Railroaded – People watching on the commuter trains

10 Jan

As you know, people watching is pretty much one of my most favorite activities. Anywhere you go, the show goes with you. In line at Starbucks, at the grocery store, and of course famous people watching places like the Iowa State Fair and Walmart. Who hasn’t seen the People of Walmart website? Well, riding public, whether it is the Metra rail in Chicago, or the CTA El in Chicago, the bus, the Metro in Washington DC, the NJ Transit in New York, etc. etc., is ripe ground for people watching. So, here’s a little missive on people I see on the commuter trains.

Full disclosure – this is a repost of one of my favorite little essays – I wrote it towards the end of 2010, about six months after I joined my current job, iCrossing, and was back to riding the trains every day after a nearly 10-year hiatus. I’ve made a few updates to it and well, I wanted to publish something, so here we go. Enjoy:

Nine months ago (UPDATE: and now make that more than 2 ½ years ago), I rejoined the world of the commuter train riders when I reinvented my career by going to work for the rockin’ cool digital marketing agency, iCrossing. (As a Senior Account Director at iCrossing, I should say that my opinions, as always, are mine and not those of my employer. Although I’m sure my commuting iC colleagues have probably seen all these folks on their own commutes and probably find the same humor in them that that I do.).

When I did my job change, I wrote a reflection of what it meant to me to transition from 10 years of working at home to going back to working in an office. Much had changed in 10 years – and it was both a jarring and welcome transition. And, I had to get used to bathing again on a day to day basis.

That said, as much as the world of working in an office has changed, not as much has changed in the commuting world. But, there are changes. Overall, there are definitely fewer people reading newspapers, and the mobile devices – smart phones, iPads, tablets, laptops, etc. are ever present on the train. My own personal habit is to get onto the train, turn on my laptop and immediately get online. In the morning, I check email, make to do lists, fiddle around on Facebook, scan several online news sources, etc. Afternoon, I listen to music on my iPhone, play games, finish up work I didn’t finish at the office, etc. MY behavior has definitely changed. 10 years ago, I was reading books on the train, or the newspaper, and that’s pretty much it. Now, I’m online all the time.

Another broad-scale observation is that the casual office has completely won – it is rare to see folks dressed in suits and ties on the train – most everyone is “business casual” or even more casual than that. It used to be women were in their business clothes and wearing running shoes with little white socks, carrying their heels in their bags. Men would be in suits, ties, topcoats, etc. Big leather briefcases ruled. Now it’s Dockers and jeans, leather and fleece jackets, comfortable shoes all the way to flipflops in the summer, and backpacks are the rule for anyone carrying anything.

So, with that all said, my favorite sport is, of course, people watching, and the train is one of my all-time favorite places to do that. So, let me introduce you to a few folks that I’ve met over the years of riding the train – both in the last nine months and in years past as well.

The Train Runner: The train runner is someone who, the second the train arrives at its destination, bolts out the door and RUNS at a sprint to wherever they run off to. Most often, they are observed at the suburban stations, bolting off the trains in the afternoon so they can be the first to get to their cars, and blaze out of the station in a cloud of dust. Train Runners turn into Parking Lot Terrorists the second they hit their cars. I literally was almost run over by one the first week of my new commute as I had forgotten about these jokers. Train Runners are also often Me First people too. See below.

The Sleepers: The sleepers all have one thing in common: They sleep on the train. You’d think “not so interesting – everyone does this”, But, it is how they do it that makes it interesting. On my morning train into the city this winter, there was a woman who literally went back to bed on the train every morning. We’d board the train, she’d take off her coat and shoes, pull out a little fleece blanket from her bag, pull out a little pillow, clip her ticket to the seat in front of her, and then curl up on the seat with her head on her pillow, her feet up, and the blanket over her (hence becoming a Seat Hog, see below), and sleep until downtown. There’s another guy, and I just haven’t got the heart to snap a picture of him, that literally rubber bands his train ticket to his head, facing the conductor so he doesn’t have to be awakened. Another variant is a jackass I sat next to just last week. I got on the train first, found my spot next to a window, and pulled out my laptop and went to work. This guy sat down next to me just as the train started to move and proceeded to throw his head back, and fall asleep snoring, spreading his legs out so one was in the aisle and the other was crowding me, his elbow in my ribs, etc. And, when it was time for me to get off the train the guy acted like he was mad at me for waking him up. Idiot.

