The Other Half

Last week, I was recounting my recent experiences riding the El to some friends over dinner. They’re all hardened city-dwellers and public transportation patrons, so I was surprised to actually get a little sympathy when I shared my disgust at sitting in urine-scented seats.

“Jen, what line do you take?”

“Red Line”

All three of them groaned in unison.

“Oh, god. I’m so sorry to hear that. Really.”

“No kidding. I did my time on the Red. Paid my dues. Thank god I get to take the Brown with all the beautiful people now.”

“But really, you should count your blessings that all you smelled was pee on the Red Line. One time? I got on the Red and it smelled like shit.”

“You think that’s bad? One time I got on the Red Line, and there WAS shit. Big pile of it in the aisle.”

“Oh man, that’s sick. But not as bad as when-“

I had to stop the conversation there, because I could easily imagine the next 20 minutes devolving into a competition to determine who saw/smelled/sat in the most repulsive combination of bodily fluids on the Red Line, and my BLT had just arrived.

And so the public transportation experiment continues, my daily routine alternating between the El and the Metra. Sometimes braving the gritty Red Line all the way to the Loop, other times hopping off at the midway point to change trains to the Brown Line so I can see how the other half lives.

So far, I’m really familiar with the half that pees its pants.





Out of Touch


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.









What Not to Wear, Part II


When inquiring about a client’s dress code, you should probably ask the people who typically work with that client on a day-to-day basis, not the people who kind of think they remember what everyone was wearing the last time they were there a couple years ago.

Because if you do the latter, you will end up dressed like a British Airways flight attendant in the meeting and everyone else WILL BE WEARING KHAKIS AND POLO SHIRTS BECAUSE THEY WORK IN A SUPER CASUAL ENVIRONMENT WITH PING-PONG TABLES AND FREE STARBUCKS AND RUNNING TRACKS OUT BACK!!!!

Again, it’s good that they don’t let me out of the office very often.

What Not to Wear

What are the odds that my insurance company would believe me if I told them my apartment was robbed, but the only things the thieves took were my clothes? Or maybe I could say there was a fire, but it was contained exclusively to my closet. Highly localized flood?

Here’s the thing: I need an entirely new wardrobe. This became painfully clear to me this week when I found out I had to fly out today for a client meeting at a fairly conservative company. For the past five years, I’ve worked in a business casual environment, and I probably lean more toward the casual side of that spectrum. But I’ve worked in more formal environments before, so earlier this week, I told myself that I could just tap into the Smithsonian wing of my closet that houses my more professional clothes.

When I actually started looking through my closet on Friday to see what I could wear, I was instantly overcome by the panicked realization that I would have to lose 15 pounds in two days in order to fit into my old suits *and* accomplish this while simultaneously building a time machine so I could go back to an era when high-waisted, pleated pants were fashionable. In a nutshell, I was screwed.

Knowing that there was no time to buy a whole new outfit, because pants are now made for women who are a minimum of 5’10” and I couldn’t deal with trying to get them hemmed before my trip, I was going to have to make due with one of the few pairs of nice pants that actually fit me. Then I convinced myself that I would just go to the mall and pick out a new, professional looking blouse and be done with it.

After two hours of scouring every single woman’s clothing store in the mall, I was at an absolute loss. How was it possible that the only two options in an entire shopping center were peasant blouse or something with gold buttons? Every single store had some variation on that theme – overly casual or hideous.

That’s when the rationalizations began:

  • Sure, a jacket would have been nice, but I think it’s supposed to be 95 degrees there on Monday. No one would expect me to wear a jacket, would they?
  • Maybe I can get a nice scarf to go with this completely plain white shirt and then that will dress it up more. Yes. A huge scarf. Maybe one that looks like a jacket.
  • Earrings. All the stylish professional women I see downtown are wearing earrings. That’s what I need.
  • Men have it so damn easy. White shirt, pants, throw on that stupid blazer that doesn’t even match and no one notices. Put a tie in your pocket just in case. What’s the difference between a guy wearing a white shirt and pants and me wearing a white shirt and pants? Why do I have to have gold buttons? F*ckers.
  • Hey! If I quit my job today, I wouldn’t have to go on this trip.
  • What if I just say that shampoo leaked all over my beautiful and appropriate suit, so I had to wear this instead?
  • Should I wear lipstick? Will that distract them from the fact that I’m underdressed?
  • I wonder if that bridesmaid’s dress from Kim’s wedding still fits me. Oh, but then I’d need to find some new shoes. Never mind.

What I ultimately settled on will be on the slacker end of the professional business attire, but I’ll wear my contact lenses and whore lipstick and earrings and a scarf to draw attention away from that fact. I call it the Rita Moreno West Side Story defense. If that fails to distract, I will launch into a round of hand clapping, finger snapping and high pitched yelping.

I’m starting to understand why they don’t let me out of the office very often.

But while I’m gone, if one of you accidentally fell into my closet while operating a blowtorch, I wouldn’t be heartbroken. I’m just saying.