Since I finally ‘fessed up three months after the fact that I moved, I figure it’s time to share my first three days of urban commuting….
You see, when I was in the 'burbs I lived across the street from the Metra train line, which is a commuter line with shiny new double decker cars, uniformed conductors who help old ladies and say “Good morning, Bob!” if your name is Bob, and clean cushy seats filled with soccer moms and generic looking businessmen who play golf on the weekends (or at least watch golf on television). They read the Daily Herald or the latest best seller on the way in, then spent eight hours downtown pretending to accomplish whatever middle management roles and responsibilities were listed when they got hired, and then do a Soduko or read a couple more chapters on the way home to be greeted by Wally and The Beaver and resolve whatever hijinx they’ve gotten into that day over a home-cooked meal of meat, potatoes, and some sort of veggies or greens. The trains run on a schedule and are typically on time and move efficiently between the stops all for about $3 each way. You see the same people at the same spot on the platforms every day, and after boarding you see the same people in the same car, often in the same seat. It can be very comforting or very maddening depending on how attractive you found Andie McDowell in Groundhog Day. I could walk out the door at 6:27 a.m., ride down the elevator, walk across the street, and arrive on the platform just as the 6:34 was pulling into the station. I’d get a single seat on the upper deck and, just to be a rebel, read Crain’s Chicago Business instead of the Daily Herald. And then I’d pour out of the station with the other sheep to go answer emails and try not to do anything stupid that will get me arrested or end up in the headlines. Good thing our company has a strict policy about hookers and blow in the workplace. They must be pre-approved. But I digress.
The CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) runs a little differently. Other than a set system of train tracks and bus routes, they generally seem to just wing it. Trains and buses are advertised to run approximately every 5-7 minutes during rush hour, which means you might wait 15 minutes for a train or bus, followed by two of them one minute apart. It may be clean as a McDonald’s restroom or look more like the inside of the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. Expect some delays due to slow zones necessary to keep trains from flying off deteriorating tracks or due to renovations which they cannot afford. You might get to sit next to a sweet-smelling lass and you can’t help but think you might have a shot at girl like that if you were twenty years younger, obviously forgetting what a dork you were twenty years ago. But I digress. You may also get to sit next to a gentleman that has all of his worldly possessions in two plastic garbage bags and, afraid to let them out of his sight, has neglected to shower in the last week. Any given train car or bus has the potential to be a trim palace or a homeless shelter. At the height of rush hour you don’t have to worry about sitting next to anyone since you’ll likely be standing. If that’s the case, hold on and don’t be that guy or girl that keeps falling into everyone else because xe can’t stop texting xe's douchebag friends. All that excitement for only $1.75 a ride.
At my new place, I have the option to ride the aforementioned CTA or another Metra line. The choice might seem obvious, but let’s review:
Fifteen minutes to downtown, usually on-time, cars and passengers generally clean and free of unusual odors.
No longer across the street and now a little over a mile away, so that’s a twenty minute walk, and another ten-minute walk downtown. This could be a pro on a gorgeous day, but it’s usually humid enough that I’m sweating like a fat guy in the potato-sack race on the 4th of July or it’s cold enough to shatter a cheekbone. Another con is that whole schedule thing – I don’t like rushing around in the morning or trying to make up time in case I get my head stuck in the Rice Krispie box again.
Only four blocks away. No schedule. Drops me off at my office doorstep. Longshot at scoring with a 23 year-old Jessica Alba look-a-like, ending up divorced and losing half my shit. Wait, maybe I should move that last one to the Con section.
Might sit in an unidentified gel-like substance, or break a heel trying to keep my balance while standing. About 30-40-minutes to downtown with no delays. Possibility of riding with a mentally ill person that enjoys yelling “poop” after every stop. Wait, maybe I should move that last one to the Pro section.
The envelope please… and the winner is….
My loyal steed – a two-wheeled 1991 Trek 820 Antelope. But that deserves it’s own post. And I can’t ride every day. And my bike wasn’t set up back then. So here is how it went down my first three days.
My first full day was a Friday and I made an uneventful commute to work on the CTA in the morning. Since it was a nice day, I bailed out a couple minutes early that afternoon so I could buy a 10-ride pass and check out the Metra option. I hopped on the elevator at 12, stopped at 10 to pick up a fellow escapee, went down to 9 at which time I heard and experienced an elevator phenomenon technically known as “thunk”. It just went “thunk” and stopped. Doors didn’t open. Doors wouldn’t open. We pressed 9. We pressed 1 again. We pressed 10. It just kind of sat there like those guys the TSA hire to make sure that nobody tries to get past security by sneaking in the exit doors.
