Soundtrack in my head: The Eagles, “Life in the Fast Lane”
You could describe me as a veteran city driver. I could always hold my own on Chicago’s roads and elsewhere.
I had little problem merging over four lanes on the Kennedy Expressway in less than a minute to ensure that I was heading towards O’Hare Airport and not Milwaukee. Like every good Chicagoan, I’d pass slower drivers by getting into the right lane at stop lights—the lane intended for right turns but not marked as such–and then flooring it when the light turned green. In addition, I lived in Los Angeles for the better part of a year, and drove up and down the 405 Freeway every day during that time. In L.A., letting someone else merge ahead of you is a sign of weakness. I even drove in Manhattan once and didn’t think it was too bad.
But when I moved to Wisconsin, a funny thing happened. I found myself driving among polite, civilized people. And I haven’t been the same since.
I didn’t realize the change until nine months after I moved to Wisconsin. I was driving the Kennedy Expressway between O’Hare and the Loop, when suddenly I realized I was nervous. Not just nervous, but kind of freaking out. The average speed around me was 70 mph, despite the posted speed limit of 55. People would cut in and out of lanes suddenly and often without warning. A couple of people were doing this at 90 mph.
I found myself wanting to say, “These people are crazy! These people are crazy! Where did these people come from?” As if I had never driven among such people before. As if I hadn’t driven a lot like them.
Ever since then, I’ve felt the same way every time I go to Chicago. I keep on hoping I won’t have to go too far into the metropolitan area. Most of my visits are in the Elgin area, so I get to miss most of Chicago traffic.
One thing that could explain my newfound fear is that I did have a car accident shortly after moving to Madison. My little Geo Metro was totaled when a car turned left in front of me at an intersection—luckily, neither of us were hurt. And right before my last car died, I nearly spun out on John Nolen Drive—along with everyone else around me—because someone municipal or county worker forgot to salt that stretch of roadway during rush hour. So I think perhaps I’ve become more aware of my mortality. But maybe a little too aware.
Actually one aspect of Chicago driving that is superior to driving in Wisconsin is the efficiency in which road crews plow and salt the roads. This is because in 1979, Michael Bilandic, the incumbent mayor of Chicago lost an election when blizzards exposed weaknesses in the city’s snow removal system and the city shut down for days. It’s quite rare for an incumbent Chicago mayor to lose an election, particularly a “Machine” connected politician like Bilandic. So ever since then, every municipal and county official in the Chicago area has had the fear of God in him or her if so much as a single snowflake falls. I wish that state, county and municipal officials here in Wisconsin had that fear.
Nevertheless, I’ll take Wisconsin driving over Chicago driving most days. (Even if many Wisconsinites seem allergic to their own turn signals.)
Last Saturday night, I came back to Madison in a rental car from Chicago at midnight. I was just in time to see West Johnson Street backed up because of the Wisconsin Badgers football game letting out. At one point I found myself in a game of chicken with someone reluctant to let me merge. I outmaneuvered the person. But I didn’t necessarily feel too good about it.