Anita Mechler: Taking the Train

I’ve been looking forward to a break from the monotony of my life. I remember when I first moved here, how excited I was take a train that ran underground. It’s easy to tell who is a tourist because they are so wide-eyed, so aware and barely able to contain their reactions to the newness of the experience. I know how they feel but now, the dirty tiles and the crumbling plaster fill me with a sense of resignation.


I can move quickly without too much thought or attention to signage, which connections to take, which exit to use. I remember how disoriented I was those first few years when I’d get off the train, not quite understanding where the street lined up with the underground. I would pop up from below at some unrecognizable corner and have to take a few beats to look around for a familiar landmark to get back on track. When a family friend wanted me to meet her for dinner and asked if I felt comfortable transferring from the red line to the brown line, I was utterly terrified of doing it wrong. Thinking back on that makes me laugh because I have since taken trains in places like New York, Paris, Mexico City, where the lines spread out across the city like a spiderweb, not simplified like the 5-line primary-color-coded maps we have in Chicago. It is a simple transfer, but it didn’t seem like one then. Back then, I could ride the lines for 20+ stops without hesitation, but my circuit of travel can gather itself so closely that anything more than 20 minutes is a slog and avoided at all costs.


The city has been wearing on me. I have begun to notice things on a micro level: the smell of people, their unwashed teeth, their overly fragrant laundry detergent. The jostles from other passengers and the herky jerky driving has started to feel personal. I feel invisible in a way that is new. I feel alone and like a stranger. Far too often, we humans have turned off our humanity in this public setting. We feel hidden behind our earbuds and smart phones and supposed city anonymity. Common courtesy is no longer the order of the day. We care only about getting to our destination faster than any other passenger (even though we are in the same vehicle), about our own comfort without a concern for other’s, about our property taking up more space than another person’s body. I understand some of this, riding with other strangers is uncomfortable most of the time, but it doesn’t have to be.


There can be more humanizing moments that will happen unexpectedly and sometimes on a day when you might really need it: friendly glances with half-hidden smile or a look of recognition. These moments acknowledge that we are all in it together, that this is a shared space with every meaning of that phrase. We can be alone in our own worlds, but not isolated. We can still smile unintrusively across the aisle at our fellow human without needing to speak. Other times it’s enough to escape into the warmth of a carriage from the bone-chilling cold outside and take in the view of the lake, almost sea-worthy, dotted with white sails under a baby blue sky punctuated by careless white clouds.


Chicago trainline
Photo credit


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