Tag Archives: Chicago

The Show Must Go On

18 Feb

I had the opportunity to see John Mellencamp in concert last night. For those not familiar, you’re dead to me. Ok, not so radical, but seriously, this guy has been around in the rock music scene forever, so you’d have to be either really living under a rock or something to not know him.

At the start of the show, he came out with the band, and they head off into some new material that I wasn’t familiar with – but three or four great songs with that familiar Mellencamp sound to them. The band – two guitarists, bass, drums, keyboardist that also played the accordion and a violinist – were tight and delivered that distinctive sound that he’s become associated with – interesting phrasings, mixes of major and minor chords, relaxed tempos, etc. That said, during this opening, clearly something was amiss with Big John’s voice – very raspy, very raw sounding. Since I had never seen him before, I was thinking that perhaps age wasn’t being kind to him, or the road, or something.

At the end of the 4th song, he stepped to the mic to greet the crowd and then said “Well, we talked this afternoon about cancelling this show because my throat is all fucked up. But then I said to everyone, ‘Hell no, we’re not cancelling. I can’t let those people down! Besides, I want to play.’ So folks, this is what we got. I sound like shit, but I’m here to play. If you can handle my croak, I can handle my croak.The band will rock and you guys will fill in when I can’t hit it. Deal?” Well, as you can imagine, the crowd went nuts.

Which made me like this guy even more. His music is all about “regular guy” real life, life in small town America, little Pink Houses for you and me, vacationing at the Gulf of Mexico, fighting authority (but authority always wins), thinking back on the good times and sitting and smiling. I love his songs – sing a few of them myself. And rather than being a diva and calling off the show because he has a scratchy throat, he just motored on through it and delivered for his fans.

The show must go on. A lesson for all of us.

As you were,

Stew

Apple Store Soho Presents Meet The Creators: Stephen King, John Mellencamp And T Bone Burnett

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Thankful

30 Nov

By now, Sunday morning of Thanksgiving weekend, most people will have spent the long holiday period (not exactly a weekend) getting hammered (Wednesday night – AKA “Black Wednesday” – the drunkest night of the year – even worse than New Year’s eve)j, overeating (Thursday, natch), overspending (Friday), overwatching football (all weekend long), drinking even more, etc. etc.  Many people approach Thanksgiving weekend with both excitement and dread and the dread comes from a variety of sources – time spent with family you don’t care to see, travel worries and hassles, dividing time among various family members (Thanksgiving is considered to be the most complicated holiday for that), etc.

Notice the key missing element of the above is what the core of the holiday is supposed to be about? Giving thanks?

It seems like in our efforts as a country to over-program everything (admit it, we do) is extracting the basics of this holiday. The “first official shoppng day” of the Christmas season is now the day where everything USED to be closed, and people were home with family. Black Friday was officially usurped this year by Thanksgiving Day, according to the National Retail Federation’s tracking.

I have to admit to participating a lot in the overindulgence – but at least I think it is focused on family and friends. Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Professor Troutstream and I, plus our families and some select close friends gather at a pub for our annual “Burgers, Beer and Bourbon (and Tots)” fest. We do get a wee bit, umm, happy there, but the biggest feature is just great stories and tons of laughs.

Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, Robin and I hosted 22 for dinner at our house Thursday evening. We choose to do our big TG dinner in the evening – and that conveniently allows those who are having to split time, to hit multiple Thanksgiving celebrations. Most of our crowd was family – my mom, Robin’s parents, her aunt and uncle from Ohio, their kids and spouses – but we also had two couples that are among our best friends there – both couples are empty-nesters with no local family to go to. Happy to be their “local family”.

Friday was a chill day – I used it to get some house projects done, the most notable was getting my music studio organized in the way I have been planning to organize it since we redid our basement 2 years ago. Have a small PA system set up, a dedicated computer for playing and recording music, mutliple amps for visiting players, etc.  Pretty sweet. Still need to get all the guitars on the wall, but step by step. Friday evening, my inlaws hosted a wonderful dinner for the whole family plus a few more at a local Greek restaurant – and it was a huge treat and much fun.

