I am one of 40 Northwestern students from the Rock Climbing Club who cram into one car of the CTA Purple Line on a Friday afternoon, traveling from Noyes to Howard. We inexperienced CTA-riders converge toward one door, causing a voice to bark over the intercom: “Use all available doors! I repeat: Use all available doors!” We disembark at Howard, only to hear another gravelly voice announce over the sound system: “Due to a medical emergency, service on the Purple and Red Lines has been temporarily suspended. Shuttles to the next station have been requested. Please consider seeking alternative modes of transportation at this time. We apologize for any inconvenience.”
Our group emerges with the rush of other stranded passengers into the bus loading zone. Sure enough, the shuttle buses await, but throngs of people already crowd the area. Bizarrely, it reminds me of passenger jets leaving crowded runways in Kabul a year and a half ago, people desperately clinging to wheels retracting into the underbellies of planes. Several were crushed or fell to their deaths. Their bodies crashing through the roofs of buildings sounded like bombs.
We hop the steel railing separating the two bus pickup lanes, a whole line of us darting to a newly arrived shuttle. We surge toward the door in a misshapen line, people cramming the bus till the doors can barely close. I hear one woman’s muffled cry of protest all the way in the back, “There’s too many people on this bus!”
The whole situation is surreal, like a zombie apocalypse without zombies. Grit and chaos. Dirt and grime. Buses crammed far past legal capacity. The forlorn look on people’s faces as we pull up to bus stops, unable to take them on board and out of the cold. I know this public transit hiccup is nothing compared to the lived terror of people in Kabul that August, but my imagination is jittery and hyperactive, like when I watch a riveting action movie. Except this time, I’m in the movie. The notion that I’m a character in a fast-paced action sequence tickles my fancy – a further reminder that the stakes of my pseudo-apocalypse are extremely low.
I cling to the metal rail, bracing myself for the relentless stop-and-go motion of the bus. We are packed in the bus shoulder to shoulder, poised to eventually topple like dominoes. If this isn’t already illegal, it should be doubly so in a post-pandemic world. So many people in close quarters, touching the same safety rails and handholds. My left hand feels contaminated with other people’s invisible fingerprints after coming into contact with the cold metal. (Like the first time I went to Costco with my father after lockdown had just begun: I was so afraid to touch anything with my latex-gloved hands because I didn’t want to handle the food we were buying after coming into contact with something unclean.) After a while, without thinking, I switch my grip to my right hand. Now both my hands are contaminated.
At one stop, a man squeezes his way past the closing hydraulic doors and presses his way into the increasingly indistinguishable mass of bodies on the bus. I can taste the cigarette smoke on his breath. That’s when I rummage in my purse for the floral-patterned cloth mask I made with my aunt in the first few weeks of the pandemic – a relic from the period when she shifted gears from creating designer purses to designer fabric masks. I hold it over my face and finally let out the breath I’ve been holding while I tie the cords behind my head. Probably too little too late. I am sure I’ve already come into contact with all sorts of pathogens, and the mask barely stops me from gagging on the cloying taste of cigarette smoke that has lodged itself in my throat.
With my backpack, I take up the space of two people. I can’t help but feel guilty about that, but I still take some comfort in the fact that it forms a buffer between me and the people behind me. At the same time, I feel uneasy: The outermost pockets of my backpack are exposed, out of my sight and out of my reach. I take a quick mental inventory of what is in those pockets. A phone charger. Crumpled tissues. Bandaids. Hand sanitizer. Nothing too valuable. I keep my hand in my brown embroidered crossbody purse, fingers wrapped protectively around my phone and wallet.
I stand with my back to most of the kids from my group, scrolling anxiously through Google Maps on my phone to find a connecting bus to Union Station as the miles and minutes snake by. I don’t know the bus’ destination, how much longer we have left, or how far it will be from there to the climbing gym. Several times, I almost pull the cord or get out of the bus when it reaches a stop. Each time, I hesitate, afraid to leave the security of our group and step out onto unfamiliar streets.
After an hour, I decide there is no point in soldiering ahead to the gym. I’ll have no time to climb if I want to catch the 7:40 p.m. train. At the next stop, I hoist my bag onto my back again (I took it off to give my shoulders a break, and so I could keep an eye on all of its zippered pockets), take a deep breath and step out into the chill evening. I pull off my mask and welcome the fresh air into my lungs. After consulting Google Maps, I realize I am already where I need to be for my bus to Union Station. I stand a few feet behind the man in front of me whose thumbs peck at his phone while he leans casually on the post that marks this corner as a bus stop for CTA Route 8.
The bus arrives on time, refreshingly empty. I sit down for the first time in an hour, but I still find myself perched on the edge of my seat. I crane my head into the aisle so that I can glimpse the name of each street we pass as it becomes more and more difficult to discern the white block letters against green in the gathering darkness. The reflections of the interior of the bus are decoys against the glass that trick my eyes and obstruct my view.
My Google Maps use for the past two and a half hours has exhausted my phone’s battery. It clings to the last 18%. I try to memorize my route to Union Station in case it dies on me. Once I am outside again, the cold air won’t do my phone battery any favors.
After forty minutes of furtive people-watching and squinting at dimly lit street names, I get off on Jackson, walk back a block to Adams, realize that the highway overpass is blocked, speed walk to Jackson again, follow the detour signs and finally make it back onto Adams. A few blocks later, I cross a bridge over the Chicago River, and Union Station, stately as ever, comes into view. The block letters on the limestone facade and the massive Corinthian columns are lit from below.
