Friday was my last day as a Metra commuter. When I bought my house, I drew a one mile radius from the three Elgin train stations. My goal was to live within a mile – easy walking distance – of a train to ease my commute downtown as much as possible.
After living in Chicago for seven years, moving to the farthest reach of the suburbs was a shock to the system. My commute grew to an average of about 80 minutes – ten minute walk from the house to the train, 60 minutes on the express train, and about a ten minute walk to the office downtown. Another 25 minutes could easily be tacked on if I deigned to work late or go out after work, stranding me on a non-express train, watching the freight trains breeze past.
I learned a lot from my train commuter days, though. The train becomes almost like family, in a way, with the same characters sitting in the same seats five days a week. You learn the rhythms of the train, the cadence of the conductors and what it means when you slow down through Franklin Park. In November, you pass the Ringling Brothers’ circus train, nearly a mile long, parked just west of the city. In the dead of dark winter evenings, the strategically set fires light the night like fireworks, keeping the switches from freezing. Passing just south of O’Hare, there’s a steady stream of planes landing and taking off – you can see them queued up for miles off toward the horizon.
You learn that if you typically finish the main news section of the Chicago Tribune around Itasca, though on Mondays and Tuesday, it may be as soon as Schaumburg. By Friday, when the paper is larger, the Elgin Courier may not get read until the train ride home. Occasionally there would be entire weeks where nothing sounded appealing, so I’d do the crossword puzzle and Sudoku from the morning papers. If I had work to do – especially editing – I’d tackle it on the way home, since working on an express train was preferable to staying late at the office and then taking a slower milk train home.
At first, entertaining yourself for the commute is almost fun. Finally, a chance to read, uninterrupted, every single weekday! I got into the very comfortable routine of bringing coffee and reading both newspapers in the morning. In the evenings, I would usually read for pleasure, either a novel or magazine (National Review or Verbatim). Over time, though, I would grow antsy with the sheer length of the commute, especially when nice weather beckoned. In winter, it didn’t seem to bother me as much, since regardless of when I got home, it was cold, dark and miserable. In summer, though, with beautiful sunshine rapidly diminishing, I couldn’t wait to get home, and the train would seem to creep through suburb after suburb.
Overall, I like Metra. It’s clean, safe, relatively quiet and usually on time. Since I live out in the boondocks, I always got a seat in the morning, often on the upper deck where I could sit in a single seat and spread out with my newspapers. Coming home, especially lately since gas prices have been rocketing up, it’s been increasingly difficult to get a seat, but leaving work five minutes earlier helped.
Plus, my years commuting fueled my first (and thus far only) novel, Commuter Shoes. It was written for National Novel Writing Month in 2006 and comprises a series of vignettes about fictionalized characters I saw on my daily commute. The title comes from my observation that suburban women who commute to the city often have a pair or two of commuter shoes that they reserve for the trip, carrying dress shoes with them or having a stockpile at the office to change into. Commuter shoes are often tennis shoes or the newish athliesure shoes, allowing comfortable walking and the occasional sprint to the train. I recently had a whopping eleven pairs of shoes under my desk at work.
But over time, I was nagged by a voice in my head, whining, “Are we there yet?” I never really slept on the train, always afraid I’d sleep past my stop. But I’d stare out the window in bored exhaustion from my day, anxious to just be home.
As I hunted for a new job, I pondered whether I wanted to stay downtown and remain a Metra girl, or if I wanted to be driving distance. I ended up finding one in Schaumburg, about a 35 minute drive from home. I accepted the offer, hoping that the drive wouldn’t hurt. There appear to be a different possibilities for routing myself that I’ll have to explore and time. Even though it will likely be relatively heavy traffic – as it was the morning I interviewed and clocked the drive at 35 minutes – I’ll still be home sooner in the evening and leave later in the morning. And that’s appealing to me. I envision going to more City Council meetings, finally joining the book club at the library I’ve eyed for the last year and doing more with my evenings without having to dash out of work early or plan ahead and work from home.
I would commute on Metra again, but maybe not from the far reaches of a line. If I could afford to live closer to Chicago and could buy a place near one of the closer stations – say no farther than zone D (vs H, as Elgin is), that might be okay. But for now, I hope I’ve made the right choice.
We shall see. The driving era begins Monday.