The first time I was a full-on commuter to the City of Chicago I was just twenty-one years old. I was also naive and a bit frightened to be working downtown. Our family had not made many journeys from the far suburbs to the City of Chicago during my teen years. Just some trips in the company of family to the Museum of Science and Industry, the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium.
So commuting was different. I was on my own. Traveling on the Metra east to Chicago took us through increasingly urban areas. It was like rolling through a core sample of compressed life. The closer one got to the city, the rougher it tended to look. I seriously tucked my wallet down the front of my pants the first time I rode in on the train. It was uncomfortable, but I didn’t know if I’d get robbed.
I should have known better really. After all, I’d traveled in and out of Chicago, even to the inner city housing projects in my prior job as an admissions counselor for my alma mater, Luther College. We recruited young people from all over the city. Some had never been out to Iowa before. It scared them to think of making that change. That goes to show that what we fear is truly relative to our existence.
Which made today’s Metra train ride that much more interesting for me today. The early 1980s are now a long time ago. I clearly recall how bummed out (back then) I felt that commuting took so much time out of my day. There were times when I lamented my entire existence because there did not seem to be enough time to get my daily run done.
I had my own place by then, renting a coach house where my party friends liked to come drink. Some went out to smoke pot out in the alley. We’d stay out too late and I’d get up too early to run the next morning and be so tired riding the train into the city that I’d fall asleep on my own coat.
That was the plan in those days. Burn the damned candle at both ends until it couldn’t burn anymore. Then we’d get sick, spend two weeks recovering from a cold (or worse) and start the whole cycle over again. We were stupid, horny kids with too much energy and not enough time.
I commuted full time again in the late 1990s working for an interim staffing firm that had promised me they’d train me for two weeks at the office in the Hancock building and then I’d be able to work out of my home and only visit the office once a week to enter my calls and such. But those promises never came true and I wound up having to commute almost every day to the office. It took two hours one way, in and out by car and train. The company never did get its external email and database system set up and that meant I had to leave by 5:45 in the morning and didn’t get home until 6:30-7:30 at night. I toughed it out until the company saw the foolishness of its own ways and the whole thing fell through.
I was miserable up until the moment they let me go. I recall sitting out on the short cement walls facing north toward Oak Street Beach on Michigan Avenue. I was just crying my eyes out, wondering why the break I’d so eagerly hoped for had fallen through. It had all sounded so good at the start. If it had worked out like they promised, I would have been making calls in the suburbs and could have gotten up each day to run before work. That always set my head straight and helped me overcome my anxious nature, especially in the face of sales pressures.
Before it all ended I got a stress headache so bad the vision in my one eye shut down. Optical migraine, the doctor told me. Stress induced. I sat there thinking that my world had come to an end.
Of course it hadn’t. Not long after leaving that job I landed a better position with a newspaper and loved my work. I commuted by car those seven years and didn’t really miss the City of Chicago all that much. I’d come to appreciate that the world actually doesn’t revolve around those people in the city. And while they liked to pretend they knew more than the rest of us, I’d seen behind the scenes enough to know that wasn’t true. To some degree, everyone in this goddamned world is faking it one way or another.
I suppose as we age our worlds tend to close in a little on us. Some people get fearful (again) of things like trips to the “big city.” Today’s commute downtown to a real estate conference and back mostly made me realize how many naive notions and bad self-perceptions I’ve (had to) overcome through the years. One important thing still remains the same. I still like to get home and run or ride or swim.
So I visited the pool after work and plunged into the water with images of the City of Chicago still rattling through my brain. It’s funny what we carry around inside these noggins sometimes, and for how long.
For how long.