Cycling to the day job at 10 in the morning down the lakefront path, at Fullerton I saw smoke on the opposite side of the Drive. Right in front of the sign for the North Avenue/La Salle Street exit, a small blue car was on fire. I stopped to watch, along with several joggers, rollerbladers, pedestrians, and overworked Park District employees.
It wasn’t much of a fire at first. A few orange and red flames shot out from under the hood and the wheel well, but it spread quickly. A fire engine could be heard, and finally seen, west of the Drive, heading north. It was obvious they would have to go all the way to Fullerton, turn around, and head back south before they could get at the car, so the crowd would be afforded a little more drama.
As the flames spread back into the front seat of the car and the smoke grew blacker and denser, passing motorists on the Drive–both southbound and northbound–slowed down to gape at the spectacle. This made very little sense to me: had I been driving, I’d want to get past a burning car as swiftly as possible, due to the possibility of explosion. As I had this thought, I heard an adolescent voice behind me say, “I hope it explodes.” I turned and looked at two of the crowd, young guys in cutoffs, black sleeveless T-shirts, with bandanna-wrapped heads and world-class acne. “Yeah,” the second one said, “that’d be cool.”
At the recent Parliament of World Religions, I met an eccentric-looking woman, about 60 years old, with bright red hair and eyebrows colored red but clear eyes. She lives in Rogers Park. She asked me what I do. I said I’m a teacher. Whereupon she told me a story about her son-in-law, a physicist who taught at a Chicago public school. Supervising an exam, he saw six students cheating and tore up their papers on the spot. The students went after him. They knew kung fu. He ran to the principal’s office. Next day the tires of his car were slashed. Five hundred and fifty bucks for new ones. The school principal told him these kids couldn’t be punished or failed; they had to graduate. At this point I was so disgusted, I thought the story was over. But it wasn’t. The teacher’s wife reminded him that he was a physicist and suggested that he take the kids down to the Museum of Science and Industry. The same kids, I asked? The same kids, the woman said. So he did. And he got them involved. And now, the red-haired woman told me, every one of these kids loves science.