The Red Menace | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

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The Red Menace



By Jack Clark

I've been spending a lot of time at Lincoln and Grace lately--more time than I'd like to actually--and it's got me thinking. I'm not the only one at the intersection, but the other people don't appear to be thinking at all. They just sit there, no why in their eyes, no concern on their faces. They are sheep, plain and simple, and when the meek inherit the rest of the earth, they'll probably still be sitting at Lincoln and Grace waiting for the light to change. Don't expect this to happen anytime soon.

It's a five-corner intersection. Wolcott Avenue comes up from the south and stops right there, which is a good thing. If it continued it would run right through Mangi's hot dog stand. I think this is what people mean when they talk about city planning.

Mangi's has a Vienna sign hanging out front, and they serve beer, which is a nice touch for a hot dog stand. But they also serve shish kebab, breakfast, and boneless pork chops, which would seem to take all the fun out of a pork chop sandwich.

Across the way there's a gas station. It's an old-fashioned-looking place. And like the old days, there are no self-service pumps. There's an apartment above the garage, which is rare in Chicago gas stations and makes the place look like a gangster hideout in a Bogart movie. Sometimes they'll have some old car with a For Sale sign in the window sitting on the grass where Wolcott and Lincoln come to a point. Once there was a race car from a demolition derby sitting there, all banged up but still looking drivable.

As I sit there, I often find myself thinking about the gas station of my youth. I used to like to ride along in the Jeep on service calls--especially on the worst days of winter when school was closed--and I still jiggle the battery cables when a car won't start. You'd be surprised how often this will get you rolling again. Next step: clean the battery posts. Next step: use the telephone.

The gas station was right up the street from where I lived and it was always a friendly place. They'd let you fix a bicycle flat using their tools and patches. If you didn't know how to fix one, they'd show you. My favorite part was always lighting the glue.

When I got older some of my high school friends worked part-time at the gas station, and we all hung around when the boss wasn't there. My friends would fix flats and, if they were lucky, they'd get to take the Jeep out on service calls. At night, when the mechanics were off, they'd try their hand at any small repairs that happened to wander in. It was a good way to learn about cars. Mostly they just pumped gas, checked the oil, and washed windows. But how many engines did they save with that simple, "Check the oil, ma'am?" If you've ever had a flat tire late at night, or needed a fan belt or something as simple as a fuse or a bulb, or if you're just too damn lazy to wash your own windshield or check your oil, you probably long for the gas stations of old.

And they really were great jobs for kids. It's too bad they're gone. Somehow I don't think it's quite as much fun sitting in a glass booth surrounded by cigarettes, instant lottery tickets, and junk food, watching customers slosh gas on their shoes.

As I sit at Lincoln and Grace, day after day it seems, I notice that the gas station gets very little business. The price seems pretty reasonable for full service. If the light ever changes maybe I'll go over there and let 'em fill it up and check the oil. Instead I just wait and wonder: Have we become so accustomed to self-service that we don't even know how to use full service anymore? Or are we just hooked on the fumes?

There's a Butera supermarket across from the gas station, and I read the sale signs in the window. Wow, what a deal, I think, a bag of oranges for 99 cents. And there's no disclaimer underneath saying you must have a preferred-customer card or else the oranges are actually $43 each.

They're building town houses on the corner of Grace and Wolcott. This is a big surprise, right? I mean, they're even building town houses on the south side now.

I remember years ago somebody wanted to put a White Hen Pantry on this very corner. Best coffee in town if they don't let it sit there all day and turn to mud. But the neighbors complained. So the old building just rotted away, looking deserted and rat infested.

Now a big sign says "Grace Place. 5 Luxury Townhouses." This on a lot that once upon a time would have been considered just about right for a decent-size single-family home. According to the sign the cheapest town house will cost $329,900. What kind of people do you think prices like that will attract? And talk about living like rats. If I were a neighbor, I'd be on the phone to the Bureau of Rodent Control.

At least if the White Hen were there, you'd know where to find a cop or a cab if you needed one, and think of all the space you could save in your kitchen. You wouldn't even need a refrigerator.

