I still remember the first time that I rode to Chicago on the South Shore Railroad by myself. It was 1982, my senior year in high school, and I was going downtown to be inducted into the military at the old MEP Center on Michigan Avenue.
It was also the first time that I had been away from home without a family member or a relative close by. The experience was bittersweet. I made it there in one piece and met a lot of nice people, but the military didn’t like the sound of my heart rhythm and there I was the next afternoon, riding the train back, still a civilian.
Fifteen years later, I was back on that same train without the military connection, just me and a bunch of early morning commuters.
With all the buzz about the proposed spur line from Hammond to Dyer, it would do some of us well to remember that there are an awful lot of riders who commute in and out of Chicago every day to bring income and purchasing power back into our corner of the state. That argument has been made, but few have talked about what the commute is like for those regulars.
Bear in mind that my work schedule runs from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the place that you park has a bearing on at least part of your commute.
Since I take the 5:52 a.m. train out of East Chicago, and want to be at least one of the first out of the parking lot on the way home, I set my alarm for 4:30. This allows me to get ready and avoid any issues with the freight trains coming through Hammond on a regular basis.
Finding the proper escape route and parking space, I make my way into the station and find my usual group of friends. We talk about the weather, of course, because for many of us who stand on that platform, the weather is not just casual conversation.
The train is pretty dependable in spite of our complaints, but it is not a good place for those who want to get a sound sleep. You can usually get a bit of reading in or some work on your computer if you have good concentration skills, or better still, good headphones.
I believe there are four basic types of riders - readers, sleepers, observers and talkers. I think that I fit into all four categories at various stages of the commute.
In my 17 years of riding, I have met all kinds of people, and we have helped each other out when the weather knocked out the train line or, heaven forbid, you missed your stop. We often see each other off the train and, in most cases, we don’t even know each other's name, since our exchanges are usually just a smile as we go about our business.
Others I have been riding with for almost 20 years, and we talk about books we are reading, what the garden looks like this year, or how the kids are doing. It is because of Todd, Dave, Phil, Dan, Kathy, Jan and a number of others that I don’t feel too bad about rising at 4:30 and getting home 13 hours later to start it all over again.
South Shore commuters are a hearty group, thousands and thousands of them every day. They are the real story behind the push for a new spur to Dyer.