The forward-most car on the 5:30 p.m. 303 train from LaSalle Street station in Chicago to Vermont Street in suburban Blue Island is ungodly noisy.
It has a screech not unlike a large dying animal when the car shifts from left to right as it slowly leaves the station.
They greet each other with hugs and ask after loved ones they know by name.
Riding mostly in white, middle-class train cars where people don’t even look up at each other much less talk to each other through the long Midwestern winter wore me down fast.
Since moving to Chicago in 2012, I have switched my train commute six times. Somewhat seasonally, somewhat frivolously, somewhat because of thieves who steal catalytic converters while commuters’ cars wait helplessly in pay parking lots back in the burbs.
But I didn’t know how much they’d come to mean to me, until I had been riding that line for a few months.
Last week, I drove my parents and my sister to Iowa to attend a friend’s wedding.
While milling about the lobby of the Blackhawk Hotel, in Davenport, we ran into a mutual friend who had spent the last couple months in Ukraine.
He asked me how we’ve been, and I flippantly responded with something about checking my Facebook profile.
“Did you really just tell him to check your Facebook to catch up with your life?” she asked.
I did, because I knew almost every detail of his two month’s in Ukraine with his wife and their young son, and I simply assumed that he knew every detail of my life, since I practically live it with a bullhorn on Facebook.
Narcissism gets bandied about rather loosely these days, when it comes to social media, but there is something poignant in the hubris of the status update.
Context takes conversation, and a how have you been question cannot be answered simply in a few minutes of playing catchup in a hotel lobby. I’ve grown adverse to that kind of smalltalk.
At work, on Mondays, the coffee room is full of banter about the weekend, and since we’re all friends on Facebook, the context is filled in based on the shared knowledge of our lives as scrolled through on Sunday nights.
It is enough to know what’s happening in someone’s life based on pictures, some words, maybe video and status updates with emotional context, like I’m feeling sad, happy, challenged, disappointed, etc., etc.
I have that with almost every one I know and love going all the way back to childhood friends. The things we might only find out about our schoolmates at 20 and 40-year high school reunions are right there at our fingertips.
When my brother catches a fish, I know about it a few minutes or hours later when I check my Facebook.
I know what my friends read, watch and listen to without having to ask. I get dozens of movie reviews, record reviews and television show critiques a day in my scroll. It’s all frictionless.
But its different with the passengers of the forward-most car on the 303 at 5:30 p.m. from Chicago to Blue Island.
They don’t live in my Facebook scroll or as followers on Twitter. Pictures of their lives do not fill up my Instagram feed.
Instead of friending them, as I normally would people whom I care about, I have abandoned social media for a social experiment.
I’ve stepped back in time on the 303, to a space that existed before all of this. Where conversation led to discovery and context.
It’s been several months, and I still don’t know what Big Pat does for a living, but I know he has a double major in business and political science from St. Xavier. And I know that he uses both degrees in whatever he does.
I know that he loves fishing, and that he has a boat and loves to visit lakes in Canada every summer. I know that he spends almost $300 in fishing license fees to fish all the states of the upper Midwest each year.
I don’t know why Kenny goes to work every morning at 4 a.m., just that he does and he’s somehow jovial and funny at 5:30 every evening, though by rights, he should be napping all the way home.
Mary sits quietly in the last seat, and the only things I know about her are what Kenny tells me. I don’t know anything at all about the Latino Ladies, just that they have pretty smiles, and they sometimes hand out candy to the other commuters.
Mike was a former football player and has a lot of opinions about the Chicago Bears, and he loves grilling food. But I don’t know much about Mike’s life beyond that. Yet.
Which makes every day interesting, because I find out a little bit more, which gives us a little bit more to talk about so that things don’t go stale.
Someday I’m going to ask them what they do for a living, because that will open up even more possibilities for conversation.
Last week, Big Pat and I shared a beer. He brought a wonderfully smooth and sophisticated German beer that tasted of cloves and bananas. I brought an exceedingly bitter IPA. He almost spit it out. Now I know Pat doesn’t like IPA, and I’ll bring something less bitter next time.
As tempted as I’ve been to ask them if they’re on social media, I haven’t, because, much like television, I don’t want to see the whole season at one time.
I want to savor the little bits of information I get each week. I want to continually be surprised over time as I build a relationship with these people. I don’t want to just process what I know about them based on scrolling through their lives on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.