Everyone should have a happy place—ideally, a few. These days, mine is a broad stretch of concrete on the lakefront just north of Division Street beach.
For most of the year, it’s little more than a breakwater lined with orange ladders that descend into the lake. But in the summertime it is the place to be for those of us who like to chill by the water with a postcard-perfect view of downtown. Basically, it unites everyone from the greater Chicagoland area who wants to be at the lake but can’t deal with sand/grass/crowds/parking lots. That includes a fair number of young couples picnicking, kids pretending to push each other in the water, Mexican ice cream vendors and old dudes with leathery tans. The chatter and splashing easily drown out the hum of traffic from Lake Shore Drive.
I first biked there on one of those days when the air outside was an unbreathable sauna. Attempting to work in my over-heated home office, I could feel my organs melting. My legs were stuck to my desk chair with thigh sweat. The lake—which, sure, at times can seem glacial and bacteria-ridden—started to call like a siren. I didn’t just want to jump in. I wanted to drink it. I threw off my clothes and tossed on a worn-out skirted bikini, tank top and sandals.
Now it’s a custom reserved for those unexpected free moments on grossly hot afternoons. It requires little preparation:
1. Check for swim advisories. Apparently, sometimes the lake is glacial and/or bacteria-ridden.
2. Grab bike.
3. Leave everything at home. No wallet. No phone. Not even a bike lock to weigh you down.
Soon I’m breezing past storefronts and cutting through the park toward the lakefront path. I arrive and lay my bike down next to one of the ladders, then attach my tank top and helmet to the bike in a way that is confusing enough that I’m pretty sure it would dissuade any bike thieves. Some days I stick a toe in the water and chicken out. Usually, though, I immerse myself up to my neck and let the chill sink in before swimming around awkwardly with my head out of the water, like a Labrador doing the breaststroke.
When I’ve had enough, I climb out, find a sunny spot between building-shaped shadows and lie down to dry off.
Recently, I was treading water near a cluster of teenagers. A boy in cutoff jeans kept chucking a bottle of water into the air over the lake. His friends took turns sprinting toward the edge and leaping into the air to snatch the bottle before hitting the water. When the bottle flew out of reach, I retrieved it (Get it?) and handed it back to the head thrower. He laughed and apologized.
It reminded me of a similarly steamy afternoon decades ago. I was following my older brother to the beach in Evanston on my 3-speed Schwinn. He led the way with one arm wrapped around a boom box on his shoulder. Our heads were bare—helmets, like subtle fashion, were rare in the ’80s—our coolness evidenced by the tune blaring from the radio:
S.S.S.S. A.A.A.A. F.F.F.F. E.E.E.E. T.T.T.T. Y.Y.Y.Y.
Safe safe safety dance dance dance dance
Summer breaks lasted an eternity then. Now I’m lucky to manage a half-hour escape from the sweat of deadlines and adulthood. But flying down the street in my raggedy-ass swimsuit, I might as well be 15 again, obeying the call of the water.
We can go where we want to
A place where they will never find
And we can act like we come from out of this world
Leave the real one far behind
(“Safety Dance” image credit: Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16987562)