Bike Bullies Beware!

Lance Armstrong-wannabes have forced a hostile takeover and they’re taking bipeds hostage.  They’ve taken over the I&M Canal Trail and walkers, birdwatchers, joggers ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK! 
Over the past year, I’ve noticed a rise in dangerous speed and a decline in civility among bicyclists on the I&M Canal Trail.  Zooming past, weaving in and out, riding ‘no hands’ and ‘no manners’ has become prevalent but recently the already unsafe situation became even more treacherous because of the closing of the cyclists’ preferred raceway, the Centennial Trail, for a three-year construction project.

Furious that their favorite speedway is off-limits, the sprocketheads seem intent on traumatizing those who dare share the I&M Canal. Fully costumed in space-age helmets, their derrieres swathed by diaper-like padded training tights and their tootsies shod in aerodynamic pedal-booties, the cycle-commandoes invade from behind intent on recreating the Tour de France.

Decades ago, I vowed to my day camp Girl Scout buddy “…someday I’m going to live in this forest…” even though the Seventeen Year Cicadas chose that summer to make an appearance.  While I’ve  never managed to actually live in that forest, I do walk the I&M Canal Trail, a National Historic Landmark, not two miles from where I learned to tie a square knot. And I cherish that peaceful preserve.

Daily I’m privileged to walk in Monet-like beauty, the very path where mules towed barges of grain, lumber and salt, the exact trail that established Chicago as the transportation hub of the United States, an incredible milestone on the Underground Railroad, and I appreciate, Scout’s honor, that I’m beyond lucky.

We’re all lucky — the babies in strollers, in-line skaters, hard-breathing joggers, dog walkers, seniors testing out newly acquired bionic knees and those just looking for respite from the 24/7 demands of technology who get to share the wealth with the herons, turtles, butterflies and coyotes.

Lucky that is until now.  Cue up the theme from the shark-threatening  Jaws, because the fierce Lance-wannabes have stealth-attacked and turned a simple walk into a hike on the wild side.

Completely ignoring the Forest Preserve’s posted rules about speed limit and signaling when passing, the bicyclists, wearing shirts advertising international race teams, fly past intent on their cardiac workout, large  LCD screens velcroed to their biceps registering every bleep of their little tickers with nary a thought given to jumpstarting someone else’s cardiac arrest. 

Either ignorant of or unwilling to acknowledge the inherent instability of a bike, particularly where twigs and branches abound, the nitwits blow-off rules of common sense while jeopardizing the health and safety of everyone else on the trail.  Apparently an old-style warning bell on the handlebars is aerodynamically incorrect and a shout of “on your left” is too taxing.  Everyone else has to hop, trip, jump and fall to avoid collision, if they can, if not, too bad.

To be fair, not all of the trail bicyclists are adrenaline junkies.  The casual bike pedaler is also at risk  but the refusal by most to warn “on your left” when coming from behind and passing is common and dangerous.  For the most part, I only hear bikers call out a passing warning to other cyclists (hmmm, maybe afraid to get hit by a bike), but, as for pedestrians, oh well, and the run-over smashed frogs and turtles with their shattered shells that are left in their wake are just collateral damage, if the two-wheel wild ones even notice at all that they’ve killed an animal. 

One morning a stealth biker so startled me as he actually brushed my sleeve while flying past that I jumped back into the path of his riding partner who was passing me on the right!  Dumb and Dumber flew on at breakneck speed focused on their anaerobic thresholds.  The fact that I was on my side of the trail, that pedestrians have the right-of-way, that they never signaled, that they broke the law, that they came close to shattering my spineirrelevant.   It’s all about the paceline, the clipless pedals and the almighty *PB.

One older man who has walked the path since boyhood suggested we sprinkle tacks along the way.  “That’ll cut down on the racers,” he said.  A roller-blader volunteered a paint-ball gun to identify the look-alike cowards who whizz past with impunity confident that bipeds can’t catch up with them.  “You have the perfect storm for hit and run,” he observed.  “A lone walker smashed by a flying biker — have you ever seen a heron finger a culprit or heard a turtle testify in court?” he asked.

