The man in the zip-up cardigan, branded Metra blazer and hat that said TRAINMAN on the front pursed his lips and made a juggling/weighing-of-options motion with his hands.
“It’s the same thing. The conductor is like in charge,” he said, choosing each word with care. “But it’s the same thing.”
On the Metra each morning and night, men with hats come and take money from strangers. Some are known to the regular commuters – the riders gab and gossip and ask about families. Others slip unnoticed, just another service worker treated as an annoyance not to address or look directly in the eyes.
But the men in hats – and they’re always men – continue to take the money and punch the 10-rides. They’re old, they’re young, they’re chipper, they’re tired, they’re black, they’re white, they’re Hispanic. But, I’ve noticed in my few months as a Metra rider, these men in hats fall in two camps.
Some hats say TRAINMAN and some say CONDUCTOR. And on Monday, I finally asked one of the men why.
“So the conductor is like the boss?” I asked.
This trainman was tall and, as mentioned, Hispanic. He had a cocky smile under a thick mane of hair (that itself was under a TRAINMAN hat).
His hands zipped and snapped, gesturing as he talked.
“Sort of, but it’s like you’re in charge of that train.”
“Oh, so the conductor’s like the boss of that shift,” I said.
“Like I have the hat with the emblem CONDUCTOR on it,” he continued, running his thumb and forefinger across where his current topper said TRAINMAN. “I’m just not wearing it right now.”
We chatted a bit more as the train rumbled south and his hands zipped and snapped. The train kept rumbling south as, in all the other cars, men in hats that said TRAINMAN and their shift bosses called CONDUCTOR took the money and punched the 10-rides.
“It’s the same thing,” the trainman finally said, flashing a cocky smile. “He’s just doing less work than me right now.”