#878: 10 Straight Days

January 19th, 2018

“Good morning, good morning, good morning,” the voice came from overhead.

It was a velvety voice made tinny by the CTA loudspeakers rattling through the morning riders and silty, road-salt floor smears of a morning train.

“Although it’s warming up, I need some sun so I’m going to be taking vacation next month in Florida. Who’s with me?” the velvet-voice conductor continued as the shriek of the long, black tunnel rose Doppler to drown his words.

I write often of train rides. Metras through suburban plastic, North Side rides skipping among sun-slathered rooftop, southern-bound ‘L’ trips through rotting industrial steel. I write about train rides because they fascinate me. They’re forced slowness in a world where steering wheels come with horns because the designers knew drivers would need a car that can scream.

But in a train, there’s no choice but to relax. There’s no choice but to eye the slim, elegant leatherbound sketchpad as the slim, elegant woman who owns it gently pencils and shades a banner reading “Anyone Wanna Dance?” flowing around the diseased stripper she had drawn from a cellphone still of “South Park.”

There’s no choice but to wonder where you’d seen the woman before, if she was the one you, a coworker and a total stranger had complimented for a beautiful three-point perspective tower sketched on a prior train ride, or if there are just multiple elegant Hispanic women sketching the world from the Red Line.

There’s no choice but to admire a stranger’s glasses and let your mind wander to what you’d want to wear if your eyes went.

There’s no choice but to catch a glance of a man’s collar poking from underneath a cardigan and wonder if that look would work for you.

There’s no choice but to wince at the smell and wonder who had spent the night slouched in a corner to stay warm and maybe catch some sleep in an eternal shuttle between Howard and 95th.

If you have a relatively short commute — let’s say a half hour from home to job — and you work one of those office jobs increasingly not the norm, you’re spending an hour a day, five days a week (or more), 50 weeks a year (or more) riding the same stretch of track. It’s more time if you have multiple jobs, have a job without weekends or vacations off or are slinging away from gig to gig. 250 hours a year just sitting on a train glaring at the person who got to the seat you wanted is the minimum.

It could be torture. Or could be more than 10 straight days where there’s no choice but to be quiet and observe the world and all the weird, elegant, smelly, funny people in it.

It’s more than 10 straight days to sketch towers and cartoon strippers. It’s 10 straight days of hearing goofy overhead messages from Florida-bound conductors. It’s days and weeks and, over years, years where your job is to hone perception, people-watch and take notes on how others live.

Our cars were built to scream “MOVE MOVE GO I’M LATE.” Our phones chitter and chirp our garbage thoughts to a world that does not need them. My summertime bike rides are more concerned with not getting clipped by a truck door than deep observation.

Trains make us listen. And that’s why I write about them.

A two-part New Year drama aboard a train

A flagon of ouzo aboard a train

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