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You Can’t Get There from Here

(Photo: This and a map can get you far in Hogtown…if only you think to bring them with. Original Credit: Chicago Transit Authority.)

I’m judgmental towards tourists. Not all of them, just the gratuitously ignorant ones who arrive at their destinations with absolutely no clue how to get around once they get there. Harsh words, but I judge on the basis of the actions they take in my city versus how I’d act if I were funning through their town. I get flack from Devyn over it, he thinks I’m too critical. He thinks because I went to urban planning school it makes it easier for me to find my way around an unfamiliar place. He says other people don’t think like I do.

I’m not convinced. It doesn’t take a grad school education to figure out where you want to go before you get there. And to pick up a map, or a phone, or a laptop and figure out, well, where you’re going.

Last month, a young couple paying an automated parking machine called out to me while I passed by the Printers Row parking lot where they had chosen to stow their vehicle while they visited the Second City. “Friend, can you tell us how to walk to Union Station from here?” the husband asked.

“Union Station from here?” I said, baffled, since the three of us were standing a good mile away. “Where are you trying to go?”

“Wrigley Field.”

Oy. In town from St. Louis for a Cubs game, some Missourian told them they could get anywhere in Chicago from Union Station. So they jumped in a car and drove. No map, no idea where Union Station was, or Wrigley Field for that matter. Just a beat-up Chevy and a dream to magically figure their way around the third-biggest city in America once they got here and found a parking space.

A parking space that turned out to be a block from the Red Line. You know, the Red Line that leads directly to the front door of Wrigley Field for $2.00? I talked them out of their original, unfathomable plans and guided them through buying a transit card and speeding more directly on their way. They were grateful and I was glad to help.

Sometimes, however, the conversation goes a little differently.

An evening last summer at the corner of State and Randolph, I’m asked by a suburban housewife heading home from a performance of Wicked, “How can I get to LaSalle from here?”

“LaSalle is three blocks west, that way.”

“Three blocks? I remember walking longer than that when I got here. Are you sure.”

“Yes, LaSalle. That way.”

“I don’t think so. Are you from here? Maybe I’ll ask someone else.”

“I live on this street, ma’am. LaSalle is three blocks that way.”

“LaSalle Street station?”

Honey, if you’re reading this, know that when I pointed south and exasperatedly snapped “that way” I fought the urge to ask you what I burned at that moment to ask you. Like why didn’t you say station in the first place? Or how, exactly, did you forget in the space of a mere three hours the direction in which you originally walked to the theater?

I refuse to believe most people set off on cross-country drives, walks through unfamiliar territory, or visits to alien cities without giving themselves a heads-up first. It’s not just advance-planning urbanites like me who first think, “Ooh, now how do I get there,” before we set off for trips beyond our stomping grounds and out into the larger world. This must be true, or a continent full of tourist boards and auto clubs would cease to exist. I think most people value their time and money–and, Gods of public transit forgive me for saying it, their gas money–to fly, walk, bus, train, and drive blind like that.

So it just sticks in my craw when someone else just assumes that the locals will be happy to do all their thinking for them. Or ignores their good sense when it is shared, for that matter.

Take the middle-aged blue-collar couple whom I ran into last spring as they pondered over a graffiti-covered platform map in the Red Line’s Roosevelt subway station.

Wife: “It looks like Monroe is going towards Howard. See honey, this sign right here says Howard. It’s this side.”

Husband (peering at map): “…hmm…”

Me: “Yes, the train towards Monroe is right where your standing. Three stops.”

Wife: “Oh, good! Honey?”

Husband (peering at map): “…hmm…”

Wife: “Honey? Honey?”

Husband (peering at map): “Shut up, I’m trying to figure this out.”

Me (to wife): “Good luck.”

Of course, sometimes you just have to smile and let nature take its course. Like with the hipsters I encountered at Michigan and Washington in July, who, with 10 minutes left to walk the last mile and a half to the erstwhile Meigs Field for a concert, pointed to Millennium Park’s cool, curvy bandshell, and asked me, “The Charter One Pavillion is that thing there, right?”