Now if you know me, you’ll know that in a complex dissertation applying the Newton’s Third Law, the Pythagorean Theorem, and the I before E except after C rule, I proved that Heaven on the Seventh Floor is the greatest song ever composed and recorded. And I was just two floors away from living it. I was kind of hoping that Jessica Alba just happened to have an appointment in my building that day and was stuck in there with me. Hey, stranger things have happened. Actually, no. No stranger thing has ever happened. It’s like falling in the mud can getting kicked in the head with an iron boot. Never happens. Oh, wait, she’s got a kid. Kids make me uncomfortable. She’s out. Let me revise this fantasy. Isabella Rossellini. No, too international. (Ouch, I think I just took responsibility for the first Friends reference on Leper Pop.) Let’s go with the old standby – Crystal Bernard. Not that it matters. Unfortunately my elevator companion was a Metra generic businessman type trying to get home to see what Wally and The Beaver have been up to and plan his golf outing for the weekend. After a couple minutes of continued uncooperative behavior from the elevator, I hopped into action and started getting undressed so that I could find the secret escape route in the ceiling and climb out without getting my business casual best all greasy. I guess my companion was a bit prudish and lacked a sense of adventure and instead suggested we just press the call button. Yeah, that’s right, a call button. It’s didn’t even have one of those cool phones in that normally off-limits compartment just below the main panel. I always wanted to use one of those. But instead I just pressed the call button and there was a little built in speaker in the panel. The call somehow got forwarded to a Chinese take-out joint at which point we ordered some pot-stickers and had them kindly transfer us to the security desk in our building. Security first made sure that we were okay. I told him my water just broke, so let’s move this thing along. For some reason he wanted our names and affiliations, so I identified myself as Pudd'nhead Wilson, Esquire and if he didn’t have us out of there in fve minutes flat that I would be suing for the obvious distress this was causing. He continued to check in about every five minutes making sure that we had not passed out, given birth, or used the situation to explore any bi-sexual curiosity. Other than a 23-year-old Jessica Alba look-a-like, I guess I couldn’t have had a better person to get stuck with. He made just enough small talk so that it wasn’t awkward, but not too much that it became annoying. About 40 minutes later there was another “thunk” but in a good way, and the doors opened on 9 where we escaped to another elevator pod and made out way out.
At the Metra station, the only time there are significant lines for tickets is on the first day of the month when all the monthly pass people who don’t own a calendar with cute kittens on it realize that they need a new monthly pass. Seeing as that was a week ago, I was shocked to find a long line of people snaking through the terminal. If only I could find a way to blame this on James Taylor.
I eventually got my ticket, while missing yet another departure, and made my way over to the next train out. Which was crowded with twice the normal volume one would expect. And the bastards were all carrying chairs in a bag. Chair in a bags? Chairs in bags? And coolers. And pic-a-nic baskets. Of course. There was a concert at Ravinia, a snooty little venue in the north suburbs where people take their chairs in bags and coolers full of merlot and brie and listen to adult contemporary shows while talking about the best place to get their Volvos detailed, and this venue was on the same line as my new stop. I eventually survived my ride, made it home on Sunday afternoon and prepared to go back to work on Monday. Okay, so I exaggerate. But if I had been planning to go to happy hour that Friday night I would have definitely missed out on the free hard-boiled egg buffet. Later that night I checked and it was none other than Mr. James Taylor playing at Ravinia that night. I knew it.
Monday morning I went back to my CTA stop for the ride in and just missed a train leaving the station. So I waited for the next one. No biggie. And waited. Waited longer than usual. Even a bit longer than longer than usual. Then heard the announcement. Trains were not coming out to our station anymore. So please walk two blocks east to the next stop. Cool. As I made my way into the next station I heard another announcement – trains will not be arriving at the station, so please go back downstairs and hop on the bus and get shuttled somewhere where there might be trains. Wait. Another announcement – a blue light special on tube socks in the boys department. Oh, and just kidding about the bus thing – there’s a train here now and it will be on it’s way soon. Walking back upstairs I indeed found a train, boarded, and about five minutes later it departed, traveled about 50 feet out of the station, at which point the power was shut off and we rolled to a stop. For about half an hour. Eventually we got rolling again and I made it to the office just in time for my juice box and naptime. Later I checked the news and found out they had discovered a dead body just outside the stop two blocks west of mine. The train I had just missed was the last one that made it through before they shut down that section of track to investigate. I have a feeling James Taylor was involved, but I don’t have proof. Yet.
Tuesday morning I strode to my station thinking it was going to be a good day. I pulled my card out of my pocket, waved it past the scanner and then slammed into the turnstile shattering my femur and embarrassing myself in front of the 23 year old Jessica Alba look-a-like who just happened to show up behind me that day. Turns out the CTA will not accept my building security identification card as payment. I sheepishly put it back in my pocket, withdrew my CTA pass, scanned it successfully and gingerly proceeded through the turnstile. I just can’t figure out how to pin this one on James Taylor.