Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Travels with Butch

Garfield Park Conservatory

     The game-changing technology for me, when it comes to public transportation, was when Google recently started showing Chicago L stations on its maps.
     Before that, I took the L if I happened to know the L stopped near where I was going. If not, I took a cab, or drove.
     Armed with this new technology, however, I am a free man. Last Friday, for instance, I needed to go to Garfield Park Conservatory. Before Google, I would find the address and drive. Now, I could see there is an L stop literally across the street, on the Green line.
     I grabbed the train at the Thompson Center, using my old-fashioned CTA "Transit Card," with the magnetic strip on the front and its nipped corner. Nothing like pending loss to make a bland piece of plastic into something nostalgic. I never thought much about the cards before but, with weeks to go until they disappear, suddenly the old card was Riverview in card form. I'd been reading about the looming Ventra card changeover—the problems customers have been enduring, getting hundreds of cards delivered to their mailboxes, trying to hack through the system, waiting minor eternities for customer service to help them track down some elusive "Access Code."
     Not wanting to someday soon find myself at a remote L stop on a frosty December night, uselessly poking my antiquated fare card at a sealed slot, I thought I had better master this Ventra thing. So returning from Garfield Park, I bought a Ventra card at the Merchandise Mart stop.
     It was actually quite easy, if you aren't tying it into your bank account. You buy one just like a regular fare card. With a yellow vested CTA employee hovering nearby, poised to help, I slid a $20 bill into the machine, and it spat out a cool gray Ventra card, vertically formatted, with a doubled V logo (very similar to the Divvy logo and almost the same hue, which I've dubbed Transit Blue). The card has a Mastercard logo as well, for those using it as a debit card.
     The catch is, it only gives you $15 in credit. To get your five bucks ransom back, you have to go online and register. Also fairly simple process -- name, address, email. I almost got tripped up when it asked for the infamous 'Access Code" but, thinking quickly, I realized that since I had no account to tie into, it probably didn't matter, so just took any four numbers -- the first four digits on the card's code — and that worked fine.
     But one request stopped me cold. "Nickname for Card." It was required. I had to give my card a name. There was no explanation as to why.
     See, this is why old people are ready to die when their time comes. The world changes in fundamental and alarming ways. I know that coyness and computers somehow go together -- Apple's calculated inoffensiveness, its twee charm, that so readily lures and conquers Western society. But shouldn't I be able to ride the friggin' L in Chicago without anthropomorphizing my train pass? And what was wrong with tokens? I remember them: round, brass, with three little semi-circular cut-outs....
     Sorry. I'm not ready to die quite yet, so I guess I will conform.
     The first nickname I thought of was "George," as in "Orwell" for the Orwellian menace of being forced to name the stupid card. But that seemed obvious. Then I thought of "Butch."
     In 1996, when Gigi Pets were introduced, those little electronic keychains containing a crude virtual animal you had to constantly feed and walk and play with or it would die -- somebody's idea of fun. I always wanted a dog, and named my electronic dog "Butch," leading to one of my favorite column openers, an homage to Albert Camus: "Butch died today, or maybe it was yesterday. Actually, he died both today and yesterday..." I'll append the column below for those interested (and with the time. I know I'm rambling on today. You can always read a bit now, and come back later).

