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.