Thursday, July 8, 2010

Part Seven: Commuters in Paradise

Part Seven: Commuters in Paradise

It’s 8:02 AM and the train is just arriving at my stop, Main Street, Evanston, where I stand along with several dozen fellow Evanstonians awaiting the sleek silver commuter train that will deliver most of us within a few blocks of our respective downtown offices. It’s July and I’m already sweating as the heat index approaches 93 degrees and the humidity, always elevated near Lake Michigan, is near 80 percent. I reach up to loosen my tie and unbutton my collar while carefully balancing a to-go-mug filled with mediocre home-brewed coffee, today’s Wall Street Journal, my black Tumi briefcase—which is heavy with nonessentials and extra books (from my ever-growing queue of expensive, store-bought, hard-cover literature) that I've packed but continue to put off reading until some later date—and my iPod, which is currently playing Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.”

As I attempt to loosen my collar, my coffee spills onto my newspaper and into my briefcase while my iPod goes crashing onto the sidewalk. I manage to gather up my dripping mess just in time to board the train and find one of the few remaining seats next to a woman with a wet, persistent cough who dresses as though she’s an extra on Maude, circa 1975. As I sit on the narrow seat, with all my wet gear settled in my lap, I can feel perspiration dripping down my neck onto my collar, which is growing moist.

Today I’m riding the Union Pacific Metra train (i.e. the suburban commuter train, known simply as the Metra), having given up on the “L” (i.e. Chicago’s elevated train) several years ago following multiple service cuts and countless standing-room-only rides in un-air-conditioned, rickety train cars that reeked of foul McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches, body odor, cheap perfume and other random effluvia of unknown origin that my dulled olfactory receptors failed to recognize. Taking public transportation is an experiment in active democracy as multimillionaires routinely sit beside homeless riders, and virtually every walk of life is represented. Actually, that democratic nature is arguably the most appealing aspect of public transportation. But democracy is not always easy, and the train can challenge one's senses and patience. Unlike most Dallasites in their comfortable, air-conditioned sports cars and SUVs cruising along the North Dallas Tollway in sanitized splendor, millions of Chicagoans endure daily L and Metra rides, both of which provide a more crowded, colorful, odorous, and messy experience—especially for riders like me who can’t juggle all their gear.

While Metra trains are far cleaner and more civilized than the L, they still have plenty of urban character—especially as they pick up passengers closer to downtown. Consider the woman with the consumptive cough and 1970s Bea Arthur outfit to my left, and the homeless man in the first row muttering at fellow passengers in Russian or Polish (I can't tell the difference); the business man in a smart Brooks Bros suit reading the WSJ adjacent to the neo-hippie whose outfit, politics and bathing habits—but not his iPhone—are stuck in 1968; and the attorney on his cell phone two rows in front of me yelling to his paralegal about some abstruse legal concept about which she is clearly oblivious. All—or at least most—are headed to jobs downtown, and upon leaving the train they scatter like fire ants toward myriad offices and coffee shops and bagel joints.

For the past few years—ever since my daughter entered pre-K and needed a ride to school—I have driven to work. However, the last few weeks I've been riding the Metra while my daughter is on summer break and my wife is at home on maternity leave. And this sudden jolt back into the world of public transportation has reminded me of my many years taking the train before I switched to driving.

During my first four or five years in Chicago I took the L to work. Eventually I got fed up with the infrequency and inconsistency of trains and subsequent crowds and switched to the Metra, which I took for a couple years. Compared with the L, the Metra feels like an oasis of calm. However, once I began driving two years ago I got used to the cool, consistent breeze of my car's air conditioner, listening to NPR’s “All Things Considered,” a guaranteed seat that is both clean and comfortable, and a relatively short walk from the parking garage on Wabash to my office (compared with a mile-long walk from the Metra station)—and I found it hard to switch back to public transportation, especially in the dead of winter or middle of summer. (Have you heard the old joke? Chicago has only two seasons: winter and construction season, plus maybe two weeks—at most—of spring and fall.)

