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Things I learned on the train

John Sandberg | Wednesday, January 18, 2012


I’m not good at going places.  

Ever since the nightmarish day when I became lost in my own neighborhood, messed up my bike’s handlebars and came home in tears, those who know me best are aware that when I leave the house I’ll probably become lost somewhere along the way. It scares them even more when I’m not in my home state of Colorado, where I can always count on finding my direction thanks to the westward mountains. (They tell me there are no mountains in this part of the country.) This fact doesn’t worry me as much as it frightens those I live with. 

Last week, en route from crisp Colorado to the practically balmy South Bend, I took on Chicago’s L and the South Shore Line. I was in need of some fun after all, and the never-ending escapade that is the Coach USA airport shuttle ain’t no Chuck E. Cheese. And I’m proud to say that I arrived here safely, without one hiccup, scar, broken handlebar or tear shed. Not only did I execute my mission flawlessly, but I observed some fascinating things along the way. 

First, I learned that no matter which one of your parents claims to be “bad at texting,” he or she will manage to push the right buttons on the cell phone enough times when he or she knows you are alone, in America’s third largest city, for the first time, trying to master its complex public transportation system, while there’s snow on the ground. 

Sitting at Millennium Station in Chicago, I learned that the idea of romance’s burning flame becoming weaker with time is all a myth — just ask the grey-haired, leather pants-clad couple sitting in the seats across from me. Their lengthy goodbye was quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Heart-warming as it may sound, let me just say: it wasn’t. Rather than thinking, “Oh, good for them,” my head was filled with a steady stream of “Are you even allowed to say that at that age?” 

I was pleased to see that, although “Tebow Mania” reaches its feverish peak in Denver, inscriptions of ‘John 3:16′ still find ways to make it across the country, with or without the originator of the “Jump Pass” sporting it on his eye black. Not that I have anything against Tebow, I simply think that even he would be surprised to see it gracing the side of a lady’s shopping bag in downtown Chicago.  

I learned that, despite the GOP commanding every headline and having its presidential candidates debate every 11 hours, one flamboyant woman is still loud and proud about the fact that Barack Obama won in 2008. What impressed me was that, however you might feel about the President, I don’t remember any other having a three year long victory celebration. So if you’re ever feeling down in the dumps about lackluster approval ratings or an uncooperative Congress, Mr. President, I suggest you take the train like I did. You’ll love what they’re saying about you there. 

I watched this same loud woman master the train like me — except she was doing it with her three sugar-crazed kids running circles around her the whole time. The loud conversations, occasional tantrums and incessant question asking, annoying at first, soon became a lesson in patience, parenthood and love.  

I learned that riding the train in the winter is much cooler than riding it in the summer, especially after you’ve seen the Polar Express.    

I was assured that, of all the lessons taught in grade school, the most important one for traveling is and always will be, ‘It’s not polite to stare.’ 

I learned that if you’re carrying a heavy bag, people love to remind you, “That’s a heavy looking bag!” every chance they get. 

It may seem to be common sense that you should not yell at strangers in public, but I learned that this is not absolute. One nice gentleman, whose name I never caught, taught me by example that it’s perfectly acceptable to yell at a stranger if she is an elderly Polish speaking woman who mistakenly cuts the ticket line at the Metra station. Then, by all means, make a scene. Some other elementary lessons about mole hills and spilled milk sounded vaguely familiar at the time, but I still can’t figure out why…. 

Politics, love, religion and the art of communication, all among the many things I learned in a few hours on the train. And I did it all without the aid of the westward mountains. 


John is a sophomore English major from Littleton, Colo. He is a fan of the Chicago Cubs, Dave Matthews Band and good Mexican food. He can be reached at [email protected]

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