But it's always fun to watch construction workers and to note their progress as the town houses go up. It's also nice to see that they're actually using structural brick--block and brick, to be precise, which is a close second to all-brick construction. Some developers, besides cramming as many town houses into a lot as possible, have another get-rich-quick trick. They build frame structures and then hide the wood with brick veneer. The only reason to use brick veneer is to fleece the buyer out of even more money by conning him into thinking he is actually buying structural brick.

I've got to admit, the attraction of town houses is pretty much lost on me and it must run in the family. Recently I was driving my mother around Lincoln Park and we came to a row of town houses. "What kind of neighborhood is this?" my mother asked.

I explained that it was relatively wealthy.

"Really? When I was a kid the poor people lived in row houses like those."

"I thought you were poor," I said, remembering all her Depression stories.

"Not that poor," she said.

There's a bank across from the town houses. It's a boring little modern brick structure that could easily pass for a rest stop on an interstate highway. I've never had any money in the place so I rarely think about it, unless I happen to be looking for a bathroom. Or sitting at this light.

There used to be a restaurant on that very corner. A pancake house, it seems to me. My ex-girlfriend, my childhood sweetheart, was moving out to California with some other guy. We had our farewell breakfast at Grace and Lincoln.

I don't remember much about that day. I know I was on my way to play softball, and I had a Clincher with me. We were done eating and were drinking coffee, not knowing how to say good-bye. A CTA bus pulled up outside. I jumped up and said good-bye and ran out the door and got on the bus and went to the softball game. I'd like to be able to say that I never saw her again, because that would make a better story and that's how writers think. But the truth is we still keep in touch a bit, which I guess makes for a better life. Believe it or not, she has yet to apologize. Oh, well. One of these days she'll come to her senses.

Come on, admit it. This is boring. But the light won't change and my radio's broken, so I'm stuck here with my own petty thoughts as traffic keeps backing up on Lincoln Avenue. Wolcott has the green. Wolcott always seems to have the green. But there are no cars on Wolcott. Not one. Never. Day after day after day after day. Or almost never. People do get lost occasionally.

When the light finally turns green I step on the gas pedal, whip around on the right, weave through traffic, and speed down Lincoln just in time to catch the next red light.

Now I'm sitting at Addison, Lincoln, and Ravenswood, another intersection with the same problem. Here the minor street is Ravenswood Avenue. And once again the problem is it's getting too long a light for too little traffic.

Until recently, Ravenswood and Wolcott only got a green every few cycles. This solved one problem but caused another. Because the light came so seldom, many people didn't realize the minor street got a light at all.

Jackrabbit drivers who jumped when they thought their own light was about to turn green sometimes found themselves on a collision course with traffic from the minor street. Of course, half the time there was no traffic on the minor street. It's always fun to watch the jackrabbit race up the street all alone. The moment they look back in the mirror to find all the other cars still waiting at the red light is priceless but it's hard to enjoy. Because usually the jerk behind you thinks the light is broken and he's laying on the horn trying to get you to move.

Cars on the minor street sometimes get sick of waiting for the green and decide to run the light. I saw a semi pull that a few months back. Addison had the green light but the truck came off Ravenswood blasting its air horn. Boy, did this make me miss truck driving. Everybody on Addison stopped. Nobody as much as beeped. They just let him do it. Try that in your Volkswagen some day.

There's no secret about the right way to set traffic signals at one of these intersections. They've been doing it the right way for years right up the street at Lincoln and Montrose. Here the minor street is Leavitt and it actually gets quite a bit of traffic, much more than either Ravenswood or Wolcott. Leavitt gets a short light every cycle, about eight seconds, which is about half what Wolcott and Ravenswood get, but it's plenty of time for the amount of traffic. Wolcott could get by with much less--say, a tenth of a second. And while we're on the subject, does Grace really need 18 seconds? Maybe they're getting ready for the arrival of the town house dwellers.

At first I figured the new sequences on the lights at Addison and at Grace were the work of a couple of boobs from the Bureau of Electricity who decided it might be fun to watch the evil northsiders sit in their stopped cars slowly going crazy. Or maybe one of their cousins owns Mangi's and they figured this would give them a little extra visibility. No, strike that. When south-siders talk about visibility they're discussing the weather, ghosts, or degree of intoxication.