Yesterday, on the idea of son #1, I got The Fanbulance out of storage, piled the three sons into it, and headed to Evanston IL to pick up Professor Troutstream and watch the Illini of U of Illinois play the Wildcats of Northwestern. The Prof and I enjoyed a bit more Kentucky “brown water” at the tailgate (goes great with Egg McMuffins!), and then left the game about halftime and headed to a pub where his wife joined us and we waited out the rest of the game and the arrival of the sons.  Last evening, was just a chill night – my mom made a delicious gravy to accompany the leftover turkey and we made “stuffing waffles” (heat up stuffing in a waffle iron – best idea ever!) to put all the good stuff over. Our local high school, Stevenson, was in the state championship football game and I watched them win that – enjoying the 4th quarter from bed.

Today, it’s just another chill day although we need to put the house back in order from the bash Thursday night as well as I need to put away our patio, run the gas out of the power lawn tools, etc.

So, now that I have bored you with a rundown of my weekend, I’ll return to the point of this post. I spent the entire weekend in the company of all of those I love the most – family, closed and dear friends, and more. Did we overeat and overdrink? Bet your ass we did. To me, that’s what Thanksgiving weekend is all about though – spending the time in the company of your friends and family.

And I have so much to be thankful for – my wonderful wife of 28.5 years, the three amazing young men that are my sons, my mom, and the fact that at 78, she is as sharp as ever and in generally good health and able to travel to us, live on her own, etc., Robin’s family and how they all travel in to make this such a fun weekend, my great pal Professor Troutstream, all of our other close friends, the fact that I have a challenging and rewarding career with a continued upwards trajectory, a nice home, a loyal dog, etc. etc.

Overindulge I did. Did I gain a few pounds this weekend?  I’m sure of it – back onto track with my Weight Watchers program this week. Do I creak and ache like a typical 50-something person? Sure do. But that’s how I know I am alive.

If you follow my blog, you most certainly know that my focus is on living life. It is entirely too short. I’m thankful for the opportunities I have to be able to live life so well with people I love.  There’s the sentence I was looking for.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

As you were,

Stew

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Railroaded: A Series of Unfortunate Events

11 Feb

Living in the Chicago suburbs and working in downtown Chicago, I’m fortunate in being able to utilize one of the better commuter rail systems in the country to make my 40 mile trek to the office every morning.  That said, with this winter’s incredibly severe weather, with extreme cold, constant snow, etc., the commuting experience has been challenging.  At the height of the Polar Vortex mess in January, the trains were barely running – on one afternoon, Metra was so screwed up that they cancelled half their schedule, and the part that remained, only 30% ran on time.  On my line that day, the North Central Service line, there are only six trains – four during rush hour, and two more.  The hour rush hour trains were all combined into one – the 5:31 departure, which “sailed” at 10 minutes until six.

Yesterday was another very cold day and I had a commute that could only be described as “a series of unfortunate events” – borrowing from the movie and book title a few years ago.  I decided to catch the 5:31 departure, which means I need to be out the door of my office by about 5:00 PM to catch the bus to the train station.  I arrive about 10 minutes before departure and the outbound train hasn’t arrived yet.  Not a big panic, this happens fairly frequently – the train will pull in about 5 min before departure time, everyone gets on, and off we go.  Well, 5:31 comes and goes, and no train – Metra, who has been accused of poor communications is over-compensating now, but most of the communications are useless. For example, they often have circular logic “your train is operating 10 minutes late today due to the train operating late” or something like that.  Useless.  And yesterday was no exception – all they kept saying was “the 5:31 North Central Service train will arrive on Track 5 and depart shortly after”.  Ooh, thanks for that.  How about the one thing we all want to hear?  When?  When indeed.  Read on.

The train arrived at about 5:35, and the crowd piles in.  Thankfully, I was at the head of the line to board and was able to grab one of the plumb seats that people don’t expect you to share.  These are on the upper level against the bulkhead and are a full-sized seat, but no one but couples ever share those.  So a lucky moment there.  And we sit.  5:40 comes and goes and no announcement.  Finally at 5:45 the conductor comes on the PA and says that we’re late due to a mechanical issue that they are fixing on the locomotive, and that the same issue was the cause of the late-arriving equipment.  He comes on again at 5:50 and says “Ok, we’re close, should be leaving in a minute or two” – and we did.

