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.

12 Responses to “Out of Touch”

  1. Dave2 Says:

    Take Metra. Buy a Chicago hot dog or go to a Sox game when you feel disconnected from the city.

    Urine is vastly overrated as a way to reconnect with your Chicago roots.

  2. Hilly Says:

    If it were me, I’d probably switch back and forth all of the time. That’s how I roll, yo.

    (yes, I actually *did* just say that…sigh)

  3. You can call me, 'Sir' Says:

    Spray some graffiti on the metra. That way both it and you will immediately have serious street cred.

  4. Don Says:

    Pajama guy was headed for the clinic, and he wasn’t taking soup.

  5. shari Says:

    Oh Don… I may never recover from that comment.

    Jenny, can’t you just take the Disco Cab?

  6. claire Says:

    If you have a parking spot where you live, that should make the Metra a touchdown based on time when going home.

    Besides, you’re giving the Metra cred by riding it and not being a gin-playing white-haired lawyer.

  7. Karen Says:

    A few months ago I moved to a new place along the brown line, and while I appreciate that it’s cleaner than my old west-side commute, I do sometimes miss the Madison Avenue bus crazies. The guys reeking of beer at 7am who’d pester me for my phone number were a little disturbing at times, but I will always hope for another sighting of the man who boarded the bus wearing plastic bags on his feet and a mid-thigh tshirt, demanding that the driver let him on. “I’m wearing SHORT pants! SHORT pants!*” Those were entertaining commutes.

    *I could see by the rising sun behind him that he was in fact wearing NO pants, including those of the under-pant variety.

  8. jenny Says:

    dave: if given the choice between going to a major league baseball game and sitting in someone else’s urine for my train ride home, i’m honestly going with the pee. at least i know it will only last 35 minutes.

    hilly: LOL. as a matter of fact, that’s kind of what i’ve been doing. why can’t i have the best/worst of both worlds?

    sir: how much would you charge me to be my new life coach? i like the way you think!

    don: oh man, if that wasn’t soup, then he has some hella scary disease!

    shari: disco cab! it’s the only way to travel.

    claire: i do have a parking spot at home, yet still, i am drawn in by the gritty urban allure of the el…

    karen: okay, now even i won’t resort to the bus. but yeah, it sure does make for some good material!

  9. vahid Says:

    I imagine it would take more time than all these other methods combined, but I think you should try getting Puppet Bike to give you a ride to work.

  10. jenny Says:

    vahid: that would be my dream ride! i was just talking about puppet bike, and how people have seen him struggle to ride that bike that must weigh a gazillion pounds. i’m sure he wouldn’t mind me hopping in back while he rides the 7 miles downtown…

  11. churlita Says:

    Maybe one of those white haired lawyers wants to be your daddy and then you wouldn’t even have to go to work at all.

  12. mike Says:

    Doesn’t sound like a toss-up to me. Read into that what you will :)

    Also, thanks SO MUCH for leaving me with Hall and Oates swirling around in my head.

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