Lakeshore Drive Unlimited
The tourists can have Wrigley Field, I’ll take Lakeshore Drive. Paris may have its Boulevards Peripheriques and London its Inner Ring Roads, but the names already tell you they’re nowhere nearly as romantic or seemingly contemptuous of commercial rationale as Chicago’s own, urban “freeway,” Lakeshore Drive.
Lakeshore Drive’s eccentricity seems even more sympathetic upon learning that the eight-lane thoroughfare owes its existence to a local tycoon with a botanically themed name, Potter Palmer, who had it erected as a boulevard in front of his lakeside mansion in 1882, so other Chicagoans could parade past it full of jealousy in their horse carriages.
And then Lakeshore Drive adds to its whimsy with an acronym like LSD. Twenty years ago, the U.S. postal service allegedly refused to deliver mail that was addressed to persons living on “LSD.” Of course the recipients weren’t living on the freeway, but in high rises and mansions alongside the inner ring of the Drive, also entitled Lakeshore Drive and facing the outer Drive and Lake Michigan.
According to Wikipedia, the U.S. postal service now recognizes LSD as an official street address if you absolutely must use the acronym.
LSD’s 20th century history is a complicated story of re-routings, re-curvatures, re-connections and one extension, but since 1947, LSD has basically been Chicago’s own, soft-core racetrack that steals the show whenever it pops up in a Hollywood movie and acts joyfully complicit in the over-the-top shenanigans of the Blues Brothers, Tom Cruise in Risky Business and Ferris Bueller on his day off.
LSD’s languid, lanky curves and the paradisiacal vistas with which it regales us make it the token eccentric among Chicago’s dully straight, major streets, which mostly slice up the city from north to south and east to west in monotonous 90-degree angles.
Blues singer Mavis Staples and other natives call Chicago the most beautiful city in the world. In fact, it’s almost de rigueur for anyone speaking on Chicago Public Radio’s Chicago-centric current affairs show, ‘848,’ to say Chicago is the most beautiful city in the world.
I must say I (only really) agree when I’m facing south or north on Lakeshore Drive on a day lit by an azure blue sky, even though I’m sitting isolated in my car capsule.
I wish I could catapult myself from it into what I see around me then, onto the beaches, the warm, damp sand, or into the lake that pretends it’s the Pacific, or a lush, Lincoln Park meadow, surrounded by dogs mock-chasing squirrels.
There’s a price to be paid to hitch a ride north or south on Lake Shore Drive, no matter from where you seek access to its universe. “Jumping” onto the LSD from Michigan Avenue’s “Magnificent Mile, you, the driver must slam on the breaks for pedestrians determined to jay-waddle across the street regardless of your green light, swerve to avoid mean cabs who cut you off from left field, or monster buses who mercilessly squeeze you into the median or into oncoming traffic if you let them, just to beat you into the magic tunnel that releases you onto Lakeshore Drive.
Buses have priority when it comes to first dibs at Lakeshore Drive. They’re an express bus that can’t wait to finally go, go, go, non-stop, for eight miles, instead of petering out at every other city block and red light.
Once you get to enter the somewhat shabby, underground LSD on-ramp that unceremoniously succeeds the north tip of Michigan Avenue, you’re almost again born to be wild. Known perils lurk in that tunnel, deep puddles and even deeper and sharper potholes, but you can’t see them til it’s too late, since no city Streets & San agency or highway authority thought of installing lights inside the 50 foot-long cave.
But if you emerge from the tunnel unscathed, you can instantly turn into Dario Franchitti and push your Formula One machine or Nascar through enemy lines into the two left lanes to join the race that has no winner or loser. It’s anyone’s guess why the Illinois Highway Authority or whoever controls Lakeshore Drive’s traffic bothered to install the 40 mph speed limit signs - if not to provoke humiliation and derision for all who follow the speed limit by going 45 mph. One year ago, the powers that be did stop bothering to tape a “5” over the “0” on the 40 mph speed limit signs before April 1st, under the pretense that the potholes on the road were too hazardous to allow drivers to barrel ahead at a five mph faster speed from April to November, as had always been their prerogative.