The Eaters: Ok, I fully admit to bringing a snack on the train now and again – a bag of “Nuts On Clark” popcorn from Union Station, or a small bag of chips. Occasionally even a McDonald’s meal if it is late and I know I won’t have dinner at home. But some folks turn it into both a daily occurrence – to the point where I have to wonder – do you ever eat at home? The other morning someone got on the train with one of those “squatty” soup thermos containers, opened it up, opened a Ziploc bag containing dried fruit and brown sugar, dumped it into the thermos container and proceeded to have a fine morning meal of oatmeal. Smelled good too! But, really, oatmeal on the train? And then there are the folks that eat the smelly stuff. The worst actually was not on a Metra train, but on a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles. This guy actually opened a CAN of freaking TUNA and proceeded to eat it. [GAG]. I had to get up and leave!

The Amateur: Like every commuter, whether train, bus or car, we all resent The Amateur – that’s anyone that doesn’t regularly do this. They get in the way, they slow things down, etc. On school holidays, it can be the haggard mother dragging her three kids onto the train after a day visiting the museums in Chicago. It can be a young guy, or someone not so young, dressed to the nines in an interview suit, heading off to get a job. However, you still have to feel sorry, for the most part, for these folks.

The Seat Hogs, on the other hand, get no such sympathy. These people are the ones that get on the train and take up two seats and if and only if the train is packed, and sometimes NEVER will they give up their extra space next to them. They glare at you when they do, they “huff” and “sigh” and just make it abundantly clear that they feel that they are special and more worthy of that space than anyone else.

Then there’s the Me Firsts – these are the ones who jockey to be the first one on the train in the morning, get up well before the stop and stand in the vestibule so they can be first off, and they are well known for elbowing people out of the way who keep them from being first.

So, that’s some of my categories of individuals – here’s another category: Groups. These are typically people that ride in groups on the train, have been riding together for years. They comprise two most common variants: The Posse and The Party:

The Posse is typically a group of folks that just sit and ride together. They clearly have a common commuting habit, and most of these are unremarkable, except for a couple of groups I’ve observed over the years. One group, that my friend “Arbi” and I affectionately named “Harold Washington and The Supremes” was led this older, heavy set, grey-haired African American man that looked like, sounded like and (or so we imagined) acted like former/deceased Mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington. He and “the Supremes” – which were three women, one AA, two white, would sweep onto the train, and “Harold” would direct each of the women where to sit– “You sit here, honey, you here, you here…”, and then, even though they’d all be sitting about 4 seats apart, would hold court with his three minions. As near as we could tell, Harold Washington and The Supremes worked for the Chicago Department of Water Reclamation.

The Party is generally always remarkable – typically, this is a group of folks who have been commuting together for years and they drink every night on the train. They seem to have a specific car and group of seats that they sit in, and you get major glares from them if you encroach on those seats. Typically, it is the assignment of one or two people to buy the bottle or beer, another couple of people to buy the snacks, and it rotates. And these people are true friends and have been for years. They play cards, they just chat, etc. Because there is alcohol involved, they are always loud. And sometimes, the conversation gets quite amazing – two guys in a recent “Party” group I observed started doing an amateur review of a recent porn film that they had handed around among themselves.

Finally, there are just the individual characters – people that you see every single day and you just wonder about but they don’t necessarily earn a label. One I remember well was this duo from about 10 years ago, male and female, that my friend and I affectionately called “Moose and Squirrel” – they were a Russian couple, dressed always in black – him in a black trenchcoat, her in a black fur-trimmed long leather coat. They always spoke Russian to each other, they clearly were not a couple – no holding hands or anything – and they just looked mysterious. Another famous one was a guy that a friend had named “Stride Rite” – this guy sat on the upper level of the bi-level passenger cars, and had immense feet, always wore wing tips, and always put them up on the rail so if you looked up, all you saw were these monster soles of his shoes. Ironically, ‘ol Stride Rite was also a train runner. We were amazed he didn’t trip over those things. And finally, just this month, I’ve noticed this guy at my stop and I call him “The Office” … he’s this sort of intense looking guy, he wears these giant oversized aviator-sized eyeglasses straight out of 1985, and he always wears the exact same outfit – a French blue button-down dress shirt, khaki pants, maroon penny loafers and white socks. Wow. Finally, recently, there’s been a guy I like to call “Sarge”. He’s clearly an ex-marine from his jacket (a leather jacket promoting the US Marine Corps, his ramrod straight posture, his “burr” haircut and intense stare. He’s been commuting on and off to downtown this year (2012), and he’s reading training books all the time. I’m hoping he is on his way to get a job, and wish him success. And I feel just a bit safer with this guy, who is clearly a badass, onboard.

There’s plenty more of course, and I wonder if anyone has ever named me … but people watching being my favorite sport, I do have to say, I love my train ride.

As you were,

Stew

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