Tag Archives: Metra

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

My commute got a little crazy last week after someone stole my catalytic converter out of my Toyota truck. Apparently they’re prone to it. My insurance agent said they’ve handled several hundred claims related to stolen catalytic converters this summer alone. 

The good thing is this is just the thing I needed to start biking to work. 

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.

A commuting poem: The train is always late


The train pulls toward the station and you stand, claiming your place in the line of the first to exit

The train empties like a torn serpent, its entrails pouring from a series of wounds

The flood of people starts as a trickle and becomes a rush as they jockey for a forward position

Free of the train, walking fast, moving with a single thought of gaining the doors to escape the bowels of the station

But really we’re just late for work

The lady in front of you walks with a cane, and she’s hobbling fast, as if she’s being chased

And she is

You try to pass her, and like cars on a freeway, so does everyone else

And as the flow of the train’s entrails empties onto the platform, the wriggling mass spreads outward and forward like blood toward a drain

And we fight for position until we are slowed and blocked and then we groan and complain about the lateness of the hour

The congestion of the sliding doors is an equalizer, putting you back in sync with those who lined up early

And in our mad rush or a deliberate wait, we all exit the station at the same time, spreading out into the city like fire

Breathing finally and texting our superiors and subordinates as if this is something rare and altogether strange

To wake tomorrow and do it all again

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. 


The Commute –

It’s only been four days since I started commuting, so it’s probably too early to really write about it in depth. It’s the first time I’ve commuted anywhere by train. My longest commute, before this, was my morning and evening drives to and from the University of Oregon from my home in Salem, Oregon. It’s a bit romantic, I admit. My notion of commuting has always been a bit “Madmen” even before the television show made air. 

Gentlemen in fedoras talking business or reading the morning paper. I’m not sure where the ladies in my imaginary commuting world are. I hope it’s not misogyny. Rather, I think it’s just a narrow field of view on this one imaginary image. But I digress. The platform can be empty at first. The air is warm and strangely fragrant, with no evidence of floral fauna around accept grasses, trees and shrubs. The concrete is cool, and I like to pause to look up and down the tracks. Some evolutionary leftover from boyhood, I suppose. I deposit my $1.25 into the parking fee collectors and find a concrete post to lean against.  It’s then that I notice the station is not empty. People are standing against the building, sitting on the ground or leaning against posts just as I am. But they blend in, their clothes seemingly camouflaging them against the realities of the day.  An emotionless voice crackles to life over the loudspeaker: ” Your attention please. A Metra inbound train will be arriving in approximately three minutes.”  People start to emerge from the shadows, staking their place on the platform that will allow them to board their preferred train cars. I don’t know this then, but I overheard a conductor explaining this phenomena. “Everbody has their own car. They even know the number of the car, How? They count ‘em. One, two, three, four. Everybody got their own train car they prefer.” I don’t have a preferred train car yet. I’ve explored a few cars now. I’ve tried the upper deck, but I was uncomfortable because it was too easy to be voyeuristic and watch what the people below we’re surfing on their iPhonesnor tablets. But sitting below with knowledge that the people above can read what I’m now writing is disconcerting. Life on the train is a mix of the expected creaking noises associated with rail travel. The windows are tinted green, which lends a quiet, somewhat depressing hue on Chicago, even on a sunny day. The gentle rocking of the train lulls many to sleep for the 45-minute ride. Others work on laptops. Anyone who is awake is bent over a smartphone. The cavernous Union Station is a massive staging point for Chicago’s commuters. They pour from the trains in the station’s underbelly, alternately walking like zombies while the line of people moves like rush-hour traffic toward the exits and scurrying to catch their bus connections to the rest of the city. It’s fun to watch feeling new and still unattached, unaffected by the commute. I can’t imagine how I’ll feel in a few years.  Tim