So … 20 minutes late.  Not a trainsmash (RIMSHOT), but not ideal.  We roll along, making our usual stops and as we’re gaining speed coming out of the O’Hare Airport Transfer stop, suddenly the lights and HVAC in our car goes out and the train starts coasting to a stop – silent.  Normally, even on a very long train, you can feel the rumble and thrum of the locomotive.  There’s no rumble or thrum.  Just the dim emergency lights.  Uh oh.  We roll to a stop and … sit.  For a solid 8 minutes we sit with no updates from the crew or anything.   Finally the conductor comes on the PA and says “Well folks, the issue earlier with the locomotive was that we were getting a warning light that there was a problem with the water pumps on the engine.  We checked and everything seemed to be OK, so we thought it was the computer.  We finally were able to clear it and go.  And just now, that same warning flashed on and less than a minute later, the engine just quit dead.  The computer won’t let us attempt to restart it. I guess the computer wasn’t kidding around. So, sorry about this, but we’re working on a “plan b” for you here.”  REALLY?

Thankfully, plan B departed the station just 10 minutes behind us – the 6:00 PM train.  After about 5 minutes, the conductor came back on and said that the 6:00 would come up behind us, they’d couple the trains together, and would push us.  He estimated it would take 15 minutes to get the two trains together.  We heard the train roll up behind us (I was in the last car, so you could hear the engine), and the conductor made another announcement that there might be some jolting as they hook up the trains.  Well, jolting indeed.  It took them three tries to get connected due to the cold affecting the couplers – the final try had them bring the trains together quite hard.  Thankfully, they warned us. That all took 15 minutes. After that, they had to hook up the brakes, and well, that didn’t go so well.  I would presume the cold was affecting this as well.  After the big jolt that got the trains to couple up, the conductor said  “ok, we need just a few more minutes to get the brakes connected and we can roll.”   Well fully 15 minutes later he comes on and says “folks, we just can’t win tonight – we’re having difficulty getting the brakes connected.  We hope to have this resolved soon.”  And another 15 minutes and they did.  So … now, it is about 7:20 PM.  I was supposed to be out to dinner with my son Brian at this point, enjoying my second beer and watching the Olympics in a sports bar.

We start to roll, and only go for about 8 minutes, quite slowly, and then roll to a stop.  You can hear a huge collective groan ripple through the train.  We sit for a solid 5 minutes and finally the conductor comes on and says “folks, there’s nothing wrong – we’re holding here for some other trains to cross on the UP tracks in front of us.  Due to our delayed status, we have no priority through this intersection.”  Which seems backwards to me but … I’m not in charge.

Finally we roll again and we’re homeward bound.  Because the train consist was now two seven-car Metra passenger trains and two locomotives long, we’re much longer than what will fit the train stations, so at the first two stops, only the last two cars of our train opened – the conductor was great about urging people to come to the back cars if they were planning to get off the train.  And those stops were fairly short.

At Buffalo Grove, where I live, a large number of folks board and exit every day – it’s the single biggest stop on this line.  At least half the train gets up and leaves there.  And the last insult to all the injury happened here.  At most train stations, there are two tracks and two platforms.  And the inbound trains run on one track and the outbound run on the other.  At Buffalo Grove, I think to help serve freight traffic there, normally, we both depart and arrive on the same platform – the one closest to the station.  At stations where they use tracks, usually, you have to wait for the train to leave before you can cross over and walk to your car.  At this point, I’m done, I want to be home, go to dinner with Brian and be done.  It’s 7:45 PM.  And so, time for the final screw up.

For whatever reason, they brought us in on the opposite track, and at this station, they wanted everyone that wasn’t staying in BG to get off our broken train and get on the good one so they could completely shut down the dead one.  Which meant everyone that wanted to just go home in Buffalo Grove had to stand there for another 20 minutes because the great big train was blocking the tracks while everyone got off one train and got onto the other.  Ugh.

Finally at 8:05, I was in the car and headed home.

So after-analysis:  I do believe that the quality of service of Chicago’s suburban rail service has become worse and worse. This agency has been part of political scandals, personal scandals (the head of the Metra board was being investigated for corruption and just before he was to be removed from his post, he stepped in front of a Metra train and committed suicide – this was about 3 years ago), there are budget shortfalls, political patronage scandals and more.  Thankfully, they ARE trying to raise their game – the communications are getting much better, they are starting to use technology more, etc.  But there’s getting around the issues that their rolling stock is antiquated and crumbling, their track infrastructure that they control is a mess, and the parts they don’t control they are an afterthought from CN and UP when those cooperative deals were sold to the public as Metra having priority.