   Having named my Ventra card "Butch," however, I couldn't simply let the matter rest. Younger people might do whatever the screen tells them without a second thought. But I needed to know: why name the card? What's the purpose of that? A search on-line found, well, nothing. A phone call worked better.
     "So the nickname..." began Lambrini Lukidis, a CTA spokeswoman, with a certain hint of weariness—the Ventra roll-out is not being celebrated in the local press. "You can have multiple Ventra accounts. So you can have one, and give cards to your wife, your kids."
     The idea is, you can name your cards after your kids, your spouse, the owner of the card, the better to keep track of them. Okay. But why couldn't they point that out? Let us in on the secret? (To be fair, they might, it isn't as if I've studied the vast literature of Ventra.
     Two words: brass tokens.
    Sorry again. I alluded to the confusing whir surrounding the roll-out and Lukidis explained. "These are active accounts, tied to people's bank accounts. We're actually transferring money. We have to take precautions."
     She later emailed me that already a third of the CTA rides are paid for with Ventra—11 million swipes so far. Most riders must have figured this out. So hundreds if not thousands are confused and inconvenienced, while hundreds of thousands get it. A fair argument, though also a version of the Post Office Defense (you know, after a postal worker goes postal, a federal PR sort explains that most postal employees didn't shoot up their workplaces). Every new system has its kinks—you had to hand crank the engine of the early Model T's to start the car, and every now and then the kickback would break the would-be driver's arm. Compared to that, being put on hold for half an hour calling Ventra customer support isn't that bad.
     Still, I'm sticking with the simple, pay-as-you-go system. We'll load the old bank account into Ventra another day, when we absolutely have to. As it is, I can have a hard enough time just navigating the L, even with Google maps. For instance, Friday, heading to Garfield Park. I saw that the Green Line stopped at the Garfield Park Conservatory, and noted the stop before, Kedzie, so I would be ready.
     What I did not fathom, initially, was that in addition to going west, the Green line also goes south, to Cottage Grove and 63rd. I knew this vaguely, intellectually, having taken the Green Line over the summer to the near West Side and heard the announcements. But I figured that it must curve sharply southward. after Garfield Park. Frankly, I didn't think about it closely. At first.
     The train rumbled along pleasantly. I read the paper, feeling quite urban and competent. At 43rd street it dawned on me that something was amiss, and began to think a bit more about the old route. At 47th I stood up, moved over to the map, and studied it long enough to recognize that a mistake had been made, by me apparently. The line runs west from downtown, true. But it also runs straight south from downtown as well. Ah. Two separate directions. Now I see.
     No biggie. I got off, walked briefly down 47th street, taking in the environs. Then I got back on the L going northward, noticing gratefully the CTA only charged me 25 cents for my blunder. Nice of them really. I haven't adjusted myself to having a card with a name and a personality, but I suppose that's next. Butch is in my wallet now, awaiting his chance to be useful.