Now I'm back on the train, and I’m trying my damndest to enjoy the simple pleasures of commuter life, including: truly fantastic people watching, discovering new and exciting smells, time to read books I bought two years ago but never got to, time to write and edit new chapters of "A Texpatriate in the Windy City"—including the one you're reading—on my Blackberry, and the absence of weaving and dodging in heavy traffic on southbound Lake Shore Drive at rush hour. Also, with a mile walk to my office from the Ogilvie Transportation Center, my train's terminus, at least I'm getting some exercise and a chance to clear my head and stretch my legs before staring at my computer screen for several hours.

Central Expressway at Rush Hour Circa 1993…Good Times

My first experience as a commuter was in Big D, where I witnessed firsthand just how awful rush hour traffic can be without having to be stuck in it myself. When I left Dallas in 1993 North Central Expressway hadn’t yet been widened and deepened. It made for some rather interesting driving experiences. (It now feels like a different road altogether.) Five years earlier, in January 1988, I got my first car: my grandmother's sky blue 1977 Monte Carlo replete with white vinyl top and white vinyl seats, including bucket seats that swiveled (yeah, that’s right: they swiveled; I know you’re jealous!). It was affectionately known as the Luv Macheen—or alternatively "that piece of shit," depending on whether the AC was workingand it was bigger than most yachts I see floating in Belmont Harbor alongside Lake Shore Drive. In this exquisite piece of 1970s machinery I could barely get up to 60 MPH on the highway without first turning off the air conditioner.

In 1993 the entrance ramps to Central Expressway near SMU seemed to be about 25 feet long, if not shorter, which was only slightly larger than the Luv Macheen itself. In order to enter this Godforsaken road I had to get up to 50 MPH before the start of each entrance ramp just to merge with traffic. Considering the Luv Macheen could do zero to 60 in about four minutes, you can imagine how much fun this was.

As a college student at SMU I didn’t have a full-time job and thus never had to endure the old Central Expressway (a.k.a. “Central”) traffic at rush hour on a routine basis. Mostly I just drove above Central on the Yale Blvd overpass on my way to campus from the cheap, rundown apartments I rented near Greenville Avenue. Each morning on my way to school I looked down at the poor folks stuck on Central in bumper-to-bumper traffic moving slower than an ambulatory centenarian on barbiturates and I thanked God and Sam Houston I didn’t have to sit in that traffic every morning and afternoon.

Now I’m one of those folks I used to pity, only I’m in even worse traffic in a city with millions more people—hence, millions more drivers. If you will agree with my rather nonscientific hypothesis that at least two in ten drivers are essentially lousy behind the wheel, and two in thirty are downright dangerous, that means—statistically speaking—that Chicago has hundreds of thousands more bad drivers than Dallas, and tens of thousands who shouldn't be driving at all. (At least public transportation mitigates traffic density here somewhat, especially when a gallon of gas regularly exceeds $3.25 a gallon.)

As almost all Dallasites and Houstonians know—along with nearly all residents of any major metro area without a major train network (in other words, every big city except New York, Chicago, Boston and D.C.)—driving in heavy traffic at rush hour isn't exactly fun. Indeed, driving in Chicago on southbound Sheridan Road and Lake Shore Drive—dodging left and right in between taxis, CTA accordion-style double-length buses, drivers making illegal turns at most intersections, and countless bad drivers going either too fast or too slow—gives one the sensation of being a stunt driver from Bullitt (absent the San Francisco hills and Steve McQueen's cool) or the French Connection (without Gene Hackman's silly hat). Without a robust public transportation system—given Chicago's population density—the volume of traffic near the Loop would make driving here virtually impossible. Quite frankly, driving at rush hour in any city—including, if not especially, the Windy City—sucks. But it is still more comfortable, fragrant and sanitary—not to mention climate controlled—than public transportation.

Quite frankly, the concept of and reasons for a long commute are rather absurd. Let’s review the basic logic (or illogic, as it were). Families tend to look for a home with the most space at the lowest price to fulfill the American Dream of owning a home big enough to raise their 2.5 kids and family dog. The idea is simple: buy as much house as possible to provide a comfortable lifestyle for the family within a reasonable distance from one’s office. Yet, the farther one goes away from downtown the longer the commute. Therefore, the desire to have a nice, big home in which to spend time with family actually ends up minimizing—and thus compromising—time spent with family since nice, big homes near work are typically unaffordable.

