Is This Seat Taken?

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The commuter trains in Chicago run like radial arms from the city’s center out to the suburbs.

They pass through the rich mosaic of neighborhoods and suburbs that make Chicago everything it is or seems to be.

They pass by quiet neighborhoods, gridlocked freeways and sports stadiums that rise out of flat expanses of concrete like dark steel fortresses.

They pass by white neighborhoods and non-white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods and mixed neighborhoods.

Polish, Irish, Italian, Croatian, German, English, South Asian, Goral, Czech, Ukrainian, Swedish, Bulgarian, Puerto Rican, Palestinian, Korean, Cuban, Chinese, Indian, African and many other neighborhoods and communities too numerous to count.

If you look out the window, you won’t be able to tell that you’re passing through all of this. You’ll see tree-lined avenues and streets with the houses all boarded up.

You’ll see Dunkin’ Donuts, mom and pop stores, tire stores, playgrounds, high schools and empty lots. ]

There are so many stories that come from riding the trains every day. So many little facets of life that come bubbling up to the surface in that claustrophobic little world between our home life and our work life. But this one has been weighing on my mind for awhile.

If you ride the train from the suburbs into the city in the mornings, you will see strip malls and parking lots full of SUVs. If it’s spring or summer, you’ll see lush Forest Park Preserves and ballparks with straight chalk lines and clean bleachers.

As you take your seat on the train, if you stop to look around, you’ll see mostly white people in suits or pantsuits. You’ll see long dresses and dress shoes or running shoes and a few hijabs here and there.

People spread out on the platform well aware that the front cars of the train will require them to share their seats. Some plan for this and sit together in chatty groups of two or four.

Others walk to the end of the platform where they can get a seat of their own.

The next few stops are all white suburbs, and the train fills with morning commuters holding to-go cups and iPads. A few people of a certain age unfold newspapers and read them with their arms wide open.

Then you hit the mixed neighborhoods closer to the city, and you’ll notice whites, blacks and hispanics. Young professionals and blue collar workers.

If you wish to sit alone, you place your bag on the seat next to you and suffer the withering looks of new passengers trying to find a place to sit.

The last two stops on the Southwest Service line before you hit the city serve mostly black neighborhoods.

Most of the lower-level seats are taken by at least one passenger by the time you roll up to Wrightwood, so the new passengers must ask people to move their belongings so they can sit down.

I would like to say they are usually accommodated, but this is not always the case. In fact, too often I see people stacking their belongings in a way that makes it very difficult for anyone to sit down next to them, especially when they find them sleeping.

I’ve seen this for nearly two years, enough time to confirm that whatever sensitivities we have to being labeled racist, we are in fact, just not very nice to each other as human beings residing in the same great city perched on the age of a great lake.

We’re mean and vindictive, and if I had to get on the train in Wrightwood every day, I’d be a bit jaded, like a grade-school kid who never gets picked for the team.

There must be a sense of isolation even here, sandwiched in between the suburbs and the city.

I used to ride the Electric Line into the city, and I got on in the mixed neighborhood of Blue Island.

I never saw anyone try to save a seat by putting their bag up on it. Most people kindly offered their seat when the trains filled up.

It was the best of the Midwest, a little oasis that was probably too good to be true, at least for the short time I rode it.

People sat in large groups laughing and talking loudly.

There was a sense of community on the 40-minute ride into town.

I don’t mean to mischaracterize the people who commute by train.

Not all white people are mean. Not all black people are marginalized. Not everyone who saves a seat for themselves is racist.

There are, however, undercurrents of our basic human elements that can be seen rippling through society if you slow down and watch what is happening around you.

It’s more likely you’ll notice someone acting mean than someone acting selfless. But when we see someone acting selfless, it’s more noticeable, because we either admire it or it makes us feel guilty.

I’ve always wondered if life on the trains is a microcosm of our bigger world boiled into one uncomfortable 40-minute haul.

It’s a forced integration that shows off the worst of our nature as humans, because it’s concentrated and purified in a way that doesn’t happen when we stay in our segregated communities of likemindedness and sameness.







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