#206: The Open Road

August 21st, 2013

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Something something something Spanish to a throbbing backbeat. The only word you recognize is “deportes.”

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-minor delays for the 90/94 merge. 290 inbound, slow approaching the Tri-State, south on the Stephenson stop-and-go from the Dan Ryan out to Cicero. I’m Brian Phillips with the traffic brought to you by Arby’s! Now get two Arby’s Grand Turkey Clubs for $6!

I had just come from an interview for a freelance story just north of Aurora. We had talked at the picnic table behind his office, while bugs crawled and a gentle breeze swept through the restoration prairie grass that surrounded us.

Now I was squealing at 70 miles per back down I-88, or maybe it was 290 by then, in a Prius hybrid slathered in I-GO car sharing logos.

That’s when I wasn’t at a dead stop, watching an electronic billboard flip between a joint Maroon 5/Kelly Clarkson concert, booking your 2014 wedding at Seven Bridges Golf Club, energy auditor training recruiting NOW and ads claiming the Ditka’s restaurants in Oakbrook Terrace and Chicago were the places to go for fancy drinks and the finest of eats.

Or when I wasn’t dinking along at maybe 20 mph so bored I double-checked my math on whether the seven-digit license plate of the silver Jetta in front of me was a “happy” number. It wasn’t happy the second time either.

As the car drivers glowered at each other, life and me, I settled on some pretty decent college radio. It was interrupted by a man with a voice like he was trying to dislodge a lemon seed promising Soundgarden before going into Triton College registration info and a pre-recorded Spanish-language PSA.

Hola! De hablar Rogelio Martinez, estudiante de ESL something something something Spanish.

Freedom.

The freedom of the open road. The freedom to burn oil, burn gas, take to the pavement and vroom vroom vrOOOOOM your way to a happier tomorrow, quicker turnaround, greater and more frequent sexual conquests with more attractive participants and, just for the hell of it, safety and happy family moments while your kids watch a DVD in the back.

You don’t have to share the world in a car like you do with a bus, bike or, god forbid, your feet. It’s American individualism, rugged and ankle-deep in fast food wrappers.

You get to customize everything, from the exact temperature of the air and the speed with and body part at which the fan blows it to the style, tone, volume and speaker balance of the radio. Or CD. Or digital device.

It’s just you alone. The way you like it.

There’s no middle-aged woman who started smiling at and laughing with you while you wait to cross Chicago Ave., telling you out of nowhere it was going to take her whole lunch break to get to her destination. That happened to me on the walk to pick up the car share car. Poor me.

There was no elderly Hispanic man in a Yankees cap patting an elderly black woman on the arm as they talked on the west side of Ashland waiting for the southbound No. 9. I saw that too.

None of that crap in a car.

In a car, you’re strapped alone in a chair in the front left corner of a pretty tiny box. The box moves fast, but you stay locked in position, eyes ahead, hands at 10 and 2. That freedom’s coming at your face at more than a mile a minute in ton-heavy trucks, so don’t look to see it. Someone’s gonna die if you do.

Don’t talk, don’t text, don’t laugh, don’t move. Just stay strapped in your little chair and maybe listen to the radio.

Distract yourself from those ads by quick, covert glances at the billboard ads outside or, once in city limits, little brown signs for attractions you know you’ll never get to see, as much as you might want to go to the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame or the Museum of Holography.

You can’t stop. You can’t see them — you’ve got to GO! You’re way too free to move.

I made it back to the city, lunging after green lights and praying I wouldn’t get stuck mid-intersection by reds. I parked the car at the designated car share spot, locked the door behind me and, mercifully, walked home.

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Now biking, on the other hand…

What’s a happy number?

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