As I sat on my commuter train riding in to work a few weeks ago, an empty seat next to me so I could stretch out with my thoughts, it occurred to me that I might be losing touch with what it means to be a Chicagoan. For probably the past four years, I have avoided taking the El to work because it ends up being faster and cheaper to take the Metra commuter rail.
Each morning, I drive the 1.5 miles to the train station, hop on my regularly scheduled train, ride it for precisely two stops, and fourteen minutes later, I arrive downtown. When I take the El, I walk to the El stop, hop on the train, ride it for six stops, get off, change trains, then ride that train for another eight stops, arriving downtown in about 40 minutes. Now admittedly, with the driving and parking time factored in, I’m not saving all that much time with the Metra, but somehow it feels faster.
But still, the sterility of the commuter rail started to bother me. Have I effectively become a suburbanite? Have I lost all my street cred? Did I have any street cred to begin with?
The questions were eating at me, so I decided to start taking the El to work, just to see if it would help make me feel like more of a city dweller once again. My first ride in to work was pretty pleasant. I got a seat, so things started off on the right foot. As soon as I stepped off the Red Line, the Brown Line train to the Loop was ready and waiting for me with open doors, as though there had been no bad blood between us. It seemed like everyone was more alive on the El. More interesting. They were reading books I wanted to read. Wearing shoes I wanted to wear. I suddenly realized that my fears were right – I had been missing out.
After work that evening, I walked to the El station with a bounce in my stride I hadn’t felt in years. Just as I reached the top of the stairs, the Purple Line train pulled up in time for me to hop on. Again, I got a seat. In the crowded evening rush hour, the aisles became steadily packed with people clinging to whatever pole they could find. I turned up the volume on my iPod to a level that would have gotten me shushed on the Metra, but went unnoticed on the El.
A man wearing plaid pajama bottoms stood next to my seat, holding a loosely covered container of what appeared to be carrot soup that sloshed precariously close to my head with every bump and turn. I became a bit more concerned when he adopted a straddle stance for balance as he held the soup in one hand and texted with the other hand, with a few very close calls as the train came to a halt at the next stop.
Fortunately, it was time for me to change trains. The next train was much more crowded, but I was able to worm my way into the back seat in one car. As soon as I sat down, I was pretty sure I knew why the seat was still available. It was the distinctive smell of subway pee that immediately made me flash fondly to my days in Paris.
So clearly, there are some distinct pros and cons.
- The Metra is cheaper and slightly faster, but it’s filled with white-haired lawyers from Lake in the Hills who play gin the entire time.
- The El allows me much more flexibility in schedules, but sometimes I come home smelling like the day after a frat party.
So it’s really a toss-up. My experiment is not yet over. I still need to make sure that I’m not missing out on some essential part of being a Chicagoan by avoiding the El, but so far, the scales are tipped in Metra’s direction due to the fact that if I step off the Metra smelling like urine, I can take comfort in the knowledge that it is more than likely my own.
Filed under: Chicago, General on June 22nd, 2009 | 12 Comments »