Tag Archives: trains

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?

Brown Line

Brown Line
This is a brown line train to the Loop

Slow crawl through brackish
brick and mortar

North Side dissonance, so
poorly named

You should run to warmer

White train, brown line
better off with green

Salt-stained floors gray out
your browns & beiges

Even your graffiti is
too soft core

Glass-free parking

And pristine platforms, condos
winter boots

Bros & wool jackets
Merino scarves

This is a brown line train
to the Loop

where else? what else?
what more? what’s left?

Take me some place special
somewhere nice

Break the mold and tease
the status quo

I’m just standing here
waiting on the train

Take me across the river
toward my dreams

This is a brown line train
to the Loop

I’m trying a new train line out today.

I didn’t think it would be so difficult to change something like your choice of transportation.

As I stood in the warming shed at the Burr Oak Metra stop, I looked around and realized I didn’t recognize a single face.

That wasn’t that strange in and of itself, but it made me realize just how much I know about the people at the Palos Park stop where I’ve boarded the train for much of the last six months.

There was the coughing lady, who seems to be perpetually sick, but who prefers to board before everyone else, even if she has to act like a linebacker to do it.

It used to bug me, but now I sit back and watch her work her magic, and it makes me smile and sometimes laugh out loud.

The Catholic school boys in their khakis and Sox stocking caps nudging each other on the platform, while one of the boys’ dad would joke around with them about Notre Dame football, a dirty leather satchel at his side, and a newspaper clenched between his arm and his side.

The guy who would fall asleep as soon as his head hit the backrest after he boarded the train. He snored so loudly I thought about changing cars one more time, but I started listening to music, which provided a bit of a soundtrack to their lives as I watched them work, eat, sleep, play and converse.

These were just my car companions when I finally decided to ride the second car from the end, and they were a microcosm of the bigger world that is Chicago.

And since I had tried nearly every car on the train, I realized I had come to know a lot of people, if only by sight and habit.

There was a little trepidation as I boarded the train this morning. I looked around at the unfamiliar people wearing unfamiliar clothes and doing unfamiliar things.

But then I caught sight of a 60-something woman with dreadlocks and a dapper old fellow wearing a trench coat and sporting a fine cane, and dozens of the most interesting fur hats, and I was reminded that I’m not just a journalist between the hours of 9 and 5.

The good habits of a journalist fall somewhere between anthropology and voyeurism.

I call it people watching. And I learn so much about myself and how little I actually see or understand others by watching the people around me any chance I get. It’s my own private university.

I’ve moved around almost every two years for the past 8 years. My dear wife has suffered through 18 moves in our nearly 19 years together.

I’ve always needed new vistas and new horizons, new classes and new texts to study.

I love Chicago, because I have only to change the way I enter the city each morning to gain a new perspective. To witness life lived just s little differently than my neighbors live theirs.

NYC 1: First Impressions –

New York is a lot of what I expected after getting to know it the past 30-some years on television, word-of-mouth and general reputation as America’s largest city.

I walked a good bit of yesterday, flew over it and cabbed through it.

Vistas are a nice way to gain perspective on a places’ general look and feel. You have to experience a place to really get to know it.

This is not one of those kinds of trips.

The first big difference that I noted was the grittiness of New York. Just walk around TriBeCa, and you’ll notice a lot of grime and stains on things. At first I couldn’t tell if it was just the city recovering from the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy, after all, much of the street-level stuff was under water from the storm surge, or if it was just an old city being an old city.

Turns out it’s a little of both. Chicago is definitely a much cleaner city. New York feels old and gritty and built up on top of its even older self.

The walls of buildings don’t glisten and shine or reflect as much as they whisper old things. One feels they need to get close to hear them or to read the illegible writing you feel must surely be there.

New York is a bustling place. When I hear the word bustling, this is forever what I’ll think of. Everything is fast-paced here. When you step out onto a sidewalk, it’s as if you are turning into traffic. Slow down, stop or make sudden turns, and you’ll get the bird or a good tongue lashing.

The subway trains are filled with busy people. The streets have beggars and construction people who yell a lot. Traffic police are everywhere, the sounds of whistles shrill and constant.

Even in the late evening on a Thursday, there is a tempo that is unlike other places I’ve visited.

These are just first impressions based on what I saw in a 24-hour period. Some of it is based on what you see and feel, more of it, I fear, is based on what I’ve always thought about New York.

Nothing counts until you experience it.

I spent the evening chatting with an old friend who works at the Wall Street Journal. We talked politics, news and living in Brooklyn.

I asked him if the adage is true: “Live in New York, but leave before it makes you hard.”

He sort of shrugged it off. And I don’t blame him.

If there is a hardness in New York, it’s in the water or the way in which the city seems to live atop its old ghosts. It’s just a fact of life living around 8.2 million other human beings.

Last night I fell asleep to the sounds of TriBeCa outside my window.

I dreamt of the images of New York ever in my mind with snippets of songs creating a soundtrack that I couldn’t quite remember upon waking, but he melodies are running through my head this morning as the horns blare and the construction men below me yell out orders.

I like this city.


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.