And I have to rely on it to get to work.

It is what it is.  Beats driving.  But not by much anymore.  I know the guy who wrote the tagline “Metra, The Way to Really Fly”.

Well, not so much anymore.

As you were,

Stew

Meet the New Year … same as the old year!

2 Jan

Ah, the ritual greeting of the New Year.  The calendar turns. You have to get used to writing a new date on checks (although who the hell writes many checks anymore what with e-banking).  Celebrations are had – champagne popped, fireworks shot off, Auld Lang Syne is sung, etc.  New laws are announced.  And people make New Year’s Resolutions.  That are promptly forgotten. 

I put on my Facebook wall yesterday that I’m not much for New Year’s Resolutions.  My feeling is if you’re going to commit to something, commit to it.  Why do you need a big milestone to do so?  That said, I made a rough list of things I want to do more and less of … that’s here:

– more guitar playing and singing. Perhaps some lessons too!
– more time spent on reading, less time on social media (yes, I said that.)
– more investment in learning to cook more inventively and more healthy cooking
– more eating healthy meals, less crap. Dabble in vegetarian/vegan meals.
– more talking and joking about bacon. Per above, less eating it.
– more exercise, less sloth. 
– more time spent with friends I don’t see often
– more time spent with family I don’t see often
– less worrying, more positive planning, less stress, more action
– NO big DIY home improvement projects (three were enough for 2014 – sheesh!) instead, finish all the little details on things that I’ve been wanting to finish.

And as I hopped on the train this morning, I thought to myself … and more writing in my blog.

As you know, my muse has been sparse to visit me this past year. I think after the challenges of 2012 I had with health and all, and then my focus in spring of 2013 of making a career change – something that found me but nonetheless took a ton of energy and more than 5 months to close the deal, I was sort of out of topics.  I hope that changes this year.  I’m going to make much more use of the features of WordPress to be able to post interesting content – photos, quotations, reposting of other blogs and more.  I’ll post more about food and cooking, and of course will use my observational capabilities to your enjoyment.  There’s quite a few folks on my train still to introduce you to, plus I’m commuting by bus from the train station to the office right now and that’s a bit of it’s own trip.  So, more “railroaded” posts to come.  I’ll also be traveling a ton for biz, so that’s a good ripe topic to mine as well.

A quick bit of observation for you this morning – it started snowing in Chicago the day before yesterday and it hasn’t let up yet.   That’s 36 hours of straight snowfall, and it might go all the way to 48 hours what with this lake effect thing that has kicked in and is just POURING snow from the sky.  That observation on its own isn’t remarkable.  We live in Chicago. Snow is what happens here in the winter and the lake effect is part of it.

But what is remarkable, always, is how Chicago just sucks it up and deals with it. Living in Iowa growing up, it snowed there too of course – and pretty much the streets were covered with packed ice and snow from mid-December through mid-February.  Highways would often be “tracked” versus clear, and well, that’s how it was.  They weren’t very effective in making it go away.  Here in Chicago on the other hand, fates of Mayoral careers (hello, Michael Bilandic, it’s Jane Byrne calling!) have hung in the balance.  It snows here, and by G-d the city just keeps on going.  Plows are rolling by constantly and a dried ocean of salt is poured on the streets to keep them from icing up.  Usually, within 4-6 hours of the end of a snow storm, the streets are completely clear of snow and ice from curb to curb.  The expressways generally only get wet and slushy during a snow – only when it’s really cold and therefore, the salt isn’t working well, do they get badly snow packed.  It takes an immense blizzard to stop this city.

And it just gets more beautiful with a layer of snow.  I can’t wait to be downtown today and look out at the city from my office windows.

So … Happy New Year, my dear readers.  Have a great day.  Here in Chicago, we’re having a snow day, but it’s not a Snow Day. 

