Hall Passes for Grown-Ups

Remember hall passes from high school? The bearer was entitled to a few fleeting moments of freedom during class time, usually to use the restroom or retrieve something from a far-away locker. Some teachers had simple slips of paper – ostensible golden tickets – but others tried to make some point by scrawling “HALL PASS” on a 2×4 or hubcap. Regardless, that token was like a get out of jail free card, letting you slip into the forbidden, delicious quiet of the empty hallways while everyone else was slouched at their desks.

A grown-up golden ticket

When inbound Metra trains are delayed during the morning rush hour, they print the grown-up equivalent of hall passes. These slips of paper, which always include the current date and one of several pat excuses (track construction, signal trouble, freight train interference, or, the most ominous, “pedestrian incident”) are available as you leave the platform.

I know some people need these hall passes to excuse their tardiness, especially when the delays are lengthy. The “pedestrian incident” delays can stretch an hour or longer, depending on circumstances. But some of the track construction or signal problems are relatively short – just 10 or 15 minutes. I haven’t figured out what the tipping point to generate an excuse note is. Must a delay be more than 10 minutes? 8? 12?

There’s a certain feeling of freedom that comes with arriving downtown at a different time. Metra so regiments suburban commuters’ lives – you live and die by the time tables, adjusting work schedules, meetings and social engagements to catch the most optimal train – that on the rare occasion when you arrive off schedule, it feels very odd.

When you arrive at exactly the same time as every other day, you’re walking among the same crowd, at the same pace, watching the same people duck into the same coffee shops. The crowd has a cadence, a rhythm that is familiar to the daily commuters. But arriving fifteen minutes later upsets that delicate routine.

Inevitably, it’s on these days – when my train was late and I’m scrambling to get to the office  – that I run into someone from a past life. A high school classmate I haven’t given a second thought to since graduation or a college confidante who has drifted away will suddenly cross my path. Of course I stop and say hello, exchanging hugs and email addresses, thrilled to run into a blast from the past.

And then I wonder – who else is roaming the streets of the Loop in the early mornings, just slightly earlier or later than my normal train?

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