Friday, February 29, 2008

We know you're not from around here

Here being the City of Chicago. This is how we can tell: you nose your car into your garage. It’s a dead give-away you were raised in Suburbia or Michigan or Peru—someplace, anyplace, that’s not here.

When my husband and I got our first garage parking space at our old apartment on Newport, I remember him wanting to nose the car in (He’s from out of town.) and I had to set him straight. “It’s not the way we do it here.”

I went off on some explanation of how it’s safer to back the car into the garage because then you don’t have to blindly back it out into the alley. And how it’s…it’s…well, it’s just how we do it here. It’s how I was taught. It’s the way the neighbors do it. It’s the way my parents always parked at our old two-flat on Springfield. Always. And it’s a habit that’s been apparently very difficult for them to break. They moved to the suburbs nearly forty years ago and even though they have a 120-foot driveway that opens onto a quiet residential street, Mom and Dad still back their cars 120 feet into that garage.

All up and down our alley I notice the people who nose-in versus back-in to their garages. All the old-timers back-in. All the younger couples nose-in. Except for us. Because I’m from around here.

But this especially snowy winter I’ve had to, on occasion, gulp: nose-in. I know. I’m terrified someone might think I’m from Michigan too! But I came to the realization, a different realization than my “it’s safer” rationale, as to why we all learned to back our cars into our Chicago garages: rear-wheel drive. In the olden days, almost all cars were rear-wheel drive. And it made sense if you were navigating an icy snow-packed Chicago alley in the dead of winter that you’d need your “driving” wheels to pull you into your space. Which is why, this winter, I was forced to nose-in. My car has front wheel drive. As do most cars made these days, except for those fancy high-performance cars that don’t adapt so well to family life (or at least that’s what I tell myself.) (Then again, 0 to 60 in 4.89 seconds could probably plaster an eleven-year old against a seat so firmly he’d be rendered unable to bruise his brother’s ribs with a spelling book. Hmmm.)

Anyway, my point is maybe all these whippersnappers pulling into their garages nose-first are onto something. One day after getting stuck in the alley and having to rock the car ad nauseum, I almost gave up and parked on the street, until it occurred to me to pull in nose-first. Worked like a charm.

It’s not a habit I want to get into, however. There’s something very satisfying about backing a vehicle into a tight garage space in only one try, without having to jockey it back and forth. Perhaps the only reason this might be satisfying is that it so rarely happens when my kids are in the car. For reasons similar to my husband’s need to turn off the radio when performing a particularly harrowing driving maneuver, I find myself screaming at my boys to stop asking so many questions while Mommy’s trying to shear off the imitation wood trim from the side of the door—I mean park the car in the garage.

So as soon as that alley clears of snow piles, ice ridges and Khumbu-style seracs (June?) you can rest assured, I’ll be back to backing in—because I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong impression—that I actually like the imitation wood-trim on my garage.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Gratefully Deadicated

I need a miracle. Or rather, I’m requesting one.

Have you ever been to a Grateful Dead concert? Don’t you wish the whole world would operate that way? I started thinking about this yesterday when I was driving into the city from Aurora, in the middle of what would become a major winter storm. Everyone on the road was cool. I know! I found it hard to believe myself. When was the last time you drove anywhere and nobody tailgated, honked, cut you off, sent you their love via the middle finger?

It reminded me of Grateful Dead concerts, like I’d stepped into a world where everyone treated everyone else courteously simply because it was the right thing to do. I miss the Dead, but last May I made it to a Dark Star Orchestra concert and in many ways, it was very much the same.

For those who’ve never been, let me enlighten you. At a Grateful Dead concert, everyone is nice.

I know, I know. You’re thinking—everyone’s also really high. But I don’t believe that’s true, although I do think it’s what many of us would like believe, an excuse for why the whole rest of the world doesn’t operate this way.

At the DSO concert, I made my way to the bar to buy a drink and found myself in that Homo sapiens, kill or be killed, survival of the fittest mode: suspiciously eyeing others at the bar, the people in line behind them. Who was going to thrust themselves to the front, wave their twenty dollars and demand the bartender’s attention, completely out of turn? But I’d forgotten one thing: even though this wasn’t a Grateful Dead Concert—it was a Grateful Dead crowd.

Nobody shoved, pushed, behaved rudely or with any manner of incivility. The folks in line at the Dominick’s deli counter, or the ladies in line for the bathroom at the Lyric Opera should take note. At the Lyric, of all places, I’ve been cut-in front of and pushed aside by women in Vera Wang gowns. And don’t get me started on the taxi queue after the show.

As I sat and waited my turn for the bartender’s attention, it made me sad the whole world couldn’t operate this way. And why doesn’t it? Because when you expect to be treated poorly, all your defenses are up, hackles are raised and we’re in that fight or flight mentality. And in our new service economy, who isn’t tired of being treated poorly?

At the DSO concert, one woman was distraught. She’d lost her backpack. She’d put it under a bench so she could dance—it had her keys, her wallet, her “life!” in it, she said. “We’ll find it,” I told her and I was certain of it, too. “C’mon, you know this crowd. No one’s going to take anything that isn’t theirs.”

We started our search—people danced out of our way, offered to help us. In the days after 9/11, our country seemed to have captured this spirit for a while. We smiled at each other more, talked congenially on the bus, were more considerate in traffic or standing in lines, but that kindness seemed to quickly fade away. We like to think our society is so advanced, but we can’t even remember a basic tenet my children learned in kindergarten: Play nice.

We found the backpack, undisturbed, misplaced under a different bench. Forget global warming or economic meltdown, if we as human beings can’t do more to be nice to each other, help each other, what’s the point of being advanced at all? Like I said, I’m requesting a miracle. Or maybe just a more peaceful way to buy salami.