But then the boobs at Sign and Marking added a new wrinkle at Addison and Lincoln, and somebody is going to get killed one of these days, and then it's not going to be funny anymore--or not so funny, as the nuns used to say.

And I really do think it's intentional. It's another in a series of attacks on the north side by south-side guerrillas, and I don't think it's an accident that this latest attempt at disrupting the north side takes place right down the street from the place both hated and envied by south-siders: the north side's cuddly little toy ballpark, Wrigley Field.

Most north-siders seem completely oblivious to the fact that south-siders hate them. Actually most north-siders seem completely oblivious to the south side. I think that's part of the problem here.

A little background.

The south side of the city is al-most twice as big as the north side. This is something that northsiders either don't know or rarely acknowledge but that south-siders never forget.

South-side children are indoctrinated from the moment they enter school.

"Where did the great Chicago Fire start?" the teacher will ask, and the children answer in unison. "The south side."

"But what part of the city did the fire destroy?" The children answer with glee. "The north side."

"What's the biggest side of Chicago?" the teacher asks.

"Where is Mayor Daley from?"

"Where was Al Capone's headquarters?"

"Where did the Black Sox throw the World Series?"

"Where is Cook County Jail?"

"Where have the most Nazi war criminals been found in Chicago?"

"Which branch of the Chicago River actually runs backward?"

Well, you get the idea, and this is just first grade. But it drives south-siders crazy to spend all those years in school and then come up to the north side and find that most north-siders share none of this knowledge. It especially galls white south-siders and middle- and upper-class black south-siders to find that many north-siders actually believe that the entire south side, with the exception of Hyde Park and Midway Airport, is one huge black ghetto.

And south-siders can never escape the north side. It's the center of nightlife for the entire city, of dining, arts and entertainment. Until last month, if a south-sider wanted to do something simple like go out to a movie he had exactly two choices south of Roosevelt Road. He could go to the Hyde Park Theater or to Ford City. That was it, unless he wanted to head for the Loop or the suburbs, or the north side. The two theaters, one off 53rd Street, the other off 76th, may sound like neighbors to north-siders, but they are almost 11 miles apart, about the same distance as the Loop to Evanston.

When a south-sider comes up to the Loop or the north side he's always asking questions. "Where you from?" is one of his favorites.


"Yeah? Where?"


"What parish is that?"

"Huh? What are you talking about?"

"I knew it. You're not from Chicago."

"Sure I am. I live right by Wrigley. I mean you can actually see--"

"What are you?"

"What am I? What does that mean?"

"What nationality?"

"I'm American. What do you think?"

"I knew it. Look, just tell me how long you've actually lived here."

"What does that have to do--"

"What high school did you go to?"

"I don't understand why you're asking all these questions."

"Just tell me what part of Michigan you're from, OK?"

Whether the answer is Bloomfield Hills, Royal Oak, Livonia, Ann Arbor, or Kalamazoo, the south-sider is sure to walk away with a knowing smirk on his face, muttering to himself about the further decline of the north side. "Jeez, all that resident-only parking and they're all from out of town."

That the south side actually runs the city is no secret. The money might be in the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park, but most of the political power is south of Roosevelt Road, if only barely.

The only north-side mayor in recent memory was Jane Byrne. I'm ready to drop the subject whenever you are.

Though south-siders pretend to acknowledge the Loop as the center of the city, they know deep in their south-side hearts that the true center lies elsewhere, somewhere between 24th and Ashland, the command center for the Bureau of Electricity of the Department of Streets and Sanitation, and 3458 S. Lawndale, the headquarters for the Sign and Marking division of the Department of Transportation. Somewhere out there, within smelling distance of the Sanitary and Ship Canal, is where the plots are hatched and the troops dispatched.

But now they really have gone too far. On a recent trip down Lincoln I was pleasantly surprised to find that someone had changed the sequence of the lights at Addison. The green for Ravenswood Avenue is still too long, but now it comes only every other series.

That's the good news. The bad news is they've added a left-turn lane to Lincoln Avenue at Addison. Now what would possibly be wrong with that, you might ask. And if you're familiar with the intersection you might even be thinking, about time.

This just shows that you haven't been paying attention again. And that is exactly why the south-siders continue to get away with their attempts to disrupt north-side traffic.