Here is the column I refer to, from June 6, 1997

Giga Pet, the gadget dying for our attention

     Butch died today, or maybe it was yesterday. Actually, he 
died both today and yesterday. Not only did Butch die both days but,
if history is any judge, I expect him to wake up dead again tomorrow.
     Butch is my Giga Pet. He lives inside a purple electronic keychain. While I don't want to argue that Giga Pets and other computer kiddie critters are a Significant Trend in Pop Culture, they're certainly the first mass-marketed toys that not only leave behind steaming piles of excrement but also have the alarming tendency to keel over dead. 
     I bought my Giga Pet Friday after noticing about two dozen people in front of FAO Schwarz on Michigan Avenue, waiting to get in. 
     At first, I thought the crowd was the usual contingent of out-of-town yokels. (What, you think I'm being mean? As if the hayseeds don't laugh at us, while sharing cheeseburgers at Hard Rock: "My word, Emma! Could you believe that Schwarz store charging $800 for a china doll no better than the one Great Aunt Bertha's mother bought for 25 cents from the German peddler? If only the Simpson boys hadn't smashed it to flinders.") 
     Upon inquiry, however, a store employee said that the crowd was mostly locals hot to acquire the latest cyber-beasties (the craze started in Japan, naturally, with "Tamagotchis," little computer chicks that, just like real ones, die unless you care for them and sometimes even if you do). 
     Giga Pets cost $12.95 and are offered in a half-dozen varieties: Digital Doggie; Compu Kitty; Baby T-Rex; Virtual Alien; Microchimp and Bit Critter, an insect. 
     The choice was a no-brainer; I went for the dog. You see . . . bring up mournful violin music . . . I never had a dog when I was a boy . . . sniff! . . . My parents always told me that my father was allergic to dogs, and by the time I was old enough to realize it was a lie, I didn't want one anymore. 
     Still, I can't help but wonder what better course my life would have taken had I owned a dog. All those summer days spent reading books, developing unreal expectations of adult life — I thought men spent their time sitting in Spanish cafes, drinking the good cold wine with Lady Brett — would have instead been enjoyed hanging around with my pal, Butch, tossing a stick into the Ole Swimmin' Hole and watching him bravely dog-paddle to get it. 
     My new electronic Butch won't chase a stick. But he does chase a ball, one of the several tasks that I, as his new owner, am expected to perform again and again throughout the day to keep him alive, by punching one of several buttons. 
     And I have been punching them, like a madman, to no avail. I've always said that owning a dog is like having a second job, and this pet is proof positive. 
     At least the Giga Pet people — whose American headquarters is in Vernon Hills - are straightforward about what you are getting into. "Your new Giga Pet is going to need lots of attention to grow up healthy and happy." No kidding. Besides fetch, that attention takes the form of feeding, delivering treats, giving baths, cleaning up messes, putting out the light, disciplining and occasional trips to the doctor. I'm surprised you don't have to knit him little sweaters. 
     Butch is a cute little pup. He meanders across the stamp-size screen, rolling his eyes, somewhat spastically, sometimes bobbing his head happily. 
     Every so often a little alarm signal — "?!" — flashes in the corner of the screen, and I must try to figure out what Butch wants. A treat? No. A bath? No. To be rushed to the vet's? No. Ah-ha - he wants the light out. He's tired. So am I. 
     After a day of periodically checking on Butch and trying to see that he was comfortable, I kept him downstairs while I went to bed, figuring that he was set to last the night. A fatal mistake. My wife found him the next morning. 
     "Honey, I think Butch is dead," she said. Sure enough, there on the little screen was a flapping angel - the soul of my electronic dog, I suppose, winging its way to silicon heaven.           Reviving him was simple, and while I intended to rename him "Fido," I messed up that part, and was left with Butch again, though in my mind he became "Butch 2." After a day of diligent care, I made a point of topping off his tank, foodwise, treatwise, playwise and bathwise before I went to bed, and so was genuinely surprised and distressed to find him dead again the next morning. 
     "Maybe you should wake up in the night and check him," said my wife. 
     Fat chance. I plan to foist my Giga Pet on to the first tyke I can find. Kids are hardened nowadays. They can endlessly kill and revive their little digital pals and never bat an eye. Me, I have enough guilt without bathing my hands in virtual puppy blood every morning before breakfast.

Wait! There's MORE!
     And if you still haven't read enough, a condensed version of the post above is running in
Thursday's Sun-Times.
      You can read it by clicking here.


  1. Until October 20, the Green Line only goes to 63rd & Cottage. After that the split will return with half the trains going to 63rd & Ashland.

  2. You are adorable, Neil. Most nicknames are just your own as to keep your family members' cards separate...Or if you sign up to auto pay a bill, you are asked to nickname your credit card, in case you have multiple payment options. Generally it is "Janet's AA Visa" for me. I am sad that I did not think more whimsically. That you will have "Butch" along with you until Ventra morphs into another payment system makes me happy. Your little friend, opening up so many passages for you...

  3. @Janet -- so this is a common practice? That's what I get for keeping my same old credit cards. I don't think I've signed up for a new card since I got an AmEx in 1987. My wife does, to take advantage of special rates ... who knew? (you did, obviously).

  4. I have signed up to pay garbage and Amazon via Credit card, and they ask you to name the card, I presume in case a shared account is in practice. Their prompt said "Bill's Visa" and being the sheep that I am, I just mimicked this example, and named my card "Janet's AA Visa." I wonder if they would have accepted "Princess Leia" or a more galactic moniker. I will never know. But I love that Butch will accompany you on your transit adventures. It's good to have a travel companion.

  5. @Janet. Now I have to see if it works....


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