The thrill of entering Union Station’s cavernous atrium never wears off. Immediately, the stress of making it here on time despite the turtle crawl of CTA buses and Chicago traffic sloughs off like snakeskin. Of course, I still run the risk of missing my train by taking a long moment to gape at the soaring ceiling and stately benches. Always so empty, like a way station for ghosts. Today there are a few homeless men and women, huddled here for warmth.
Finally. It’s a straight shot from Union Station to home.
Memories that aren’t mine flood my mind. King’s Cross Station. Platform Nine and Three Quarters. A London subway station turned gateway to Narnia.
Memories that are mine shove their way past the rush of fantasy daydreams. My mother with me and three younger siblings in tow, arriving after an eight hour Amtrak ride from Dearborn, here to visit my grandmother. Those images imprinted on my 7-year-old self so strongly that they still haunt my dreams. In a good way.
Sleepy hours spent coloring with oversize crayons that only came in four colors. Building LEGO towers with some other kids our age in the handicap space at the front of the train car.
The train stopped once because a car was stuck on the tracks. After an hour passed, the mother of the other kids we were playing with stood and walked down the length of the train, crossing from car to car in order to track down some snacks to forestall any restlessness on our part. I can’t remember if she was successful, or what she came back with. Salted peanuts? Crackers? Energy bars? Hot chocolate?
After the train ride, I’m sure we kids were groggy, probably cranky, all of us taking turns to use the bathroom while my mother managed the suitcases that didn’t make it into my memories. Somehow we made our way to the right exit where my uncle waited to pick us up. Gray Honda Odyssey. Even after my aunt dozed on the wheel and drove into a concrete barrier, totalling the car, they got another gray Honda Odyssey. One of those permanent impermanent fixtures in my life.
Here, my memories dissolve into shadowy incoherence. Long dark car ride to my grandmother’s house in the suburbs. Unload the luggage, say our overdue prayers and go to sleep.
This is where dreams supply the rest of the details.
Night after night, I find myself in dreamscapes that are achingly familiar, yet upon waking, I can never pinpoint the origin of that déjà vu. I don’t know if these repeating images are from my own memories or memories of movies I have watched or memories of previous dreams or a fusion of all of the above. The Pevensie kids traveling from war-torn London to the English countryside, accompanied by haunting music and sweeping vistas. Harry and Ron feasting on Chocolate Frogs and Chocolate Cauldrons and Every Flavor Beans and Pumpkin Pasties before they are rudely interrupted by Malfoy. The opening motif of every Downton Abbey episode as a train pulls into the Yorkshire station, ushering in an era of change. Murder on the Orient Express with its oak-paneled walls and first class service and luxurious dining and sleeper cars.
I hadn’t ridden in a sleeper car until this past summer, in Iran, when I was traveling with friends from Mashhad to Tehran. Upon entering our compartment, we eagerly rifled through the amenity kits and browsed the movie selection on the TV screens. We took turns interpreting the diagram explaining how to pull down the top bunk platforms and marveled at the way the food trays folded up, turning four seats into two beds. Every little thing was a novelty. Soon the car attendant came around, knocking on the frosted glass compartment door. He offered us a tray of multi-colored sherbets in clear plastic cups, ranging from rose pink to mint green. We sipped them curiously, not sure what to expect. One tasted like rosewater, another like saffron, a third like mouthwash. A little while later, he came around again with dinner. I still rave about that little tray of lamb and rice, salad with ranch and an airy bun with some sort of cream cheese dip. Our favorite Farsi reciter’s stirring voice played on my friend’s phone as we transitioned from eating and exploring to sleeping. We found our bedding in the overhead compartment and made our beds, fluffed up the compressed pillows and spread out the white sheets and plaid covers. One of my friends had already fallen asleep in her seat, and I gently tucked a blanket around her shoulders. I slept the whole night on my pull-down bunk and woke up in a dream. Standing outside my compartment in the corridor, I welcomed the red-orange sunlight flooding the red-orange rocky landscape. This is real, I had to remind myself. I am awake and this is real.
I exhale in relief, though I really shouldn’t be so winded from a brisk walk. On second thought, given that the walk from the bus stop was only the last leg of my long journey, maybe I have the right to be winded. Still, it’s not like the time my family and our visiting friends had to sprint from the Willis Tower SkyDeck to Union Station, nine kids between both of our families, a third of them under the age of 9. I remember urging our caravan across an intersection as the orange hand of the traffic signal pulsed 3, 2, 1, saying “Go, go, go!” as I brought up the rear. Just like in the movies. “Go, go, go!” I laughed in spite of myself, breathless as I was, grinning from ear to ear.
I haven’t had to race to the station like that in a while (except maybe once or twice). But never have I arrived at Union Station with so much time to spare that I can sit on one of those gleaming wooden benches and simply experience the emptiness and immensity of that atrium that seems to muffle, if not entirely swallow all sound.
Tonight, on the train, everyone, including myself, has cordoned themselves off with their bags and laptops, hunkered down for the long ride. Usually, this is the time I doze off and slip into that dream space to which trains and train stations beckon me. Today, however, the spurts of adrenaline that sustained me all afternoon have not yet subsided. My eyes appraise every person who enters or exits the train car during the few minutes that remain before our scheduled departure. The man across the aisle is buried in what appears to be a glorified version of a motorcycle manual. The man in front of me has barricaded himself in the space he has claimed – four seats facing each other, two rows of two – with two backpacks and two laptops and a hefty set of headphones. Only once I show the conductor my ticket and the train slowly begins to gather speed do I slip my fleece jacket off my shoulders, extract a notebook from my backpack and begin to write.