Some startled folks have shouted Please signal!  The Believe It or Not responses range from  a snarled My wheels make a whirling noise that you should be able to hear, to Get off the *&^%#@ trail if you’re afraid of bikes.  An obscene gesture suffices for the less creative.

After witnessing an altercation in the parking lot between a jogger and a cyclist, I decided to search for help.  After weeks of ‘pass the buck’ which Illinois agencies practice as an art form, I think I hit pay dirt, at least I hope it’s dirt.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District acknowledges that their abrupt and protracted closure of the Centennial Trail exacerbated an already dangerous situation on the Canal.  They directed me to the Cook County Forest Preserve which also concedes that: Houston, we have a problem . . . and both have expressed a willingness to undertake an educational program, but when?  In the meantime, the Forest Preserve Police have begun issuing speeding tickets on the trail. 

At last we just might score one for the mommy walking her toddler, for the guy who is rehabbing his heart, for the jogger trying to get in shape — for all the Joe & Joni Schmoes who believe this land was made for you and me. 

Bike Bullies, you are on notice!
* Personal Best


Anyone with a drop of Italian blood, even Al Capone, was buried at Mt. Carmel and yet my poor Grandpa was all by himself in a non-Catholic cemetery.  As a little girl, it troubled me that he wasn’t at Mt. Carmel with the rest of the family, but the subject was taboo. 

On family cemetery jaunts, we’d genuflect at our Mt. Carmel gravesites and then detour to Oak Ridge Cemetery where my grandfather, Antonio Scalise, was interred in 1941.  I’d murmur a prayer by his sunken little granite pillow etched with the simple outline of Aladdin’s lamp, and kneeling there my gnawing concern would resurface.  The unconsecrated ground tormented me because the nuns said that, if you were buried in unconsecrated soil, you went straight to hell.

At some point, a cousin whispered that my grandfather had joined a religious sect, that after some Holy Rollers had a revival at Comiskey Park one summer he’d converted.  Having turned his back on the One True Holy Church, I knew he was doomed to Oak Ridge and the eternal Inferno, but I prayed for his soul despite his one-way ticket.  He died before I was born, but my Mother always said that he was a really special  man, that she’d wished I’d known him because he was such a good person so I hoped that if  I prayed really, really hard, God would show him mercy and retrieve him from the fire.

I knew from my Dad that his father had migrated to America and gone to work in the northern iron-ore mountains, had eight children and moved to Chicago when jobs dried up in Michigan.  Other than that my Dad shared little.  My mom told me that Grandpa was much older than my Nonna and a complicated man.  “Something serious happened to him in Italy, something painful,” she startlingly revealed one day.  “I sensed a heavy heart.  I don’t know what it was—maybe he had a wife who passed away, but there was something,” and then she slowed down, maybe not comfortable sharing her intuitions, scribbled in guesses and perception.  “I suspect there was more to his story,” she surmised and, being a mother/mind-reader she preempted me.  “Do NOT bring it up to your father.  He doesn’t talk about it—I doubt that he even knows what it is.”

She needn’t have worried about me going to my father to check things out.  He had perfected a death-stare that so clearly signaled verboten territory that only the blind would dare to proceed.  My dad said that my grandpa always said never give anyone ammunition that could be used against you, and my dad’s definition of ammunition was very broad.  No one should know where you’re from unless you tell them, people shouldn’t be able to identify your background based on your grammar or vocabulary or your handwriting even, he’d caution. Never let anyone else define you.

This advice was about more than just privacy, though that was in short supply in our neighborhood where hanging out laundry and pushing strollers were the preferred networks pre-Facebook, where yentas archived one’s every move and bested bloodhounds when it came to family business that was none of theirs.  This party line had to do with who you were.  Somewhere along our tribe’s timeline, prejudice had imprinted hyper-vigilance and embedded a legacy of practical paranoia. 

Over the years, when outsiders not so subtle attempts to label me would be way off the mark, I’d picture my dad high-fiving me with a good job as I chose to set the record straight with “I’m Italian-American from Bridgeport, an old neighborhood in Chicago.” 

