The Great Commuting Adventure

It’s the same voice heard in Vonnegut books.

“Metra commuters, your attention please,” he says, stiff and automated. “The next Metra train will be arriving at your station in five minutes.” You can tell from the way  “five” sounds different from the rest of his pleasant tone.

Like weeds looking for light, the group of commuters you’ve been standing with for the last few minutes start creeping their way out onto the platform, and you feel drawn to go with them. You leaving the inexperienced mothers armed with little kids, double-strollers and diaper bags that should carry “Wide Load” banners and flashing orange lights. They stand right in the crux of the station door and where the train doors will eventually open. The rest of them, the ones with the briefcases, purses and light totes, dressed in suits, slacks, polos, jeans and other forms of business formasual move to where they know there’ll be room, peace and no little kids.

“Metra commuters, your attention, please. The next Metra train is now arriving at your station,” says the Vonnegut man again. He’s a minute early, just enough time for you to put on your Sheldon Cooper face:

The 8:03 a.m. pulls in, and everyone acts civil in getting on. In a world where Toyota commercials show people running over the salesman on their way into get great deals (rather counter productive, isn’t it?), it’s rather surprising there’s not a great push. Then again, maybe the War of the Mommies has started on the other end, where diaper bags have become great thwapping devices in the struggle.

Once in the car, it’s time to pick where to sit. If you’re a lone commuter and have a strong stomach, take the stairs — nope, not the first set of stairs; everyone takes the first set and you’ll get stuck between one guy insisting upon using his 17″ MacBook with the volume on and the older-but-wiser commuter still reeking of his breakfast of bran and black coffee — go up the second set of stairs (you have to walk a little into the car to get there, but be patient), and you can guarantee there will be a seat.

Being on the top level means being with fewer socializing groups and maybe avoiding the conductor so you can ride for free that day. But don’t bet on the last part; it only works with certain conductors and only if the car is at full capacity and Western Avenue (the cutoff) is coming up fast.

Once off the train, you have to be your own person. If this means being the dope who has to find a directive sign, so be it. You never want to end up in the salmon-run of commuters heading up the stairs to Madison when you should be in the larger throng headed to main Union Station.

Then it’s all work, work, work as an intern at The Chicago Reporter until the end of the day comes. You somehow arrive alive at the station in time for the train, able to dodge the tour buses letting people off at the Chicago Board of Trade so they can take pictures, even though Sears — sorry, Willis — Tower is just down Jackson a bit. Then again, even I find the CBT cooler than Willis, if only for its Batmanian context.

This is what tourists see when they look at The Chicago Board of Trade…
…versus what I see when I look at the Chicago Board of Trade…
…and what I see when I look at the Chicago Board of Trade at night…

… and I’m done now.

Once through the doors of Union and down two sets of escalators (conveniently reversed from the morning’s upward direction), you’re one of a hundred getting on the 5:17 express back to Hanover Park.

If there’s time, the grand hall of the station is the place to be. Wooden benches and marble floors create a cathedral where the daily commuter takes time to worship the Metra gods they’ve gotten this far and knock back a beer or airplane bottle of Sutter Home purchased at one of the kiosks.

But as you’re sitting there, armed with alcohol or not, picture the people of every decade in the 20th century waiting for a train the same way you are now. Since 1925, millions have gone through this part of the station. Now you sit there, the large Panasonic booth where they’re hocking 3-d TVs in anticipation of the 2012 Olympics sitting square in the center. The displays playing Avatar blare away and echo off history, etching the walls and booths with another layer, another ring in the tree trunk of what this station has seen in its near-100 years of existence.

Here’s what I think about train travel, though; I joke about the newcomers, the hassle of foot traffic and crappy white wine, but the truth is I love the commute. I don’t understand why someone would rather drive in a solitary car — or rather, sit still in a solitary car — in rush hour when Metra gives you the opportunity to be environmentally mindful and less dependent on Shell and BP, all while you commune with the fellow commuter (commuter communion! Sounds like a drive-thru Eucharist plan).

It could’ve been the worst day of your life or a really great day; it doesn’t matter, because either way, you’re not alone. There’s always someone who’s levitating just off the seat like you, cheeks strained from smiling too much after a great day in the city. Likewise, there’s always someone just as lost in thought, wondering if it would be better to end it all now by jumping out the emergency window or wait to stand in front of the train as it pulls out of the station. Without saying a word, you know you’re not alone, regardless of how you’re feeling.

And chances are you’ll see them tomorrow, same time, same train.

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