Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Anatomy of a Bad Commute, Part II

Sometimes the universe just opens up on you for a 24-hour period.

This morning on my way to work, the bus I was riding was hit by a car.

The accident was completely the other driver's fault -- someone the other riders said refused to slow down in the merge lane. The bus neatly severed one of the car's outside mirrors, and everything came to a halt.

The other driver -- an older woman with an air of entitled indignation and a handicapped license plate on her luxury sedan -- insisted on calling the police and waiting for them to arrive.

It was another of those "everyone off" moments, only this time we were in the middle of Lake Shore Drive.

As everyone else milled about the scene, she sat in her car, avoiding the wrath of a hundred angry public transportation passengers wondering how they were going to get to work.

And I'm ashamed to say this, but I walked right up to her car and gave her the finger.

It took three buses to pick up all of us, and our accommodations were cozy to say the least. I ended up standing right next to the driver, who was prompted by another, especially chatty, refugee to regale us with CTA gossip.

He claimed their regular budget crises are all the result of CTA President Frank Kruese wasting tax dollars on his high-powered friends. He called the organization Chicago's political dumping ground, and claimed that CTA actually stands for "cover thy ass."

I am happy to report that my trip home was entirely uneventful.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Anatomy of a Bad Commute

Today has been surprisingly cold and rainy. But because it's spring and I ended up carrying my jacket every evening last week, I decided to forgo another layer this morning.

A co-worker who saw me today commented on it. "Yeah, it's chilly," I replied, "but all I have to do is wait for the bus. I'll be fine."

Thus does many a lesson learned begin, with foolish words and the expectation that just because things were fine last time, and the time before, and the time before that one, too, they will be fine this time as well.

By this evening what had once been a bit chilly and kind of wet had become really cold and pretty rainy. But all I had to do was wait for the bus, right? And it's usually not that long -- less than 15 minutes most days.

To understand what happened next you need to know a few things about the CTA, which is in charge of all the buses and trains in the area.

CTA stands for Chicago Transit Authority, but locals swear it actually means "Can't Transport Anything." I also have a friend who observes that "the CTA is surprised by rush hour twice a day."

It's true that the CTA can be inexplicable, especially during rush hours. For example, where I catch the bus going home from downtown I see several bus routes go by. The 151 travels to parts of town that are nearer and nicer than mine, and it's not unusual to see two or three of them coming up the street together, like a group of Lincoln Park Trixies making for the ladies' room. The 3 goes up and down Michigan Avenue exclusively, and I've noticed those girls prefer to travel in packs, too.

The buses that head further north, like mine, are less frequent and often crowded by the time they arrive. Making matters worse, my bus, the 147, either goes all the way north or ends its route 16 blocks south of my home (and is therefore of little use to me). It may just be my imagination, but lately it seems that the buses stopping short seem to outnumber mine by about two-to-one.

This evening I was lucky, however. A good 147 showed up within a few minutes, and I was even able to get a seat on it.

It was at this point that my troubles (and about a hundred other peoples' as well) began. The bus stalled on Michigan Avenue. Once, then twice, and finally three times, still picking up people and packing them in the whole way. By the time it shuddered its last and finally died, we were at the far north end of Michigan Avenue. The 147 gets on Lake Shore Drive at this point, and doesn't stop again until Foster Avenue some 50 blocks north.

This couldn't have happened at a worse point in the route, or on a worse day. Because the next 147 would be just as crowded as this one, and that might take 10-15 minutes. The one after that would be just as bad. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I guess the driver said something (I was wearing headphones) because everyone started standing up and heading for the exit door and swearing either under or above their breath. A lot of people just got off and stood at the bus stop just directly outside, as if an empty 147 was going to magically appear and whisk them off to the city's far north side. But I've lived in Chicago over 20 years and I knew better.

I headed back down the bus route, figuring that the further south I went the better my chances of finding another, uncrowded bus.

This went on for several blocks, and all I saw were the 151s and 3s, a parade of twins and triplets, all of them half-full.

Then I saw a 147. My bus. Even though I could see it was full, I was sure I could squeeze on. But apparently the driver didn't think so, because he didn't even bother to slow down for me, the guy without a proper jacket who was waving his arms in all the wind and rain.

Annoyed but undaunted, I walked further south and finally found another 147. There were even two seats left on it, and I commended myself for taking the initiative and not waiting with all the suckers further north. The seat I chose had a damp newspaper in it and, thinking that some slob had used it to cover his or her head and just left it there, I gruffly tossed it aside and sat down.

After a few seconds I felt the seat of my pants get wet.

Given the weather, it was only semi-rational to think that I could be sitting in a puddle of stranger-pee. But it was the first thing that popped into my head. Fortunately, it turned out to be water, leaking from a spot just above the seat and, now, onto the top of my head.

I got up, and I'm sure the people who saw me toss aside the newspaper earlier took some pleasure out of Mr. Big City Guy getting what he deserved, and I suppose they were justified. If the shoe had been on the other foot I certainly would have smirked and thought, "asshole."

I found a spot to stand and spent most of the trip there, which passed without further incident.

Strangely enough, even as long as this post has become, it doesn't seem that bad now. There's a lot that could have made things worse. The bus could have broken down on Lake Shore Drive, leaving us to fend for ourselves in the middle of an eight-lane wilderness. The batteries on my mp3 player could have died. I could have really sat in pee.

