Spare me your gripes about the El. I know: It’s uncomfortable, it’s crowded, it’s slow. That rickety metal carriage easily draws and quarters your fun Chicago day trip—lengthening it with such dolorous tension that you can hear your trip’s limbs crack and snap as they’re torn in opposing directions. If you want to get anywhere on the CTA’s homage to early 20th century transportation, you must plan hours in advance. Even then, you’ll surely encounter a few unexpected and unexplained halts.
But why not turn delay into art? Next time you have to take the train somewhere, bring a notebook and a few pens. Get started on that anthology of short stories you’ve been planning to write—you’ve finally got the time.
Early last week, I sought to test the El’s capacity for inspiration. The prospect of penning a masterpiece on the train thrilled me. It had romance and quixotism: the introspective author, isolated from the vast human crowd that surrounds him, fervently scratches groundbreaking prose into a frayed journal as he commutes cheaply across the city. I wanted to be that author—or at least to use a long train ride to get some homework done.
Unfortunately, reality conspired against me. The El not only confounded me in my attempt at fiction, but also distracted me from writing this review.
I boarded the El at Davis at 7:50 a.m., express-bound for the Loop and hoping to find my Muse on the train sometime before I reached Belmont. Almost immediately, the train hypnotized me. It seemed like a sleepy haze had both muted the passengers and distorted my vision, smudging the flesh of faces into the yellow light and the brown walls. I wallowed in a blurry stew of dull yellow-brown. The passengers were sleepy, quiet, and—if anything like me—had just begun wishing they were somewhere else.
It didn’t help that there was no way to comfortably look around. I raised my eyes from my notebook and encountered awkward stares and dissatisfied glances everywhere. It’s tough to watch people on the El without feeling that you’re burgling their final scrap of personal space. I was content to stare out the window, watching the buildings grow taller and increasingly phallic as we approached the Loop.
Somewhere before Merchandise Mart I excreted the first sentences of a short story I’d been planning to write. I stopped when I realized that they were almost identical to the opening scene of Stranger than Fiction. My eyes returned to the window. Fail.
The train reached the Loop by 8:30 a.m. Here the mood changed. The commute’s oppressive miasma escaped the train’s open doors, and a rustling of relieved expectation erupted as passengers readied themselves to depart. Each person who exited the train left something very important behind: space. Finally, with space to put my feet up on the “reserved for senior citizens” seats, I was able to think.
The ride back north was markedly more interesting. A flustered family of four burst onto the train somewhere in the Loop, asking (in fractured English) if it would take them to Davis. A bald man with monumentally crevassed jowls sat across from me, wearing vibrant red glasses I imagined he’d stolen from Tom Daschle. Another man with well-oiled red hair hopped on the train and proceeded to get dressed at the far end. Things were looking up.
However, when we arrived at Davis at 9:23 a.m., I still hadn’t written any more of my story. It was just too hard to sit on the El and not think like a commuter—never focused on the immediate moment, always dreaming of the destination. I couldn’t prevent myself from treating the ride as an unfortunate segue to something else, the next step.
In the commuter-mind, existence powers down when you board the train and reboots when you leave. What happens in between is just static.
So good luck with your masterpiece. You might be able to get some course reading out of the way on the El, assuming the train’s halt-and-jerk mechanics don’t foment motion sickness. But I wouldn’t recommend writing…or thinking.
Menu: B- (bring food with you)
Coffee: C (Dunkin’Donuts)