The catch here is that the saboteurs from Sign and Marking only put a turning lane on the southbound side of the street. And they placed it well over the center line, the usual procedure for left-turn lanes. So when you pull into this beautifully painted left-turn lane you suddenly find yourself face-to-face with oncoming traffic. I kid you not. If the French resistance had been as diabolical as the boys from Lawndale Avenue, they wouldn't have needed our help at all.

Probably the only reason nobody's been killed yet is that usually someone's turning left from the northbound side of the intersection, too.

But not all the time, I found out recently as I sat in the turning lane with some incensed territorial northbound driver coming straight at me flashing his brights and laying on the horn. My seat's still a little damp.

I'm sure the other driver figured it out as he got past me and saw the fresh paint on the street. But honestly, that doesn't make me feel any better.

The campaign to disrupt traffic on Lincoln Avenue actually began a few years back when they took down most of the No Left Turn signs from Lincoln, Belmont, and Ashland.

The justification for permitting left turns off Lincoln and Ashland was the closing of a one-block stretch of School Street, which for years had served as one of the key left-turn detours. School was shut down temporarily during the construction of the Whole Foods store and the conversion of the old Wieboldt's Department Store into lofts.

That must be what set the south-siders off. Whole Foods. Lofts. Need I say more? Those are exactly the sort of things that drive your typical south-sider batty.

South-siders live in places called houses, homes, apartments, even trailers. Butâ with the exception of some riffraff from the north side who have established a beachhead in Pilsen, not lofts.

Now the city was probably right to permit left turns off Lincoln and Ashland while School Street was closed. But I naturally assumed that once construction was over the No Left Turn signs would go back up, happily rejoining the No Left Turn signs on Belmont that had never come down.

I assumed this for several reasons. First, where would the 19th District write traffic tickets without these much needed illegal left turns? Not only was this intersection once the favorite spot for the district to write tickets, it was almost the only spot. One night I saw six squad cars waiting, ready to take turns pulling over left-turning motorists. You could boldly run red lights, and the odds were no squad would bother to move.

The 19th District is not alone in their love of this violation. I'm willing to bet that the Chicago Police Department writes a higher percentage of illegal-left-turn tickets than any police department in the country.

The trouble here is Chicago cops are just too darn nice. They don't want to fight with people; to hear how the light was really yellow or how you were only doing 35; that you have to go to the bathroom really bad or happen to be on your way to visit your dying grandmother. And I'm on their side. Everybody knows the police don't have to invent reasons to pull drivers over. If the average cop wrote 10 percent of the violations he actually saw, most of them would probably be drawing disability benefits for writer's cramp.

The reason Chicago cops love the illegal left turn is that the average left turner doesn't know what he's done wrong. So he doesn't argue. He doesn't deny. He doesn't lie about his grandmother who actually died five years ago and who he never visited anyway. He asks in all innocence, "What did I do?" And when the cop tells him, all the motorist can do is speak the truth. "Oh, I didn't see the sign." Which is when the cop tells him he can go back and look. But here, take this ticket along for the ride.

Now who is victimized most by this policy? Not the locals who generally know all about the illegal-left-turn trap. No. It's out-of-towners, recent arrivals, and people from other neighborhoods, and to a true south-sider all three of these groups are viewed with suspicion. "What's wrong with your own neighborhood, pal?"

So I wouldn't be surprised to find that this bizarre traffic-enforcement policy was actually hatched not at 11th and State or at City Hall but somewhere very close to the Sanitary and Ship Canal.

Otherwise, why didn't they put the No Left Turn signs back after the construction was done? You should see the poor guys from the 19th District driving around some nights looking for something to do. It almost makes you want to commit a crime.

And if there was ever an intersection that deserved to be No Left Turn 24 hours a day, Lincoln, Belmont, and Ashland is it.

The intersection is bigger than some small towns. I'm not including the sidewalks here, or the crosswalks. I'm just talking about the open space in the middle where a driver is on his own with no painted lines to help him along. A smart developer could probably cram about 800 town houses in this space and still have room for a big sign calling the place Southwest Wrigleyville Luxury Estates.

Not only is the intersection enormous but Lincoln Avenue changes direction here, too. Coming out of Lincoln Park the street runs true northwest. But at Belmont and Ashland it shifts to north by northwest.

