Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Day Off Diary

If you can generate any empathy for what excites a rail travel geek, read on. If not, you may want to skim...or skip it entirely.

It is my custom, as an exercise in wanton self-indulgence, to take two entire days off in the week following Easter. Alas, a scheduled Vestry meeting means I have to get back under the yoke this evening, a few hours early. But yesterday I did continue a hallowed habit of making a post-Easter day trip by rail to the nearest large urban area--in this case, Chicago--not so much for the purpose of accomplishing anything in particular at the destination itself, but for the experience of getting there, and getting around there, and getting home, all with a minimum of automobile travel.

In my previous incarnation as a Californian, I lived within walking distance (a mile and a fraction) of two train stations, so I was able to have a 100% car-free day. One year I took the Altamont Commuter Express from Stockton to San Jose, walking around downtown San Jose for a while, then boarded the local light rail system and rode it Mountain View, where I caught a ride on CalTrain to downtown San Francisco, where I rode the MUNI subway-cum-streetcar to Ocean Beach and back, and after nosing around the Union Square area for a while, hopped on a BART train to Richmond, where I transferred to Amtrak back to Stockton, and walked home--all in the space of just over twelve hours.

I am told that there was a day--many decades ago--when the South Shore Electric had a spur down from South Bend to Winona Lake, right next door to Warsaw. And as recently as ten or fifteen years ago, Warsaw was a stop on an Amtrak route. In these latter days, however, I had to drive some 55 miles to the terminus of the South Shore Electric, which is now located at South Bend Regional Airport. (This lacks the romance of an old downtown depot, but it's very convenient from a parking standpoint.) Due to some poor planning, compensated for by some fast driving, I caught the 8:55 departure (the last one of the morning) with maybe a second or two to spare; the train was moving before I found a seat.

It was also more crowded than I would have imagined. A few within eyeshot had large bags, indicating that they were perhaps traveling to Chicago to catch a plane, or maybe another train. In my immediate vicinity were several high school-age young people--animated but considerately muted in the volume of their conversation. Much of the route west of South Bend goes through wooded areas, which even in their yet-wintry nakedness (spring is arriving in more fits than starts this year), obscure a view of anything but themselves. Coming into Michigan City, however, the tracks travel down the middle of a downtown street, with autos passing on either side, for a mile or two before returning to dedicated right-of-way.

The closer we got to Chicago, the more the demographics of boarding passengers changed pleasure to business. At the downtown Gary stop, the car I was in--and, one assumes, the rest of the train--was filled to capacity, and there were even a couple of standers. I know the South Shore line has had its financial problems over the years, and I know fares ($7.75 each way from South Bend) probably don't cover operating expenses, but there is certainly ample enough demand for the service.

When we reached the Hyde Park-University of Chicago station, there was a significant exodus, including the teens in my area, who were--I would guess--on a school field trip to the Museum of Science & Industry. We pulled into Millennium Station (literally underneath Millennium Park, right at the corner of Michigan and Randolph) at about five minutes past the scheduled arrival time of 10:38--about a two-hour-and-forty-five minute ride. (Before you question my math, know that we crossed from the Eastern to the Central time zone somewhere in northwest Indiana.)

I emerged onto street level hungry, but also cognizant that I was carrying an annoyingly heavy back pack filled with guitar accouterments that my son had asked that I deliver to him--although he and his wife are staying in the city at present, he is busy painting my mother's apartment in the northwest suburb of Palatine. So I hoofed it over to the METRA station--a distance of about seven blocks west down Randolph--except that I strayed a couple of blocks north, not remembering precisely where the station was located, and had to retrace my steps. Hey--part of what I had hoped would happen was the need for some aerobically-challenging walking, so it was serendipitous. I wanted to check the schedule before stopping to eat, since commuter trains in the middle of the day run at fairly sparse intervals, and I didn't want to "just miss" one. Sure enough, there was an 11:30 AM departure--just 15 minutes away--on the line that goes through Palatine, so I bought a one-way ticket ($4.75) and got on board, satisfying my hunger with one of the food bars I had in my coat pocket.

The ride from downtown Chicago to Palatine consumes the better part of an hour, and offers a rather fascinating evolution of view from "gritty" urban (tracks invariably travel through the unseemly "backyards" of businesses and home) to inner ring suburbs to more affluent outer ring suburbs, most with impressive condominium developments clustered around the METRA stations.

It's only about half a mile from the Palatine depot to my mothers apartment (in one of those impressive condominium developments), but Jordan was out and about, so he picked me up and drove me over. After looking over his painting progress, he and I and my mother went out to lunch. Then, while he got back to work, he lent me his car so I could pick up a few somewhat rare grocery and household items from Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, retail establishments that we will never be seeing set up shop in a place like Warsaw (even though, as small communities go, we have a disproportionate number of people who would actually shop in such stores). Ironically, my back pack ended up almost as heavy with these items as it was with Jordan's guitar stuff!

So then I caught the 3:25 METRA train from Palatine back toward the city, only I got off at the Irving Park station, and walked a few yards to the CTA Blue Line train. At that point, the tracks run down the median of the Kennedy Expressway (I-90/94), but soon drop underground and become a subway. I only rode for two stops (costing me $2.00--the least cost-efficient leg of my journey), emerging at the Logan Square station. The Dragonfly and I are just in the process of purchasing a condo in that neighborhood, serving the dual purpose of giving us a place to invest the modest nest egg from the sale of our home in California, and providing a place for Jordan and Angela to live (they will rent from us) during their indeterminate-length Chicago sojourn. I walked about three long blocks the wrong way down Milwaukee Avenue before realizing my error and turning around to head back past the station to North Kimball. The neighborhood was apparently once heavily Norwegian (which I infer from two old churches I encountered), but is now heavily Hispanic, though it seems quite healthy and stable. We're hoping for some modest and slow gentrification--of a sort that will not do undue violence to an already vibrant social fabric in the community.

