A Quiet Ride to the Office

By Lloyd Graff

Observations made while driving to work this morning. 

The roads are less traveled. This is an observation by Lloyd Graff in an Acura, not Robert Frost. The four-lane highway angling near my home is virtually empty at the stop sign where I enter. It is 10:45 in the morning. It is my new normal since COVID-19, since I shut the doors temporarily in April of 2020. It felt like half the country was on a ventilator then. 

I got used to working from home and realized I did not really add much value by being at the company at 9 a.m. At 76, my body thanked me, too.

***

The parking lot at the local commuter station is maybe 20% filled. Two years ago, you could not find a spot to park if you arrived at 10 a.m. The commuters were primarily women, mostly middle-aged (whatever that means today), and African American, as Chicago’s south suburbs are mostly black.

Where are they now? Working at home? Some of them, I imagine. Others have moved, decided that office work is not their thing anymore, or taken jobs in the suburbs. Much of Downtown Chicago is seedy, particularly at night, and older people are afraid to go there.

Empty Train Station Parking Lot

Not all of the train passengers were women, however. I have a friend who had a successful personal injury legal practice downtown. It faded during the pandemic. He chose not to invest in advertising, so he couldn’t compete against the lawyers with billboards or TV advertising during the Cubs and Sox games. One less car in the parking lot.

The banks and big financial firms have automated and farmed out work. Fewer train riders are needed. Zoom dominates for those still working.

****

I keep driving on my 14-minute trip. Gas stations have fewer patrons. Fewer cars on the road, fewer folks buying gas at $3.52 a gallon for 87 octane. But I do see Amazon Vehicles, UPS, FedEx, and ComEd trucks.

I take a detour to Bergstien’s Deli, which sells homemade chicken matzo ball soup. I’ve ordered it ahead of time.

They bring it to my car. I bought a quart for myself and a quart for Noah. Mine will last two days. He’ll eat his in one sitting. The deli opens at 11 a.m. and closes at 4 p.m. They only sell takeout. This is how they’ve survived during the COVID-19 restaurant purge.

As I continue driving, there are for rent and for sale signs at every retail and commercial building. 

Several fast food franchises are busy. Most are drive-thru. Starbucks in the area does not serve inside anymore. Dunkin Donuts only serves a smattering of indoor patrons. The only independent coffee shop in the area closed recently. Will people ever sit down to schmooze over a cup of coffee again? Certainly not if we have to wear masks when we enter.

****

Getting close to the factory. Near some of Chicago’s Interstates, I-57 and I-80, and brand new enormous monolithic buildings. Seven of them, almost 3 million square feet, have emerged from the earth in the last two years. Amazon occupies two of them. The others appear vacant. Massive concrete rectangles, many of them occupying ground that was supposed to be a discount mall. Big money is buried in these empty temples. Obviously the 2.5% money thinks they will soon have tenants. 

I’ve called the rental agents that represent the cement. They say “deals are pending.” There are no cars yet. 

Who will work there? My friend the lawyer? No way. The commuters who are now on Zoom or taking care of their kids or parents? Maybe a few of them. Will it be robots? Not yet. Meanwhile, that’s a lot of empty space a stone’s throw from the Interstates. 

I turn into my industrial park. Wendy’s has a line. The big Frito-Lay warehouse is bustling. Some vacancies, but the landlords say “deals are pending.” 

My matzo ball soup is still warm.

Question: What changes have you noticed in your neighborhood or on your drive to work?

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8 thoughts on “A Quiet Ride to the Office

  1. Wendell Good

    Traffic and life has mostly returned to normal out here in the hinterlands other than a severe shortage of workers. Nearly every business in town is trying to hire workers most with limited success.

     
  2. Don Capers

    Labor shortages are a myth. The real shortage is companies willing to not only pay people a decent wage but treat them well.

     
      1. Misterchipster

        I’m with you Wendell. People have started to figure out what’s really important and are realizing that it’s what you make but how much of your paycheck you keep.

         
  3. Dave Bradley

    I bought the lot where we built our home 28 years ago. Bought a lot just across the county line, in fact right on Countyline Rd. where the property taxes were substancially cheaper. Out in the country. My wife was so mad at me when I bought that lot as she was sure she would never see people again. There was virtually no traffic past our house past 6 pm in the evenings. When I drove to work in the morn1ng, I might see one or 2 cars all the way to work (about 6 miles). One of those 2 cars would be the newspaper delivery guy. We need a traffic light to get in and out of the subdivision anymore. Now right across Countyline Rd, are about 1500 new homes being built. What was once farm land, is now subdivisions. The city we ran away from, is now across the road. I used to have to go 7 miles to get gasoline. Now there is a gas station 3 miles to the north and one 1 mile to the south. Banks still have not got the message yet. They are still 13 miles to the west and 13 miles to the east.

     
  4. James

    Seems to me like the roads are busier here in the 74 corridor than they’ve been in a long while. Granted, this could be the result of people fleeing your neck of the woods. Vacancies are less common than they were in the last few years as well, though development is still scarce.

     

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