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.
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?