I first accepted a job in the City of Chicago when I was twenty-one years old. I’d already worked a year as an admissions counselor traveling all over the state of Illinois, and that was rough.
So when a man named Robert Van Kampen offered me to join his newly formed investment banking firm with offices at 208 S. LaSalle Street, it was both hard to resist and an adventure in the making.
I’d hardly spent any time in the really big city growing up. The town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania where I lived from age five through twelve was not tiny, but it was no Chicago. When we moved to Illinois our family lived in a far-flung rural community named Elburn. It was surrounded by cornfields and a train line ran right through town. But back then the commuter line ended in the City of Geneva twelve miles east.
So I was a rookie that first day taking the train downtown to Chicago. I don’t know why it felt so new to me to be spending time in the city. After all, I’d worked the previous year visiting urban schools recruiting students. Nothing bad ever happened to me then.
But just in case, I tucked my wallet in the front of my pants and walked the three blocks from the train station to the office. That would be the first of many morning commutes to follow.
The part of me that loved to run and also hated the idea of having to spend two hours a day on a train. But the part of me that loved to read and write made good use of all those mornings and evenings riding the West line in and out of the city.
I worked on a book titled Admissions, a work of fiction that predicted a ton of things correctly about the world. It sagely predicted the rise of Right-wing media on AM Radio. I predicted the rise of a Right Wing political movement that I called The Mandate. It later came true in the work of Newt Gingrich, the Contract for America and the Tea Party. Years later I’m going to finally publish that book. It anticipated everything going on in America today.
That book was written longhand on yellow legal pads. I’d write entire chapters that way, and rewrite them to make edits. It would be another three years before I owned my own IBM Selectric Typewriter. But writing that book longhand taught me to be economic in my writing. That’s a lesson I haven’t always abided.
These days I’m commuting again. I’ve ridden in and out of the city so many times over the years the landmarks are part of my sub-conscious mind. So are the names of the cities announced along the way. And the dulcet tone: “Caution, the doors are about to close.”
Only once here in Illinois have I missed a stop and gone too far. But when that happened on my early commuting experience out of the City of Philadelphia, the conductor would not let me get off at the nearest stop north of the city. “You won’t come back,” he warned me.
These days I can write using my laptop and even plug it into the wall socket if I’m lucky enough to board a newer car. I still haven’t learned to recognize them from outside the train. I’m not sure anyone can.
But I kind of like it that way. If there are no sockets available in an older Metra car, I use my cell phone as a personal hotspot and write away just like I did all those years ago on legal pads. That means the commute is put to good use. It’s still a rat race some days trying to make the train going into the city. And coming back out there is always the tension of which train to catch. Many’s the time I’ve trotted across the loop at eight-minute-per-mile pace or faster trying to make the 5:27 or the 6:10. It’s all relative in the end.
I once covered the miles between the Hancock Center and Ogilvie Transportation Center in a heavy rain storm. There were also a few late nights walking from the bars to the train. Only once did I worry about being mugged. Some guy followed me all the way down Wacker, scoping me out to see if I was a legitimate target.
Obviously I kept an eye on him. Even with a few drinks in me I was ready to run as fast as I could if he approached too closely. Perhaps a few people in this world would have preferred to have a gun on them at the time. I’ve always been happy to have my feet and legs as a weapon of escape.
Taking the train in and out of the city is to be involved in a core sample of the present and past. All that urgent energy of youth and desiring to be anyplace else but on a train was perhaps not the most constructive outlook. At least with time I can appreciate the fact that not every opportunity in life means freedom.