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The Divvy Diaries -- Volume 1; The First Trip

If you’ve read my Monday column about figuring out the Divvy program, the journey resumes halfway through this post — scroll down to the break to pick up where you left off.

So the city’s Divvy bike share program set up a rack on in front of the Merchandise Mart, directly across the street from my office. Which seemed just too darn convenient not to use. I’d hike the half hour down to the Art Institute, and pass another Divvy station right there, and think, “take the bike, idiot.”

I tried to use one of the $7, 24-hour passes, but my credit card didn’t take, and it gave me time to think. Why spend $7 for a one-day pass when I could spend $75 for 365 days, which is a … gnnee, doing the math … a $2555 value. It’s like getting paid to ride a bike.

Since every new system has its glitches, I thought it might be best to keep track of the Divvy process. I could call it My Divvy Year or, better, The Divvy Diary:

Aug. 21, 1:40 p.m.: “CONGRATULATIONS! Your Membership key is on its way, and you should expect to receive it in the mail within the next 5-9 days.” Give them this, their web page is attractive, clean, simple, easy to use, and very, very blue, as in the color blue.

Aug. 26.: My key goes in the mail, I later learn.

Sept. 3, 9 a.m.: Return from a long Labor Day weekend to find something from Divvy in my mailbox. The legal envelope at first throws me off. I expected a squarish bubble envelope — have I been rejected again? I do the squeeze test. Something bulky! My key! I feel the trill of every boy who sent in five box tops for a Captain Crunch Treasure Chest. Inside, a blue plastic fob, a free 24- hour pass to give to a friend, and a brochure, “Everyday Biking,” that urges me to “persevere through a short and relatively easy learning period.” I’ll try. A few hints: ride with traffic; stay off the sidewalk. Riding a bike on the sidewalk is illegal in Chicago if you’re over 12.

9:15 a.m.: I go online and register, scared for a moment groping toward my password. I used the same password I always use. Yup.

Ready to rock. I grab my Bell “Triton” helmet. First bike helmet I ever owned, bought a dozen years ago to set an example to the boys, who ride their bikes about as often as I dance the Swan in Swan Lake.

As fate has it, I have an errand to run. I had planned to swing by after work. But now I can go as part of my work duties. I consult the map—you need a place to dock your bike, you aren’t supposed to lock it on your own. As it turns out, there is a Divvy station at Wabash and Madison, half a block from where I’m going.

9:30 a.m.: Down to Orleans, holding my helmet, a look of industry in my eye. 19 bikes in a row, 4 gone and in use. I insert my key. Nothing. Draw it out. Nothing. Flip it upside down. Zip. A yellow light. I look at the slot. “Enter your five digit code”? Really? I missed the five-digit code part. Back upstairs to retrieve my code.

9:40 a.m.: In my office. Check the computer. “Annual members simply dip their key into the slot at any station with an available bike.” Nothing about a code. I notice my membership number. Five digits. That must be what they mean.

9:49. a.m.: Back downstairs, muttering my membership number, trying to memorize it, since I seem to need it. Across the street, a look of slightly less focused industry in my eye. Now 21 bikes in the rack, 2 empty. In with the key, I go to punch in my number. The keypad has only three buttons, labelled 1, 2, and 3. Why had I not noticed that? My membership number includes a 4, a 5 and an 8.

9:54 a.m.: Back upstairs. I sit before the computer, nothing about a code for annual members.There is a phone number if you need help … no, that’s the coward’s way. This is a system, it has to be graspable. I can’t be the stupidest person to use this. It only feels that way. Suddenly, an epiphany. If I needed a code, it would tell me so. Thus, no code is needed. The key obviously was balky. Try the key again.

10 a.m.: Downtairs, a third time. Cross Orleans, thinking. I could have walked there by now. Stick the key in. Nothing. Pull it out. Nothing. Flip it over and insert. Wait. Suddenly a click from the mechanism. A green light. I pull the bike out. Success! Practical tip when using the Divvy system: be patient.

Strap on the helmet. Now the issue of riding the thing. Do I take it south, down Orleans, one way going north. That seems like a Bad Idea (“The deceased was riding the wrong way against traffic when struck by the bus.”) I ease the heavy blue bike off the curb, into Orleans, swing my leg over it, and am off.