For every family, there is a sweet spot—the distance from work at which the family can afford a home to fit their collection of junk they’ve accumulated since becoming a unit but close enough so that the adult(s) of the household can commute without having to spend more time in the car than the office. And those are just the basics. Throw in the search for good schools, proximity to family and friends, availability of public transportation (at least in Chicago), location relative to one’s personal interests and hobbies (e.g. many folks here want to live near Lake Michigan), etc., and it takes a Ph.D. in geography and transportation logistics to identify the ideal commuter sweet spot. My goal seems rather simple: I want to find an affordable home in an attractive northern suburb with excellent schools that is closer to Chicago than Milwaukee. (It is much easier said than done.) Thus far, my real estate divining rod hasn't been too successful.

My good friend and fellow Texpatriate, Jim Nickelson, has the perfect commute: he lives with his family in the beautiful resort town of Camden, Maine and he commutes from his bedroom to his home office down the hall. Jim is a successful patent attorney who works remotely from his law firm, which I believe is based in Austin. Unlike Jim, the lucky son of a bitch (and all around great guy), my current job requires that I work most days in the office. Even if it didn't, I don't possess the willpower to work from home on a consistent basis. (After one day at home my wife would return from work to find me nearly comatose on the couch watching Ice Road Truckers and Deadliest Catch marathons on cable TV with little or no work done.) Thus, I am stuck with the commute due to personality deficiencies coupled with my chosen profession of university fundraiser.

Commuting in Chicago, 18th Century-Style...By Canoe

I suppose my commute is a bit easier than Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable's, the first non-native to make Chicago his home. As the first non-indigenous settler—and first person of African descent in Chicago—du Sable moved to the site of present-day Chicago in the 1770s and established a fur-trading post. Without a doubt, du Sable had a vastly more difficult existence along the swampy Chicago River banks at the juncture of Lake Michigan, especially in February, compared with our rather comfortable lifestyles in quaint bungalows, roomy brownstones and swanky high rises. And our daily commute, while seemingly challenging in a 21st century perspective, is downright glamorous in comparison. Unlike du Sable, we have access to trains, cars, Gore Tex jackets and boots, aspirin, penicillin, hospitals, paved roads, GPS, and DVD players in the back seat for toddlers—and there are far fewer outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever today.

Du Sable lived alongside the banks of the Chicago River where the Michigan Avenue Bridge is now located. Most likely his commute required a horse, good shoes and a homemade canoe. This last part of the commute, i.e. the canoe, I can actually appreciate. Three years ago my friend Dave, an FBI pilot and ex-Top Gun aviator (yes, that Top Gun), and I paddled his canoe approximately thirteen miles, from Evanston south to Dick’s Last Resort in downtown Chicago. Okay, so our canoe trip was slightly different than du Sable’s daily grind. Anyway, our trip was still an adventure of sorts.

On a hot summer day in 2007 Dave and I packed sandwiches, a can of Pringles, and a 12-pack of original Coors in a dry-bag and we loaded up his canoe at the Oakton Street landing of the Chicago River Sanitary Canal (a.k.a. the North Shore Channel), which runs south from Wilmette toward the north branch of the Chicago River. During the first couple miles through Evanston and Rogers Park, on the far north side of Chicago, we saw an abundance of turtles, cranes and unusually exotic wildlife considering we were passing through an urban jungle better known for street gangs and pawn shops. By the time we paddled south through Ravenswood and Roscoe Village, near the confluence of the Sanitary Canal and the north branch of the Chicago River, the wildlife was all but gone. Water quality grew poorer and poorer until we reached Webster Ave in west Lincoln Park, where an old tire factory deposited foul smelling chemicals into the murky, brown water, which looked about as clean as the Gulf Coast following the BP oil spill. Thereafter we tried to avoid touching the grimy, bubbling water for fear that exposure would almost certainly lead to sterility and the possible loss of an appendage or two.

Farther south, as we paddled past the west border of Goose Island, the man-made, corrugated steel riverbanks grew taller—as did the buildings—and we began to feel slightly more exposed and claustrophobic in the deep, urban canyon. Fortunately we had each imbibed about five beers and were feeling rather robust and Hemingwayesque. At the fork we turned east toward the locks leading into Lake Michigan and we began to weave in between huge boats loaded with tourists learning about Chicago's architecture. When they looked down upon us they looked equally surprised and jealous.