Back to the Blue Line station now, charging a new fare card with $4.00 this time (doing a better job of thinking ahead). After Logan Square, the route surfaces and become the celebrated Chicago "L"--i.e. tracks elevated above street level. I have always enjoyed the milli-second glimpses the L affords into second and third-story windows of apartments and businesses--a veritable series of flash insights into the complexity and diversity of urban life.

I got off the L once again at the Damen Avenue stop, where the neighborhoods of Wicker Park and Bucktown converge (or overlap, depending on who you talk to). Bucktown is, to be sure, already gentrified, with very tony shops and restaurants lining its thoroughfares. I walked north on Damen about five or six blocks to say Hi to Angela, my daugter-in-law, who is employed in one of those tony shops. More aerobically-challenging walking. I knew I had to make a 7:15 South Shore departure back at Millennium Station, and it was now a little past five. So I elected not to try and find the Brazilian market on Western Avenue near Armitage and pick up some of my favorite snacks from the southern hemisphere. Instead, I ambled back down Damen to the L stop. Just as I reached the three-way intersection where Damen and Milwaukee and North Avenue come together, I heard a female voice shouting "Dan!" It was my niece Michelle, who was in a car with her husband (they live in the neighborhood), who had just picked her up from work. As they waited at a long red light, I had time to brief them on my day.

The Blue Line becomes a subway once again as it approaches downtown, paralleling Dearborn Street. I exited at the Washington Street stop, but on to Randolph, just two blocks from Millennium Station. It was only about 5:45, I had some time to kill, and I was hungry. I first went and bought my ticket for the return trip on the South Shore, then walked around the Loop seeing what might interest me food-wise. I finally settled on a Popeye's fried chicken place--a decidedly low-brow choice, I guess, but they offer a particular flavor I can't simply get whenever I want it at home, so it was at least exotic, and I enjoyed it. (It was the Country Fried Steak special, with spicy gravy, "dirty rice" and a biscuit. They were out of plastic knives, so the man behind the counter had to scrounge an actual knife from the kitchen and lend it to me--after washing it, of course.) I took off my coat to sit and eat, and discovered, to my chagrin, that my super-charged walking had resulted in a perspiration-soaked shirt--not a very attractive sight, I'm sure!

About twenty yards from the entrance to Millennium Station, I was accosted by a young man who said he was penniless, and trying to scrounge fare to South Bend. "I'm homeless as of today." I wasn't in clericals, of course, but in my line of work I go into an auto-pilot mode in such situations--part compassionate and part extremely skeptical. The two parts compromised and I gave him the five one-dollar bills I had in my wallet. If I were assured that he was telling the truth, I would have taken him to the ticket window and bought him the ticket. But I've been scammed more than once by stories much more convincing than his. It's hard to know what to do in such situations. I don't think that well on my feet, and hindsight is always 20/20.

South Shore doesn't allow boarding until twenty minutes before departure, so I was in plenty of time. There are some benches just a the head of the platforms. It's open to the air, but covered, and sheltered from the wind, so even though the air was chilly, it was not uncomfortable to sit there. A group of about six or seven teenage girls was waiting there, along with an indeterminate number of pigeons, who kept flying uncomfortably close to the girls, as if they enjoyed unnerving them. Wherever the girls moved, the pigeons found them. It was amusing.

Also amusing is the social dynamic of politely jockeying for position while waiting to board a train. For a while, everyone confined themselves to the waiting area. But then one person walked right past us and down the platform. She couldn't board, of course, but she was there. A minute or so later, another arrival did the same thing. It wasn't but a few moments before everyone (I was pretty much in the lead) migrated to the platform, distributed more or less evenly at the doors to each of the cars, even though it was the better part of ten minutes before the doors opened.

It was dark on the way home. There wasn't anything to distract me out the windows, and I quickly finished the USA Today I'd bought in Palatine. The train was packed by the time we picked up more passengers at the Van Buren Street stop, but it pretty much cleared out before we left Illinois. Whatever one can say about the seats on the South Shore Electric, they are not made for comfortable sleeping.

It was 10:46 when we arrived in South Bend--a slightly quicker trip (remember the time zone) than it was westbound. It was right at midnight when I pulled into my driveway at the Warsaw Rectory. On the whole, a day well spent, for which I am most grateful.


Anonymous said...

Reading this made B and I quite nostalgic! We are both well acquainted with all the areas you visited! What a great day! Thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

As a fellow rail enthusiast, I quite enjoyed your travelogue! I ride the Amtrak San Joaquin route between Fresno and Hanford four days a week. I love it.

Anonymous said...


What a delightful day and narrative! I love trains, too, and of course am also familiar with Chicago and those areas.

Hope your mother is doing well these days.

It was most serendipitous to encounter your niece and I can only imagine the joy of having Jordan and Angela just a drive and train ride away!

Cheers! Barb :D

susan s. said...

Interesting train ride. I might point out to you that the flavor of Popeye's chicken used to be enhanced with Lard. Not so sure anymore