10:04 a.m.: Up Orleans, briefly, turning right through the private roadway running along the north side of the Merchandise Mart. Cars backing up, slicing around me, while I drift rightward, trying to avoid them while watching the parked cars to see if they’re about to open a door. Talk about between a rock and a hard place. SUVs backing up, cars waiting at Wells. Commotion approaching the Dr. Seussian. This might be harder than it looks in the brochure.

At Wells, I learn an important bike lesson. If you shoot into the street along with the pedestrians, in the two second grace between the time the white “WALK” flashes and the light goes green, the cars, still stopped at the red, will have a chance to eyeball you, thus reducing the odds of your being killed. I’m not sure that this is legal, but it seemed prudent. If it isn’t legal, the previous was a fantasy sequence as opposed to, you know, evidence.

Riding along Kinzie wonder of wonders, a bike lane appears under me. No sooner do I think, “Great” than the lane immediately feeds into an ad hoc sidewalk created by orange construction barriers relocating the sidewalk into the street. I have a second to decide. I’m not sure why the illegality of sidewalk riding is so burrowed in my brain—it’s illegal to drive 80, too, and that never stops me. But I have heard so much griping about dopes on Divvys, and I don’t wnat to be one of them. Glance over shoulder while veering leftward into traffic, around the barricades then right onto Clark. Not killed. Glad about that.

Hoping to continue that, try hugging the curb, but can’t — trucks stopping , unloading, workmen stepping around them. Easier to stick in traffic, you can bike about their speed anyway.

Cross the river, power through Wacker Drive. The Chicago Temple hoves into view, Daley Plaza to my right. “This is cool,” I think, a moment’s pleasure before realizing I need to make a left at some point, which involves drifting across busy Clark Street. By the time I gather myself and it, the street I’m turning left at is Monroe — must have shot past Madison. and I make my left.

Now I’m at Wabash, one way going south. Any bicycle messenger would just turn the wrong way, but I’m not at that point yet. The Divvy Station is at Madison and Wabash, so I dismount, walk my bike the block north.

10:19 a.m.: Look west, nothing, east, nothing, around, nothing. The station just isn’t here. I cross the street. Hard to hide one of those things. Okay, I figure. Michigan Avenue. They have to have stations on Michigan. Start to walk east and catch a flash of Divvy blue. The rack at Wabash and Madison is much closer to Michigan and Madison, one of those mysterious glitches. (They’re changing the name of the station to Michigan and Madison, the Divvy folks tell me, as soon as the new sign is made. The Divvy Stations are powered by solar panels, they further explain, and Wabash and Madison, hemmed in by buildings and the el superstructure, was just too dark).

At the station, I dismount, put my key in, insert the bike’s front wheel. Nothing. The bike isn’t locked. I roll it back, confirming. Roll it forward. Remove the key, wondering, “What now?” and there is a click and the green light goes on. A worry: Does the key have to be in for my account to be credited with returning the bike? Or will the system assume I peddled off with their $1200 bike? I remember having these thoughts when gas pumps first took credit cards. Every new system has an adjustment phase.

So to my errand, upstairs at the Iwan Ries cigar store to pick up supplies for my weekend in Michigan—1990 vintage Rocky Patels, if you must know. I take the foil bag then, remember the bungee cord on the Divvy front rack, I go back and ask for a box to put them in. This whole trip will be in vain if the bungee snaps the cigars.

10:40 a.m:. Back to the Wabash and Madison station which is really at Madison and Michigan. The key works easily and I think, “It wouldn’t give me a new bike if it thought I still had the old one, so I must be off the hook.” I was under the impression I was taking the same bike I had before, but when I get on, the seat’s way high. I pull over, lower the seat, peddle a bit, pull over, lower it some more. Right on Wabash, riding north. The cool blue finger of the Trump Tower parallaxes into view. Hope sparks. This is going to work. Riding the curb, cyclists get squeezed by cars piling up to take a right. Soon I’m dodging around, keeping my place in traffic like a car, easy enough the way traffic crawls. At Wacker Drive, I use the WALK trick to begin my left before the cars get a chance to move, and happily peddle toward the office, now in sight. Quick right up Orleans, around a pedestrian and stop before the station—my home port—which accepts my bike easily. I leave the fob in until the light turns green, just to be safe. It’s fun, windy fun.

10:45 a.m.: Holding my helmet against my hip on the elevator, wondering if I’m radiating the coiled athletic energy and bottomless cool of bicycle messengers. Probably not. Walking into the office, I pass my boss. “That was a deeply lived half hour,” I report. He looks at me, no doubt wondering what the hell I’m talking about now.