We paddled beneath several drawbridges and stopped at the Trump Tower, which at the time was just a construction site eight stories tall. My friend Dave chatted up the curious construction crew who found our canoe rather quaint. A hundred yards or so farther east, just past the Michigan Avenue Bridge, near the site of du Sable’s home, we drank a toast to good ole’ Jean Baptiste. And we wondered why he chose to build his home in this Godforsaken climate along the banks of a middling river in the middle of a murky swamp. And then we drank another toast to du Sable for good measure.

A few yards beyond the Michigan Avenue Bridge we came upon three kayakers. One of the kayakers—who we later learned was the head football coach at Carleton College—offered to pay our docking fee at Dick's if we would pass him one of our two remaining beers. We obliged him and we all paddled east toward the locks then north toward a small tributary that ends at Dick's Last Resort, a cheesy watering hole. After 13 miles and nearly as many beers between us, we considered paddling back north to Evanston for all of 1/1000th of a second—and then we decided to call Dave's wife Jane and ask her to pick us up. (It was an excellent decision as we were in no condition to paddle another 13 miles much less 13 feet, especially after a couple more beers at Dick’s with our new friends.)

As we paddled deep into the urban canyon along the Chicago River, I reflected on the differences between our view and that of ole' Jean Baptiste more than 225 years ago. He would be utterly bewildered by the changes. Not only is the landscape entirely composed of man-made objects of staggering size and occasional beauty and grandeur, but the river actually flows in a different direction. In 1900, after several deadly epidemics of cholera and typhoid fever caused by locals dumping human waste into the river—which flowed into Lake Michigan, the source of the city's drinking water—engineers figured out how to reverse the flow. (Incidentally, they’re considering reversing the flow again to keep the menacing Asian Carp, a.k.a. Kentucky Tuna, out of the Great Lakes.) Only a few spots anywhere along the river or lakefront look remotely as they did when du Sable roamed these swampy parts. At least Chicago has retained miles of parks and open space along the lakefront, unlike so many American cities that have sullied pretty views with freeways and massive developments.

"Next Stop, Ogilvie Transportation Center"

Back on the Metra, as my train approaches the Loop, I gather my wet belongings and prepare to exit. As I depart the train and begin moving toward the Ogilvie Transportation Center vestibule down a long corridor between my train and another that just arrived from the northwest suburbs, I scan the hundreds of bobbing heads in front of me walking in near unison through a narrow corridor toward the station and experience a curious sensation. The cluster of bobble-head commuters remind me of a herd of cattle meandering through a chute or cattle run, masticating on sesame bagels and Dunkin' Donuts instead of grass and hay, on their collective way to myriad destinations in the Loop.

(N.B. Ironically, the cattle industry has connected Chicago to North Texas—specifically Fort Worth, my hometown’s sister city to the west—for more than a century. When the railroads were extended to the west and southwest around 1900, cattle from Denver, Kansas City, Wichita and Fort Worth ended up in the stockyards and meatpacking plants of Chicago. In fact, the introduction of railroads coupled with Chicago’s stockyards and meatpacking plants helped to create the famous Fort Worth Stockyards, which was incorporated by businessmen from Chicago and Boston. Thus, the history of Chicago and North Texas will be forever linked by America’s appetite for beef.)

If I close my eyes for just a second I can almost hear these workaday drones mooing as they hoof it out of the station. Like cattle ambulating toward a watering hole this herd of humanity heads collectively to the nearest Starbucks for their morning dose of legal, addictive stimulants. (Don’t you just love how Texpats can always find a way to relate all their experiences in some way to the homeland?)

Coming Soon: Part 7.5, A Collection of My Favorite Public Transportation Stories and Anecdotes


  1. Enjoyable article as always, Dave...and you can consider cursing me even more now that you can replace "successful patent attorney" with "retired patent attorney" as of last week. I'll likely have to leave the house more (though certainly not any sort of commute) for my new full time gig of being a landscape photographer and customer printer. ( for the curious)

    -Jim Nickelson

  2. Wow! Good for you, Jim! Can't wait to check out your photos on the website.


  3. I feel your commuter pain Dave and appreciate the funny spin you've put on it. Also - nice shout out to du Sable.