Lake Street Woebegon

11:30 p.m., July 10

Always come to a complete stop when you come to a stoplight.

On Monday I put the finishing touches on this weekend’s Travel column dedicated to the charms of Mickey’s Diner in St. Paul, Minn. The 67-year-old diner bookmarks the heartwarming Robert Altman film “A Prairie Home Companion,” filmed entirely in St. Paul.

I had not seen the movie and felt I should before the story went to press. The film’s thesis is how the cast of the popular radio show gathers for one last time before the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul is sold to a coldblooded Texas developer, played by one of my all time favorites, Tommy Lee Jones. There was no better place to catch this film than the storied Lake Theater in downtown Oak Park. I see several movies a year at the Lake and I always take Lake Street out of the city instead of trying to fight traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway.

It was around 6:30 p.m. and I was dodging the potholes on Lake Street while listening to sports talk radio. Sometimes I’m drinking a bottle of Mountain Dew as I drive, jotting down ideas for future stories or eating an Italian beef sandwich. I was doing none of this as I approached the intersection of Lake and Pulaski. I had made a complete stop at the stoplight. Just as the light turned green, I stalled for a heavenly second. From my right side, one beat up car raced through the intersection followed by a black car whose front left end was smashed up. They didn’t see me. The cars were going way too fast for me to notice their make or license plates.

But I did notice the guy in the back seat of the black car.

He was shooting at people in the first car.

He was leaning out the window with left arm extended and a pistol in his left hand. There were several loud shots before the two cars raced away south on Pulaski. Wow. I just got back from the Badlands and I didn’t see any of this! I’ve lived in the city for 22 years and only one other time have I witnessed something so jolting, and that was the slumped over body of a drive by shooting in Wicker Park before Wicker Park was cool. One more ill-advised second at Lake and Pulaski and I either would have been shot or I would have stopped the chase by way of an automobile accident. Is this all Neil Steinberg would have had to work with?:

“Beloved travel writer shot to death on West Side en route to see “A Prairie Home Companion?”

That just doesn’t sound right.

But, like travel and the theme of the movie, life spins around certain destiny. A song finds a voice, an angel finds a diner. The horizons of travel can be stretched close to home. Once I settled into my seat at the Lake, the movie cut deeper and I was surprised how much I thought of the friendly souls I met at Mickey’s Diner a couple of weekends ago.

I did not take Lake Street back into Chicago. I drove down Chicago Avenue. The evening was unseasonably cool so I rolled down my car window. I turned down my radio. I heard the ribald street chatter of boys trying to be men. I could smell the West Side barbecue and hot links. All the stoplights were green.

And I was alive.

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