Anyway, on Lakeshore Drive, drivers choose their own, preferred speed limits, ranging from 55 mph to 70 mph or higher, depending on their “I’ll be off the hook if I only go this and this much over the speed limit” guesstimate, their car model, their misbegotten belief in the classification of LSD as a freeway and the music they’re listening to while inhaling LSD’s fleeting visuals too fast to remember any of them, until much later.
Unlike those who meander open-mouthed along Pacific Coast Highway, the drivers who populate LSD are mostly commuters, who are as familiar with LSD’s seductions as Rome is with Michelangelos in its churches. You don't crane your neck to review the perfectly symmetrical beach volleyball nets gently swaying against the glow of an orange sky and a turquoise lake to catch the result of a serve you witnessed in the making. Or it’s not as if you can continue driving north, but can snap your head 180 degrees to take in the panorama of the silver shining skyscraper-legoland behind you. You know you can see it all again from a different, possibly better angle when you go back on LSD the other way, or on another day, tomorrow, or next summer.
Traveling on LSD offers you seemingly unlimited, voyeuristic luxuriating in scenes like mini-soccer games sprinkling Lincoln Park, children playing in the shallow waters of Lake Michigan, tan, ponytailed brunettes in speedos and baseball hats rollerblading along the bike path in the opposite direction of you, the unfolding of the northern Lake Michigan coastline on the horizon, the dancing masts of sail boats moored in Belmont Harbor. You probably get lost in reverie of sailing away to a distant land yonder, never to return.
This sentimental wallowing is only interrupted if, out of nowhere, a cop car looms unrecognized and still, like a praying mantis, on LSD’s shoulder, set on destroying the perfect spectacle and rudely cutting off your daydreams.
If you’re lucky, the nasty intruder will have taken its prey around North Avenue, so that by the time you are gently lifted over the raised curve by Fullerton Avenue, you can return to dissolving in the evocations of the lush beauty outside your capsule. But sometimes, another mantis sits lurking just a few miles north, just to shame your newfound swagger.
At times, LSD brings out your dark side, too, such as when selfish glee snakes its way into your consciousness as you head north on the Drive at 9 am on a Monday, Tuesday Wednesday, Thursday or Friday morning, while the “other side” is stuck in a bumper to bumper, rush-hour hell from which no crisp, blue morning sky or bouncing wavelets frivolously competing for entry into your field can pluck you. I refer to both human sides of this situation as “you,” since I’ve been on both sides. The “mean you” guffaws with Schadenfreude for finding itself on the right side of Lakeshore Drive. If you happen to be the person alone in your car heading south on LSD on those weekday mornings during the non-bureaucrats’ rush hour, LSD’s beautiful distractions represent everything you long to be permanent in that moment and wish you could enjoy in slow motion, live, away from your car if you were someone else.
Instead, you are forced to roll forward against your will, inch by inch to be engulfed by the city’s lips and its Michigan Avenue throat with nine hours of confinement in Chicago’s retail palaces to look forward to.
When you are the northbound person speeding past the parking lot that is the south facing lanes in the opposite direction, without even one Escalade in sight to block your view, you may feel glee at first for not being “the other side,” but then you pity them. Those southbound on Lakeshore Drive on weekday mornings between 8:30 am and 10 am are not the 20-something millionaire Chicago Mercantile Exchange traders who hopped on the “L” to the Loop at 6 am, nor the middle aged, private wealth managers and their assistants who arrive without wrinkles on their pants at Union Station between 8 am and 8:45 am on Metra trains from boring western suburbs like Park Ridge. You know they’re not the IT workers, either, who head west to their suburban office bunkers on the I 94 at 5 am.
