#36: A Train Night

July 20th, 2012

People sometimes ask me how I can commute 40 miles from Chicago to Aurora every day. *

I usually shrug and ask if they know of a newspaper job in Chicago.

I won’t lie; it sucks. I have seven major escape routes from work, from that strip mall industrial park where pedestrians take on the chicken role from the old joke. If you see one cross the road, you ask why.

The escape routes vary on the weather, the kindness of co-workers and whether I got enough sleep the night before. Tonight was one of my favorites, the bike-train-walk-train-walk.

While not as enjoyable as the bike-train-bike with the good bike, the bike-train-walk-train-walk beats the hell out of the “mooch a ride to the Metra station” and the worst of the worst, The Drive.

This one starts with the bad bike, the mottled rust-machine I keep padlocked to a maple in the parking lot in Aurora. I 12-18-0 the lock, bandolier the chain across my chest and pedal the most dangerous half mile of my life, the one down industrial streets named Commerce, Enterprise and Meridian. It’s the backroads behind the sea of lots and chain stores. It’s the curvy, viewless roads where the cops don’t patrol and the last thing anyone expects to see is a slo-mo pedaller on a mottled rust-machine.

I leave the bike locked at the Aurora train station.

I slept on the Metra tonight. I do that sometimes. I had an iPod bud of Scandinavia’s premier ska band in one ear, the other ear on a scarf folded into a pillow. I drifted until I felt myself wake up.

I turned off the music — now a shuffle of Bugs Bunny and the Cure telling me to kill Da Wabbit and an Arab — before I hit Cicero. I ready myself for Union, smiling out the window but wondering who put my father’s face in my reflection.

I arrive.

I don’t walk through Union Station’s main terminal, the cavernous ballroom where homeless sleep and Andy Garcia once saved a baby carriage. I skip it today. I’m anxious to get outside.

The city swallows me. I’m lost in the wavers of people on a cold February night. My short walk to the L — train two of the bike-train-walk-train-walk — brings me two languages I can’t identify, a hundred people I don’t know and a thousand new thoughts that seem familiar comforts.

I take the long route, heading for the Jackson Blue Line stop instead of Clinton. It’s a combination of whimsey and leaving Union through the wrong door. There’s construction on the Jackson bridge. I always forget that.

My path is the canyons between castles. I walked by the Sears (not Willis, never Willis) Tower and the coral castle topped with a wedding ring. A faceless goddess of grain watches me as I cross under a train, holding my breath in vain for the shower of sparks that sometimes baptizes from above.

I cross by history, the Chicago left only in plaques on black glass or terra cotta columns that define. Here was the first Jewish house of worship. Here they invented Daylight Savings.

The sky is black. The snow waiting in the clouds muffles. I cross a statue of what to me will always be a red giraffe and go down, down, blissfully down to the shuka-shuka trolley. It’s an underground river of Blue where a busker Charon sings me north.

I don’t actually do much when I get home. Tonight, I dropped by Reckless Records to pick up an album for a friend (he can’t find it in the suburbs). I came home and started typing this, pausing only to boil and eat a plate of spaghetti. I might wander out for a beer. I probably won’t; I have to work tomorrow.

I can’t actually do much when I get home. But the slim hours I spend between commute and sleep are spent in Chicago.

People sometimes ask how I can commute 40 miles from Chicago to Aurora every day.

As I smile out my window right now, wondering who put my high school yearbook photo in my reflection, I shrug the answer.

How can I not?

* Note: Since writing this in February 2010, I spent two years at a job in the suburbs, then quit that to become a full-time freelancer and full-time Chicagoan. I’m much happier now.

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