Mai Madness – Train Ride

Describe a train ride. The idea is to show travel, but I found it incredibly hard to do – the funny thing is, I ride a train to work every day. So I assumed it would be easy to write about. Not so much. I did have fun with it, and it helped other projects, but this one was hard to get down onto the keyboard.


The number 93 bus pulls up at the Kimball terminal on Lawrence Avenue, and pulls past the entrance to park halfway down the block. The driver is stubborn about where the 93’s stop is – he won’t stop where the 81 does, which is right in front of the terminal doors. No, the 93 stop is halfway down the block, so halfway down the block we go. A small knot of passengers waits on the sidewalk, all ages and ethnicities – African American, Mexican-Indian, Pakistani, one White lady with silver hair in a bun, tendrils dripping around her face. I push past the family of African Americans who don’t make room for the disembarking passengers and hear the Arabian man behind me say something sharp to the mother. She mutters a swearword at him but moves grudgingly out of the way, hauling her little boy away by the arm. I walk up the sidewalk to the entrance to the station, past a group of transit employees in uniform, with “CTA” emblazoned on their chests. Chicago Transit Authority. A quasi-governmental agency, it’s really privately run and wastes a tremendous amount of money every year. It’s one of the last bastions of the old political order, the patronage jobs that could be had for doing favors for one’s local Alderman. I turn left, into the building’s atrium, and move up to the entrance. There are four narrow turnstiles and one handicapped one, which is nice and wide with a swinging door. I’d really prefer to use it, because my bags make me wider than two people walking abreast, but I hate fumbling with it. It’s embarrassing because I still haven’t quite figured out how to open it. So I sigh, and push my way through the narrow entrance, bumping my hips as I go. I feel the blood flame into my face and hope no one is watching. The attendant watches me as I go through and I can feel his eyes on my ass as I go through. He seems to ignore the wedding band, even though it’s on the hand that faces him whenever I go through the turnstile. Talk about optimism.

There are three tracks at Kimball. The far left isn’t used as often and you can feel it if you walk down it – a sense of disuse. I prefer the central walkway, where trains are on either side. After the reconstruction, they now run eight-car trains in the rush periods (morning and evening). Usually it’s only six, and four on the weekends. I like being in the front train car because I can look out the front of the train and have a sense of direction, of setting the trail. I like to be either the lead or the tail of any line of people. I don’t like being in the middle, it feels constricting. I pick my favorite seat, a single chair on the right side of the train by the window. These trains have eight single seats, sometimes ten if there are two at the tail of the car. The other train lines only have double seats, side by side. I don’t really like sitting next to people. My single seat is right against the window so I can watch as we go. I pull out my morning pages, sometimes having written a little on the bus here, sometimes not – it depends how crowded the bus is. We set off, moving slowly out of the station. The train car is nearly empty, this early in the morning, particularly since they switched to eight cars. Few people want to walk all the way down the platform to the first car, but I don’t mind – it’s nice to have the solitude.

I will sometimes track our progress in my morning pages, using a diamond in the left margin for stations, and writing their name above it. Kedzie is first. The train rocks a little on the long turn out of the station. The front car bounces less than the others, and if I’m in the last car I really feel the rails. I’m usually in the last car on the way home. Michael goes to work before me and parks at the next station after Kedzie, Francisco; I only have to come back to Francisco in the afternoons. After Francisco, I like to watch the scenery, because we go over the river. I find that the river changes by day – sometimes, the ducks swim, and once I saw a green heron fishing. There are little boats belonging to the houses along the shore and I wish I could take a boat and wander the river.

Rockwell is next, the last of the ground-level stations on the Brown Line. The rest are elevated, which is why they call the trains in Chicago the “L.” It’s usually fun to be that far above things, we’re up about the third storey. But a few weeks ago there was a derailment on one of the other train lines, the Green Line that goes out to West Chicago and Oak Park. It was scary. The rain derailed sideways to the tracks. If it hadn’t been at a junction, where there were extra tracks on either side of the main one, the cars would have gone right off to the road below. I think about that ass we leave Rockwell, on our way to Western. It’s not a comforting thought, but I have to trust in the Universe since this is how I get to work every day. Sometimes, having my head in the sand is a necessary evil.

After Western, we get into the stations that are being rebuilt. All the stations before Western are completed, somewhat. They didn’t finish entirely, but enough to reopen them. Damen is the first one; when we pass it all you can see are the skeletal girders that will house the new station. The last time there was a significant overhaul of these stations was in 1953, so they’re long overdue. Then we come to Montrose. I had a friend who I wanted to date who lived on Montrose. He lies in California with his new wife. Paul Mullins, he is an actor in Hollywood. Then we come to Irving Park. It’s one of the new stations too, but it’s ugly. I don’t like the new rectangular panels, they have small squares cut into the sheet metal. They’ll look awful in a few years with the accumulated grime of pigeon droppings and messy snows. I’m not sure why they were picked, but someone must think they look nice. Chicago is a contender for the Olympics, so the mayor wants the trains to show off our best side. Someone thinks this is our best side. No accounting for tastes. Addison is closed for remodeling, and you can’t even see the skeleton of the old station anymore. They’ve taken it down to the track, with the building materials on either side of the road below. Heavy barricades keep people out of the station and I wonder if anyone ever tries to break in.

I usually finish my pages before Belmont, which is a huge interchange. They’re doing a major track overhaul and the three train lines that go north and south are all on one track now in the mornings. It’s a clusterfuck. I hate it. The Red Line, the Purple Line, and the Brown Line all use the same track between Belmont and Fullerton, which is four stops. It’s caused so many delays, Mayor Daley put his foot down and the CTA announced in the news last month they’ll finish six months ahead of schedule, in December of this year instead of next summer. I’m glad. This is silly. It should be nice when it’s done, because there will be three tracks instead of just two – one for each of the three train lines. We stop on the long turn leading into Belmont and hear the rumble and clatter of a train heading back to Kimball. For some reason, I always feel like I should pull my arms back inside the train – even though the windows don’t open. I suppose this is because when I was little, my mother always told me not to put my arms outside the car window – if we get too close to another car, it’ll get chopped off. Not very realistic, but the admonition stayed with me and I still find myself paranoid when two trains pass each other. The tracks wiggle and bounce with the passage of the other train and I remember the derailment. But we emerge safely to Belmont, moving slowly into the station past the hundreds of people waiting to board.

Another morning in Chicago.

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