No, the southbound Lakeshore drivers sitting in traffic west of the median are most likely the chic caterers to Chicagoland’s rich and more chic than them. They depend on hard earned commissions from purchases of the select females from places such as Winnetka, Lake Forrest or Highland Park, wives and their teenage daughters who are now probably still in Pilates class or asleep or in their houses, not condos, way north of LSD’s northern boundary in weird and wacky Rogers Park. Those females will be breezing south on Lakeshore Drive in the same lanes as the ones who’ll wait on them a few hours from now, their nails and hair polished and dressed up in the same designer gear they will purchase anew today. They will be free from any pressure to earn a living to enjoy the now empty, relaxed lanes expediting them south into the city. In fact, the further south the ladies travel on Lakeshore Drive, the more they convince themselves that they have cast off their “North Shore” suburb identity and that they are just as hip as the city divorcees with whom they’ll spend the post- shopping hours. Their personal fortunes facilitate such near-seamless city infiltration until the ladies feel their confidence toppled by intense expectations of haphazard romance that afternoon or evening in the city. Is that what they’re thinking of as they glide south on Lakeshore Drive, ready to have a valet park their car for $40 for the afternoon?
On summer weekends, when it’s finally hot in Chicago, northbound Lakeshore Drive between the North Avenue and Fullerton Avenue exits becomes the tailgating parking lot for the summer leisure Olympics of white, 20-something, collegiate hard bodies rollerblading, biking, running and posing each other into the ground. The chattering of their voices mixes with the scraping noises of their gear on the concrete bike paths as your car capsule willingly lets the alien sounds penetrate through its rolled down windows or tilted sun roof, since only buffoons own convertibles in Chicago. You’re half repelled by the fact that this crowd is responsible for your crawl past North and Fullerton Avenues on LSD and you’re half wishing you could hand your stirring wheel over to the chauffeur, hop from the passenger’s seat over the low, aluminum separation onto the bikepath and go for a blade with Kirsten and enjoy a pizza, burger, light beer and a Cubs game with her and her friends.
But Lakeshore Drive’s relentless forward motion washes over the memory of her appearance a few miles north, by the time you reach the Foster Avenue exit. If you let your capsule blink bye-bye to LSD to turn right onto the exit ramp and come to a stop at the intersection at its end, you’ll see Latino and African -American boys race their bikes past the nose of your car without even the hint of intending to slow down for oncoming traffic such as yourself.. If you then park your car in one of the hundreds of soon-no longer- free spaces in the beachside parking lot and walk just a few steps east into the park toward the beach, you can buy yourself the most amazing mango fruit salad sprinkled with cayenne pepper from one of the Latino food carts for a third of the price you’d pay for inferior fruit salad at Whole Foods. A totally different type of denizen is to be found here on Foster Beach from that on North Avenue Beach -- gay, lesbian, transgender Chicagoans like it here and many of the city’s Latino and some African American residents. A rare, surprising and welcome discovery of cultural diversity near the north end of Lakeshore Drive.
This is probably not the moment that you will remember how once, four years ago, on a steely grey, late Tuesday morning in February at 11 am, you were speeding home southbound on Lakeshore Drive from a ballet class with your NPR newscast blasting and with all four southbound lanes exclusively yours to play with, except for one speckle of a white sedan somewhere in the distance ahead of you. All alone on Lakeshore Drive, staring at the aqua colored huge waves and thinking of Breaking The Waves and then a caramel frappuchino and then the two homeless men who popped up to the right, sitting, surrounded by their black plastic bags, under barren trees in Lincoln Park- – or are they women-and then staring at the white sedan’s tail-- he’s not moving, he is standing, parked at 0 mph in the middle of Lakeshore Drive, ten feet ahead of me, in my lane, and I’m swerving left at 55 mph, and then shouting in my the capsule: ‘Oh My God,’ and then driving on, not stopping, on Lakeshore Drive. Later, by the Michigan Avenue exit, thinking, what if my life had ended there, crashing into a parked, white sedan on Lakeshore Drive.
It’s not what I think about when I drive on Lakeshore Drive today- it’s like a rarely regarded snapshot of a weird, contrarian emotion that Lakeshore Drive once decided to impress on me.
Do you remember when during that surprise blizzard in December, two years ago at 2 am, when Lakeshore Drive, instead of dutifully delivering its mildly buzzed passengers south toward their city-condo homes, spun us around in our capsule and made us skate to a halt horizontally across two and a half lanes ? Try sitting in your capsule on Lakeshore Drive like that and look dignified enough to escape the eyes of the praying mantisses.
This story is dedicated to Tim Moore.