy bedroom window, we could look up at the el from an estimated 20 yards away.  There was no barrier from the sound, not even a tree in the nearby grassy courtyard.

Rumble, rumble.

At bedtime, Nebra pushed in the foam earplugs she had just purchased down the street at Walgreen’s.  I plopped down on a couch with a book and the TV on.

Rumble, rumble.

Our condo on Cleveland Avenue.

Our condo on Cleveland Avenue.

At a 11:38 I began noting the times trains passed overhead.  11:40, 11:49, 11:57, midnight, and so on.  I finally stopped at 1:39 and went to bed. Twenty trains had thundered by in two hours and a minute.

I dropped into the king-size and soon was off to dreamland.  I was relaxed.  I knew I had a two-hour respite until 4 a.m. when the trains started up again.

But a funny thing happened.  I slept until almost 9, like a lamb.  The trains had been going for five hours.  The plan to abandon the condo vanished somehow shortly after we awoke.

We had breakfast in, worked on the Internet and eventually walked down to the Sedgewick Station and took the north-bound Brown Line train to Wrigley Field.  We had tickets for the Cubs game with Milwaukee.

In the evening, we walked to supper at Thai-Aroma, a restaurant on bustling North Avenue.  By then, the el sounds were imperceptible.  No longer did a jarring rumble, rumble play with our ears.  Back at the condo we had another good night’s sleep.

Far from an enemy, the Brown Line was becoming our friend.  Not only did we travel to Wrigley, but also took “our” train to downtown twice, once on Friday and again on Saturday, then used it again on Sunday to transfer to the Blue Line on our way to O’Hare and the flight home.

As we packed up on Sunday to leave for Arizona, I marveled how we had grown accustomed to life under the el.  The rumble, rumble had become no more than background noise akin to the sound of an air-condition in the house.  You hear it only if you deliberately listen for it.

It is amazing how the mind can adapt to almost anything if given the chance.  I don’t know that I would choose to stay under the el again.  But I do know this.  I am no longer afraid to do so.



On Mackinac Island

Looking down on the town and harbor.

Looking down on the town and harbor.

Readers of the travel mag, Conde Nast, voted Mackinac Island in Lake Huron one of  the “top 10” islands of the world.  That brought caution to my contrarian mind.  Call something paradise, kiss it good-bye.  So went the Eagles’ song anyway.

But there we sat, Nebra and I, waiting patiently at Dock 1 for the 2 o’clock ferry to Mackinac.  As the moment of departure arrived and the Star Line’s “hydro jet” parked alongside, the dock quickly filled with other tourists who, I assumed, had each coughed up $25 for the round-trip fare.  Some even carried luggage for an extended stay.

Star Line is only one of three big ferry companies to service Mackinac traffic.  Along with Shepler’s and Arnold’s, Star Line is bunched into a busy area of motels and restaurants on the east side of Mackinaw City, in northern Michigan.

So what’s the attraction out there?  For one, a few handsome old hotels and 19th Century churches at the port, Mackinac City.  Uphill from the town is an old fort built around 1715 and the Michigan governor’s summer residence.  And, what interested me most, some hiking trails along Huron and through beautiful evergreen forests.

The Michigan governor's summer residence.

The Michigan governor’s summer residence.

As we boarded the two-tiered boat, most everyone grabbed seats on the open upper deck.  It was a sunny Sunday yet cool even here in August, so Nebra and I steered to the lower deck and found seats by the starboard windows.  As we made for open water and the 20-minute ride to Mackinac, the boat’s powerful engine shot water up in the air behind us, 20-30 feet high.  It was an enjoyable voyage over.  Huron’s choppy surface was decked out in eye-pleasing shades of blue against the distant islands of green.

From a distance of a mile or so, the port seemed attractive.  A large marina, sailboats, and a busy harbor.  Big nicely painted home along the shore.  But leaving the dock, you immediately run into another picture which is Mackinac City’s Main Street.  The busy thoroughfare immediately destroyed the first idyllic view.

An efficient but messy mode of travel.

An efficient but messy mode of travel.

Small garish shops lined the bustling street.  Most, it seemed, sold  fudge.  Noisy tourists, inattentive children on bicycles, young families wheeling babies in carts, horse-drawn carriages with camera-toting riders.  You could not have found a more inhumane human place in Kalamazoo.