Or how about these two young women who boarded a northbound 146 bus with me downtown in front of the Tribune Tower on North Michigan Avenue? No words passed between us as downtown’s towers receded into the distance during our three-mile, ten-minute ride up Lake Shore Drive. I believe it was somewhere near the corner of Sheridan and Addison, though, when one of them leaned over the bus driver and asked, “When do we get to Museum Campus?”

And then asked if they could transfer to the southbound bus for free.

I kept my mouth shut; the roll of the bus driver’s neck said it all. Three miles, ten minutes. Let’s do the math. Sixty minutes in an hour. Ten minutes goes into sixty minutes six times. Six times three miles gives 18 miles. There you have it ladies and gentlemen: 18 miles an hour.

The official speed of stupid.

Categories: Chicagoland LIFE TRANSIT

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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7 replies

  1. I don’t mind tourists, and I don’t mind giving out directions. I like that people want to come here, and I kinda get a kick out of being able to steer people safely around the city. But what does drive me up the wall are the fools who cluelessly stop dead in the middle of a sidewalk during the height of a busy day. It takes all the midwestern restraint I have to not walk up to them and say “Congratulations folks: you have found the most awkward place imaginable to stop to have a conversation. Great job. If I had a cookie, I would give it to you.”

    Maybe I can do it one time, just so I could see the look on people’s faces.

  2. A couple of months ago I was crossing Michigan at Chicago when an obviously-from-out-of-town teenager asked her father what the Water Tower was. He didn’t know, so I told them. They were terrified! That a total stranger talked to them! I was surprised they didn’t scream and run away.

  3. A few weeks ago I was at the Clinton blue line station when a hipster approached and asked which way to Damen. I hesitated, which allowed him to spell it: D-A-M-E-N. I said, it’s west from here — assuming he was simply looking for directional advice as he seemed to be heading OUT of the station.

    So he decided that the 54/Cermak train which was approaching would get him there. I quickly told him that it probably wouldn’t get him to where he wanted to be (which I assumed was Wicker Park). He refused to believe me saying ‘Well, as long as I get to Damen I am sure I’ll be close.’ I tried to quickly (the doors were closing) explain that the Blue Line crosses the north-south running Damen twice two miles apart and that I was nearly certain he’d be two miles from where he wanted to be if he hopped on that train.

    I then asked him if he wanted to go to Wicker Park. He said yes. I told him to catch the O’Hare train. He disboarded the 54/Cermak train but seemed very skeptical of my advice as he recalled that he did have to, after all, spell the name of the street before I figured out what he was talking about.

  4. As a born and bred Chicagoan, and as such, a midwesterner, I have about as much patience as Mike with the people described above as he does. If you ask for directions, I’ll give ’em to you, but if you are that overtly obtuse and willfully ignorant of your surroundings, then you may discover that just midwestern folks can be prone to causticity as well (or maybe it is just me channeling my Bronx born grandfather 😉

  5. And if I were a helpful Midwesterner, perhaps I would. And frequently do, even as a short-tempered New Yorker, as I wrote above.

    However, no matter how smiley those helpful Midwesterners might be when they hide their exasperation and through gritted teeth smile and give someone that bit of direction they should already know, they’re thinking exactly what in many instances I prefer to put right out there. I simply prefer to avoid the artifice.

    In other words, if I’m annoyed with you, you’ll know. More to the point, why hide it? That just lets you off too easily and leads to my ulcer. And I’d rather you feel momentarily taken aback than I feel agida.

    True, you can’t fix stupid. But you sure can point it out. Feel free to turn the other cheek. Me, I’m with Margaret Cho, who famously said, “Don’t go there? I live there.” And I can give you directions.

  6. I suggest you reread your own blog entry from last month entitled: “A Public in Civility”.

    While I agree that you can’t fix stupid, you can reply with helpful midwestern charm instead of New York causticity.

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