Despite my religious quagmire and parochial scruples, I did manage to grow up.  I went to university, made friends with kids of all faiths and no faith, traveled the world, and married a man who defined hell as a closed mind.  We chose to create our family via adoption, and being a believer in the power of stories to heal and connect, I shared mine with my daughters confident that I had, at least, the big pieces in place.

Until the day an article in Fra Noi led me to a Mediterranean trail of tears.

Each month Fra Noi, a Chicago magazine whose readers are encouraged to embrace their inner Italian, is packed with heart-attack inducing pasta recipes, the latest on the Euro crisis and articles on Venice's rising sea-levels. This magazine, an occasional lecture or movie at the Italian Cultural Center and vacations to the motherland are about the extent of my being a born-again Italian, but I have always been captivated by stories about the old country. 

Not many sagas were shared as my great-grandparents spoke no English, my Nonna's English was very limited, and my mother was not one to look back on her Neapolitan roots.  For the most part, she believed that if the toe of the boot was such a great place, my ancestors would never have boarded the boat.   “If you weren’t always cleaning and cooking, you could investigate our heritage,” I’d sometimes nag though the look on her face suggested that I needed to be somewhere else immediately.   And my father, always working, working, working, had neither the time nor energy to reflect on his Calabrese past.

There were a few stories some of which made sense; others which were contradictory mixed in with legend and myth and, if that wasn't enough to distort reality, you could toss in the family's penchant for hush-hush.  "It's impossible to unravel family history, everyone has his version, so don’t waste time looking back, watch where you’re going instead," Mom advised, but once in a blue moon, she'd share a sliver of our past.  "After my own father died in the Great Flu epidemic," she might say, "life changed…" and then, as though she needed to make immediate amends for being such a loose-lipped time-waster, she slammed the window of reverie shut to avoid the draft of questions and the chill of inquisitiveness from her middle child.  Over the years, I more or less came to accept that they either wouldn’t or couldn’t fill in my blanks.

And then, one day while searching for a holiday cookie recipe, I stumbled on a Fra Noi article and read, "If you're of Calabrese descent, the next sentence you read could forever change how you view your roots."

I caught my breath.  

As the persecution of the Spanish Inquisition spread, the article went on, the Jews of Calabria fled to the mountains.   Families were arrested, burned at the stake, torn apart…  Jews who wanted to avoid torture and death were forced to convert to Catholicism and renamed “conversos.”

Within seconds, my mother’s suspicions, my little girl ‘nosies,’ my dad’s mind your own business caveats ignited into a kaleidoscope of jagged slivers, muddled snippets and sarcastic scraps of information that melted into tears. 

Imprisonment, confiscation…a heavy heart, unconsecrated ground…denunciation…something went on over there that no one ever talked about…the fallout of the Inquisition.    Ideas, issues, incidents I hadn’t thought about in years collided head-on with conjecture and possibility.

And then, as I continued to read, I spotted my maiden name.  There it was in black and white on a glossy magazine page, a clue that even unconsecrated soil could not bury.

…the first active Calabrian synagogue in 500 years is in Serrastretta, housed in a building once owned by Saverio Scalise…


My grandfather was Antonio Scalise.  According to Ellis Island’s ship manifest, his last known residence was Serrastretta.  He was born in Sorbo San Basile, a town not twenty kilometers away, high on a mountain top. 

There is a chance that the insanity of religious oppression forever altered my grandfather’s life.  Is there a chance that I own some Judaic roots—that I am the progeny of conversos?  According to Rabbi Barbara Aiello, herself a product of this captivating saga, thanks to the intense scrutiny afforded the families of the Diaspora, there exist detailed records, and she will help me research my history.  And the etched oil lamp, a symbol of magic to the little girl, may well light the way to truths that no one, including the loving daughter-in-law, ever imagined. With a little Mazel Tov and a DNA test added to this mix, I may at last have an answer for the child who trembled graveside wondering What kind of Catholic was he anyway? 

The prospect of putting some of the puzzle pieces in place, the responsibility of untangling some of my father’s Calabrian roots,  is both daunting and heartening, but it is time to set the record straight.