If you're coming south and want to continue on Lincoln you have to jog a bit left. If you're coming north you have to jog right. Of course, some people get confused between jogging and turning, and there's lots of curving and swerving and cursing and beeping. It's not unusual to see someone suddenly turn right from the left lane at the same moment someone else turns left from the right. It's like ballet when it works.

Except it doesn't always work.

I was following a cab through the intersection one night when an oncoming car jogging left suddenly decided to turn left instead and hit the taxi not quite head on. I stopped to see if I could help out. The cab was totaled. The driver was pretty shaken up but he was already on his phone calling for the police and an ambulance. His passenger was hurt but she didn't look too bad. I went over to see about the other driver. He was passed out cold, either drunk or just unconscious. I couldn't tell which but he was still breathing, and the radio was still playing. Boy, was that some horrible music. I turned the radio off before leaving.

It's not just accidents either. Time and again people waiting in the intersection to make a left turn don't move once their light has turned red. Now this probably seems like the safe move at the time. There are always the jerks who won't wait for the intersection to clear. As soon as their light turns green they're off, and if you happen to be in their way, cover your ears. So a lot of people just freeze.

But there are usually five or six cars backed up behind the frozen car, and they are all planning to make the light. Some of the true kamikazes just say the hell with it and make the left turn from three or four cars back. But the survivors are stuck in the intersection behind the frozen car. And they're laying on their horns trying to get the driver to move. They know what's about to happen. So do you. We've all been there. It's known as gridlock.

There are benches on some of the corners. My favorite is on the south side of the intersection between Ashland and Lincoln. It's a sturdy wooden bench with a gentle curve, much nicer than one of those wobbly advertising benches that usually feel like they're about to crash to the ground.

Sometimes, if I have a little time to kill, I like to sit on the bench and catch the action. It really is a sight, and a sound too, like Stravinsky with a hangover. The horns. The squeal of brakes. The shouting. The near collisions and the actual ones. That sweet smell of diesel fuel.

Not too long ago, a guy sat down next to me. "Jeez, that was close," he said after an unspectacular near collision.

"Just wait."

"Look at this nut!" he shouted a while later during a particularly audacious maneuver.

"Unbelievable," I agreed, impressed.

"Where you from?" he asked softly in that certain way.

I knew if I told the truth and said "Saint Catherine's," I might have to answer some embarrassing questions.

He'd probably get a quick smile on his face. "118th Street?"

"No," I'd have to disappoint him. "The one on the west side."

"Oh, yeah," he'd say and I'd see the smile disappear as suspicion spread across his face instead. "Oak Park, right?"

"Yeah, that's where the church is, but I actually grew up in Chicago. It was right on the border."

"You go to school there?"

"Yeah, sure. Sisters of Mercy."

"So what you're saying, you actually went to school in a suburb?"

"Well, yeah but--"

"Five day a week, nine months a year, right?"

"Well, yeah but--"

"So you basically grew up in the suburbs, right?"

"No. I grew up--"

"Wish I had your advantages. But let me ask you something. If you're so damn smart and everything, what the hell are you doing sitting on a bench in the middle of the afternoon?"

So to skip that entire conversation I say "Resurrection" instead, which is true as far as it goes, which is age five.

"Yeah, west side," the guy said with a smile. "Too bad about all that, huh?"

"Yeah, too bad," I agreed.

"Hey, didn't I hear that they tore the church down?"

"Yeah, completely gone."

"That's tough," he said and shook his head. "You up here now?"

"Yeah. How about you? Where you from?"

"Our Lady of 103rd," he said.

"You living up north now?"

"Nah," he said. "Just came up to look around. Some boys out on Lawndale told me this Lincoln Avenue was really something to see. Which way is Grace, by the way?"

I point north by northwest. "What I thought," he said. "Man, were they ever right."

We went back to watching traffic, a couple of city guys taking it easy on a comfortable bench.

"Look at this bozo," he said a few minutes later.

"Unbelievable," I said again, which is a word that comes to mind quite a bit on Lincoln Avenue these days. "Sure beats the Cubs, huh?"

"Goes without saying, my man. Goes without saying."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.

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