One interesting thing to add: The guy standing in front of me on the bus had gigantic pupils -- his eyes were almost entirely black. I figured he'd either just been to the ophthalmologist or was completely tripping his brains out.

That would have made things a whole lot worse, too.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

"Being Dead" by Jim Crace

Joseph and Celice are zoologists, scientists and academics. They harbor few illusions about the meaning of life or death, seeing both as just two points so far apart on a continuum that they could conceivably be touching somewhere on the other side.

Married for 30 years, they've traveled back to the bay where they met and first made love, when a stranger finds them on the beach and brutally murders both of them.

So begins Jim Crace's Being Dead, which is both a detailed study of what becomes of two corpses left to the elements and a surprisingly tender love story that begins and ends in death.

Crace is a British writer with some half dozen well-regarded novels to his name and, judging from this book, someone who's both horrified and enraptured by humanity's place in a world that cares little for its fate.

The novel is structured as two interwoven halves. The first opens with the murder of Joseph and Celice and catalogs with detached specificity the changes their bodies go through as they first die and then succumb to the forces of nature over the course of six days. The second chronicles their meeting 30 years earlier as graduate students doing fieldwork at the same spot they would later die.

Just as their meeting was not a typical -- or even entirely romantic -- story, nor is their life or death. Crace describes Celice as something of an Amazon, tall and muscular, with a prickly demeanor; Joseph is smaller physically, but the superior one when it comes to intellect and career. These complementary aspects -- or imbalances, depending on how you want to look at it -- combine to make a marriage that is not always happy and passionate, but one built on mutual respect, understanding and, most of all, enduring love.

Reading Being Dead I was often reminded of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, another novel composed of intertwined stories that move forward and back in time and somehow manage to merge so completely that it seems everything is happening to everyone. Eventually the connections between the characters -- and by extension, us -- become so overwhelming that they almost completely obliterate the differences separating them.

Though told on a much smaller scale, Being Dead has the same effect, especially once the couple is noticed missing and their daughter, an unsteady combination of both parents' physical and emotional make-ups, strikes out to discover what's become of them.

Crace's emphasis on the decomposition of Joseph and Celice's bodies is a fitting tribute for two scientists who have always believed that death is simply another stage of life. He follows them in precise, but never gory, detail as their bodies first give way to a great darkness, then become food for crabs and gulls, grow stiff and bloat, and finally begin their return to the earth.

And yet, this clinical tone sets the reader up for some very emotional moments, such as when police are removing Joseph's hand from around his wife's ankle, which he reached out for in the last moments of life. But six days of decomposition have caused their flesh to meld, and the two must literally be torn apart. It's an image that manages to be both sickening and unspeakably sad at the same time.

Crace's British vocabulary did cause me to scratch my head on more than a few occasions. For example, I have no idea what an "unmetalled road" is, though several of them appear throughout the book. But the world he describes -- one in which nothing on earth lasts or matters except for love -- is one I'm familiar with, and it brings me a small measure of comfort to learn I'm not completely alone in it.

Friday, April 25, 2008


2001; directed by Larry Clark; written by David McKenna and Roger Pullis; based on the book Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge by Jim Schutze

When eight teens in suburban Florida kidnapped and beat a classmate on video just so they could post it on YouTube, America was outraged and riveted.

I was too, but less than most, because I'd already seen Larry Clark's Bully.

Clark is also responsible for the equally controversial Kids.
Like its predecessor, Bully is populated by soulless adolescents with too much time and hormones on their hands. The few adults who are present are too clueless and consumed by their own lives to do much more than pretend an interest in their kids' lives, and so they grow wild. But while Kids takes place in a grimly oblivious New York City, Bully is set in a dystopian Florida suburb of middle class tract homes and downscale strip malls.

Based on a true story, Bully revolves around a group of high-school students and dropouts who decide to kill an emotionally, physically and sexually abusive classmate. The cast -- led by Nick Stahl as the bully and the late Brad Renfro as his best friend, with Bijou Phillips, Rachel Miner and Michael Pitt -- are a fearless bunch, who meet the demands of the script's blistering story and dialog as well as Clark's own coldly erotic and slightly creepy directorial style.

Disturbing and titillating, shocking and even occasionally funny, the film progresses from one scene of graphic sex, violence and/or drug use to another, yet never feels exploitive. It's more like hanging out with the worst kids in school, watching as they have sex, get high, play video games, and plot to kill the guy everyone hates most.

After inexpertly bludgeoning, stabbing and shooting Stahl's character, everyone discovers just how difficult killing someone actually is. Almost immediately the characters begin unraveling as they struggle with fear, guilt, paranoia and the impulse to avoid responsibility while assigning blame to everyone else in the group.

Bully isn't a horror film, but it is horrifying, with young and attractive monsters who turn out to be something both more and less than human. They're seductive and repellent, ignorant and far too worldly. Lost, angry, cruel, and everywhere.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Where Are My Manners?

Last week Tyler Monfredi, one of the writers I met at the World Horror Conference, posted excerpts from an email discussion we had about the writing process on his blog.

It's an honor to be part of it, especially since other writers in the series include John Hornor Jacobs, Tracy Carbone and Hank Schwaeble.

John, Tracy and Hank all have interesting, revealing and valuable things to say. I mostly ramble on about the infinite number of drafts I have to produce in order to achieve something worthy of professional rejection. But alas, this is my cross to bear and now is not the time to complain.

Apologies to Tyler for not mentioning it here earlier.