In the late 60’s, my mother drove a black Volkswagen Beetle. It was a standard shift with a clutch, and no gas gauge. If the car sputtered because it was low on fuel, Mom would stretch out her left foot and turn a small lever to access the auxiliary fuel tank. It held a few gallons, and usually meant we’d head straight to the nearest gas station for a fill-up. The car had no seat belts, so when my mom stepped on the brake, she automatically pivoted her right arm to hold me against the passenger seat. Sometimes, she ended up whopping me in the face, but I never went through the windshield. We called the car “the bug” and later, “Herbie” like the car in the Disney movie.
Like all suburban families, we used the car for almost every errand or visit, but once in a while, we played the Turning Game. The only rule of the game was that mom and I would alternate deciding which direction we’d head at each intersection. No matter where we were, I could say “right” and mom would do it. At the next opportunity she could choose to continue on that path, or turn again. From the perspective of a generally powerless passenger getting whopped in the face, it was exciting to decide where we were going.
We’d cruise slowly through neighborhoods I never knew existed, checking out the houses, stores, trees, and parks. Sometimes there were dead ends, sometimes we wiggled through alleys, and I was astonished when we’d emerge from a completely foreign street to find ourselves at an intersection I recognized. In my memory, these games were played at dusk, and were far-ranging; there was the threat of getting lost, or ending up in a bad neighborhood. But our entire town was native territory for my mom, and she didn’t get lost. We never stopped to look at a map, or ask for directions, and we didn’t run out of gas.
I’ve been playing a version of the Turning Game to learn about Chicago, my adopted city. The “grid” gives me some confidence so I know generally where I am, and which way I should turn for home, but there are still plenty of ways to get lost (on purpose or not) and explore. Mom was just here visiting, and we drove up to Edgewater, a neighborhood I’d only seen from the Red Line. We enjoyed a short walk to see the pink Edgewater Beach Apartments, and the gothic St. Ita’s Church, both surprises to me. Afterward, we wound through the neighborhood, heading west and south-ish. I told mom I’d never been in this part of the city before. Snug in the seat-belted passenger seat, she said, “What if we turn left here?”