We picked up a free island map and decided to eat at the least congested restaurant we could find.  That turned out to be the Mustang, I believe.  It stood on a side street and served bar food.  We regretted our order of hamburgers.  After eating, Nebra asked about the food.  “I thought the white onion was good,” I told her.

Arch Rock, a hole in limestone.

Arch Rock, a hole in limestone.

Fortunately in walking northerly on Main Street, we soon ran into the Coastal Trail and proceeded along the eastern side of the island to a geologic formation called Arch Rock.  But first we came across the city street cleaner, a cheerful man sweeping up the mess the horses left.  And Nebra, in fun, had to wrench the man’s broom and manure pan and do a little sweeping of her own.  I do think it made the street cleaner’s afternoon a better one.

Only after passing the sprawling Mission Point Resort did I start to feel good again.  Though we had plenty of hiking company, the crowds thinned and were soon reduced to the lingering memory we would have to trundle back through the place to catch our ferry.

Mackinac finally grew enchanting, this mix of unexpected wildness of forests and white limestone by a dazzling blue lake.  Canada geese bobbed along the shore.  We stopped numerous times to ponder the natural world.  What kind of flower?  What kind of tree?  Was it Mountain Ash?  We huddled by a tree I thought was a Paper Birch, scanning our guide to plants in northern Michigan.

At one point though, the human need to create meaningless art forms emerged.  Zillions of rock cairns began to dot the shoreline.  I was at a loss to explain some of the cairns poking up from Huron itself.  The bafflement continued until Nebra reminded me that until a few years ago that not only Huron but all the Great Lakes had lost vast amounts of water.  The cairns had obviously been erected in the ebb years when the rocky coast was exposed.

To reach Arch Rock from the shore requires some stamina.  That meant mounting the hundred-some wooden steps to the top.  And when you get there, you see many have taken the easy way up, by carriage from town.  And once there, you see too it is over-ridden by kiddies with Canons, all in a rush to take selfies and absorb nature in the new digital sort of way.

The coast from Arch Rock.

The coast from Arch Rock.

The Arch proved a decent destination, a huge hole in the limestone, resting, I read, 146 feet above Huron.  The vistas are great from the wood platforms nearby.

We hiked back to town by a different route, slipping along a well-kept trail through old forests.   It was like a nature trail with signs along the way identifying various trees.  But you are never too far away from the noise of tourists returning on the carriages to the tune of clop-clop-clop on nearby pavement.

Probably the most impressive  thing we saw came outside old Fort Mackinac.  Near sundown, a group of uniformed Girl Scouts performed a ceremony to take down the American flags, not only at the fort but at the governor’s mansion and a few other spots to boot.  Make no mistake.  These are very serious girls who seem to take their duties to the highest level as they break into groups and march 100s of yards to their assigned destinations.  Impressive.  We followed three of them to the governor’s residence where the flag was lowered solemnly in front of a small gathering of spectators.

Girl Scouts on the march to lower flags at fort and governor's residence.

Girl Scouts on the march to lower flags at fort and governor’s residence.

Down the hill to the harbor we came, wasting little time in the still-busy foot traffic of Mackinac City and reaching our assigned dock well in time to catch the 5 o’clock ferry back to Mackinaw City.  The return passage proved uneventful, and I was glad to be back on the road to Petoskey.  We planned to leave our pleasant house on East Mitchell in the morning, bound for Chicago again.

While Mackinac Island turned out to be a pleasant afternoon’s experience, I doubt I will ever go back.   As it turned out, once is enough.  Too many tourists.




That wage thing

In 1963, I worked on a bridge construction crew in Kansas for the going minimum wage of $1.25 an hour.  I was married and had two children.  When they raised my hourly wage by a nickel I thought I had gone to heaven.

My “slave wages” of 51  years ago equal $9.58 in today’s money.  The federal minimum wage in 2014 is $7.25.  So, in essence, I was making 32% more than the working poor of today.  If I had not received a federal loan — which I repaid in full — I would never have had enough money to go to college and eventually make a decent living.

For conservatives in America to complain that raising the federal minimum wage would hamper business owners and kill jobs amounts to just another of many big lies that Fox News and other right-wing media tell us.

Wonder what’s wrong with America, why this country is going downhill?  You don’t have to look far from a fair minimum wage.  The greedy are driving the car and the accelerator is pressed to the floor.