Tag Archives: commuting

Note from 1–49 W Calhoun Pl in Chicago

Homeless Man (oil & wood)

The old man with long, brown and grey-streaked hair stood outside the train station muttering to the world.

It was three degrees. I could feel it, because I took my gloves off to check the temperature on my iPhone.

I could feel that familiar sting of air with barely a few degrees to it in spite of the bright sunshine overhead.

I could hear his words clearly, as I walked closer to the man.

“I don’t belong here anymore,” he said in a thin tenor to start the verse.

“You don’t know what they’re like, you don’t have a single clue,” he continued.

“I’m actually all right, all right,” he finished, as if practicing the words to a garage-rock song for a Friday-night pop-up show.

Continue reading Note from 1–49 W Calhoun Pl in Chicago

My friend Kenny

The 303Kenny sat by me on the train tonight.

“How’s that phone working out for you?” he asked.

“Fine, fine,” I said.

“That the six?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“You have an iPad too, right?”

“Yes, but I forgot it at home today, so I’m working on my phone instead,” I replied.

“That must be nice,” he said, smiling knowingly.

I don’t know Kenny, but I sort of do.

I’ve been watching him work his social magic on the forward train car on the 5:30 train from LaSalle to Blue Island almost every night since October.

You see, every train car has its own culture, and I spent most of September and part of October trying all the cars out on the 303 to see which culture I fit into.

Continue reading My friend Kenny

Is This Seat Taken?


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.

Continue reading Is This Seat Taken?

The longest way home

The long ride, cycle, train, walk home


It starts with a seven-minute walk from my desk to the bike rack at the entrance to Navy Pier.

There’s an elevator ride in there too.

For most of Chicago’s bitterly cold and blustery winter that walk is fairly benign if not altogether banal.

You wave to bored shopkeepers walking down the middle concourse of the pier or get out in the brisk wind and chill air to enliven yourself after a long day of work. Usually the former.

But in late spring, on nice days by our standards, they begin to show up to the pier like zombie hoards.

Continue reading The longest way home

Union Station Fridays

Late September heat, and they look uncomfortable in Fall fashions
At the train stop in the suburbs of Chicago with the first leaves fallen
The kids are hyped and the confrontations hot in the quiet car
We move from the white suburbs to the black neighborhoods to the Circle and Union Station on Friday morning
We shuffle off the train onto the narrow platform
The girls with their yoga mats and city bags, the guys in suits and ties
Old guys who’ve done this for longer than I’ve been alive
and ladies of a different class trading lies and anecdotes like recipes
The diesel fumes ravage the colognes and perfumes worn
And the roar of the “Screaming Thunderbox,” the F40PH2
fills the cavernous bowels of the station’s south side
We run headlong into a people jam trying to get through double glass doors
For the city and the towers and the coffee shops
We emerge like summer’s cicadas into broad daylight
Up escalators and stairs to the world above
Union Station on Fridays, Thursdays, Wednesdays, Tuesdays and Mondays

A poem
Tim Akimoff

When I announced we were moving to Chicago from Anchorage, Alaska, the response from friends and family immediately focused on the change in weather.

Many people told us we’d hate the cold winters in Chicago. So far, it’s been difficult not to laugh at that concept.

Anchorage barely got above zero last year in January. It’s been averaging a balmy 30 most days.

And yeah, the wind is brutal on the walk to the train station, but nothing like working in an Alaska village on a day that hits 55 below zero.

Today is supposed to be the worst commute day of the year, because of a storm known at an Alberta Clipper bearing down on the region.

So far, like the rest of winter here, it’s failed to live up to expectations.

Winter is rough anywhere you go. Some places are rougher than others.

It’s hard to make comparisons from one place to another until you’ve tried them all out.

I’ve got a few places to go before I can start making those comparisons.


The Train Rules –

The train is a complex political compromise.

For as many years as I suspect people have been making this 7 a.m. haul into Chicago, it has done nothing to soften the hard lines of sleep encrusted about their eyes, the furrowed brows and the frowns they wear for smiles.

The train stop buzzes with activity 20 minutes before the 7:06 train. Old men sit at tables near the counter where the pretty blond woman serves coffee, newspapers and parking passes.

She talks to them with just a little flirt in her voice, and they feel young again.

They’re not even here to ride the train, just to drink coffee, talk a little and walk home.

The passengers wear coats now, even on this October day that will reach 80 degrees. The leaves are gold, red and green, and the air is chill enough to catch the man-made scents.

A young couple walk by briskly, draped in the aroma of dark-roast coffee and tropical shampoo.

The businessmen smell of leather and Polo, shoe polish and just a faint whiff of light wool. And I hold my breath when the high school kids walk by with their athletic shoes slung over their shoulders.

I know this smell from experience.

I like to sit in the newly refurbished train cars. They have that new-car smell. The seats are just a little more comfortable, lacking the ass print of long-term ridership.

And they’re less crowded.

At Palos Park, the train is only about two thirds full, which means it’s easy for me to find a seat by myself.

It usually stays that way for about four stops. By the time we reach Ashburn Station, my empty half seat must look very attractive to new passengers.

The young, well-dressed men are prime targets for the older passengers, especially for those ladies of a certain age.

If I still have an empty seat by Wrightwood Station, it’s inevitable that a certain lady will wiggle down the aisle and plop herself and her two bags squarely in the center of our seat.

While I don’t mind seat mates, generally, this lady carries a normal purse and something I’ve come to call the city bag.

I have no idea what’s in the bag, nor do I wish to know. All I do know is that it has hard, sharp things inside, which make puréed tomatoes from the small bag of cherry tomatoes that my wife got from a neighbor’s yard, and which I had planned on having for an afternoon snack.

For a while I rode one car behind the car I’m riding in now. But a man would get on at some stop down the line and promptly start clearing his throat in a loud and uncouth manner.

I would turn up the volume on my music player, but the sound made its way beneath my skin so that I could hear it long after the train ride ended.

After a week, I moved cars and found one to my liking. I was full of seemingly nice people. Two Arab-American college students traded school war stories in front of me, falling silent only when the pretty girls went by, while a middle-aged brunette woman fell asleep and snored quietly two seats down.

An occasional phone call punctured the general pleasantness of the car from time to time, but the passengers were nice and not inclined toward the politics of lonely.

Then one day I heard the familiar phlegmy throat cleaning again, and I was sorry for myself that my new car full of pleasant people had been invaded by what I viewed as a parasite.

I can’t stand habitual noise makers, and it’s mostly because I am one. I need external noises to focus me, but rather than tap something or drum my finger, sniff or clear my throat, I often click my teeth to the rhythm of the train wheels.

A loud sound heard only by me.

It’s become a game for me. I try a new train car, one down or one up from where I like to board.

Some days it’s quiet and I click to myself and breathe in the man-made smells around me, learning bits and pieces about the people I sit with.

On other days, I bask in unpleasantness listening to the man clear his throat, every 45 to 60 seconds until we reach Union Station.

It’s nails on the chalkboard of my soul. As The Apostle Paul had a thorn in his side to keep him honest with himself and before God, so I have this affliction.

But no one else seems to mind or notice.

The conductors like to either flirt with cute passengers or do battle with the rule-breakers in the quiet car, the second to last car from the front of the train.

Yesterday it was mean granny, as they referred to her. She was a shusher, apparently, and she was the bain of their existence.

Then they caught her on the phone in the quiet car one day, and it was all over.

“She just looks down at the floor when I walk by now,” one conductor tells another. “And that’s the way it should be.”

The other conductor, the one built like a linebacker, just talks about the lady who gets off the train at Wrightwood.

“Man, they don’t make ‘em all like that anymore,” he says. “Sweet lord, she’s built.”

The train is a microcosm of the city itself.

It goes from the mundane, subdued white-bread of the suburbs to the colorful, rowdy crowdedness of the neighborhoods.

From white to black to white again, reflecting the segregated nature of Chicago, to say nothing of the fractured ethnic lines that run through this place like fault lines in Yellowstone.

The train is one world of smells and pet peeves and subdued racial tensions mashed together in a long, steel tube traveling at speeds of 45-minutes into the heart of the beast. 

A place where you carve out your space and live with your choice, unless you’re like me, and you can’t stand habitual throat clearers.

Then you’re a wanderer, doomed to search car by car, seat by seat, for that elusive perfect space.