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A Stunning September Day

24 Sep

A Stunning September Day

I’m quite lucky that I have this amazing view from my office window in Chicago. To locate this for you, my office building sits right at the Michigan Avenue bridge across the Chicago River – this is the view east from my desk. Absolutely stunning September day. With binoculars, I can see the Michigan shoreline from my office window, 50 miles away.

There’s NO people like SNOW people …

28 Feb

Ever since writing my two editions of “Railroaded”, people keep asking me “Do other people you see, what about people on airplanes, what about people on vacation, what about …”, etc. Glad to hear that a) my writing makes you laugh; and b) that you think I’m a good observer of people. Today’s attempt at humorous observation looks at people’s reactions to snow – drivers, walkers, commuters, etc. Let’s see if this works.

What first inspired this post was driving around this past Tuesday, as Chicago got its heaviest/fastest-accumulating snowstorm of the season. This slow-moving, wind-driven, fast-accumulating snowstorm left about 8-10″ of heavy, wet, “heart attack” snow in the northern suburbs, where I live, and made a mess out of driving for a solid day. It also was a great opportunity to observe folks and their reactions to the snow. Here goes – this will be part 1 of several:

Part 1: Drivers:

Oh, drivers, oh drivers, in snow, how your true colors come out.

The Panicker: In my observation, The Panicker is not someone that likes to drive in the first place. In snow, they freak the hell out. They start driving so scared and so carefully as to create safety hazards for themselves and those around them as they artificially try to control the world around them to their state of panic. They tend to drive larger, conservative cars in colors like beige, white and silver (and either mainstream US brands like Ford, Chevy, Buick or Chrysler or mainstream foreign brands like Toyota or Honda). They clearly are not relaxed at the wheel. Add a few snowflakes in and, “OH SHIT!” – they completely wig out. And, they often do a terrible job clearing the snow off their car, making them also “Mailslotters”.

For example, as I was driving home from my suburban meeting Tuesday AM in the heavy snow (which was great as I didn’t have to commute at rush hour), I got behind a panicker. She pulled out of a parking lot in front of me (cutting me off of course), and then proceeded to drive down the middle of a four lane road! with her left wheels in the right wheel track of the right lane and her right wheels in the left wheel track of the left lane – on a snowy/slushy road where the normal speed limit is 45. She was going about 12 mph with no intention to go faster. Mind you, at this point in the snow storm, it had snowed about an inch. That was it. The road was very lightly snow covered with two bare tracks in each lane. I tooted my horn once and she spun around in her seat to see me behind her and to the right, and in that act, her car started to drift to the right lane. She then realized she was doing that and overcorrected BACK to middle, fishtailing in the process. How you just managed to fishtail a front-wheel drive car on a road that isn’t all that slick in the first place is forever a mystery to me, oh Panicker. I would have had to do a Scandinavian Flick to get my car to do that (see below). After she did that, then she realized that really should get out of my way, so at this point, she puts on her 4-way flashers and stabs her brakes, of course not thinking that perhaps by doing so she might come close to invoking a collision with me. She slides over to the right and slows down to, I kid you not, 5 mph (in a 45 zone of course). I make an evasive maneuver around her and motor on, shaking my head. She probably still isn’t home. Stay home, Panicker!

SuperSUVman: In a way, SuperSUVman is the opposite of the Panicker. Where the Panicker is paralyzed by a lack of confidence in the snow, the SuperSUVman has a case of over-confidence that is ridiculous, and it is borne out of the fact that they believe that by spending $40-$50,000 on a loaded up, 4WD SUV or pickup, that they have somehow also bought the “repeal the laws of physics” package. Ironically, on dry pavement, they drive pretty conservatively. That’s because they know that with their oversize off-road tires (that never see a speck of dirt) and their very heavy, very high center of gravity, that grocery carts generally handle better than SUVs. But put them in the snow, and by God, now they are on the Yukon trail and nothing, but nothing will get in their way. You are most likely to see these folks in ditches, in front yards, at close range with their bumper buried into your side doors, etc. as they discover (but do not learn from it) that even though they can attain prodigious amounts of forward momentum with their 4WD and V8 engines, turning and stopping (and generally staying in control) are entirely different things. Whenever I see one of these guys buried axle deep in the snow next to a rural highway, scratching their heads and dumbfounded that they are off the road, I just smile to myself and think “Karma, you are one cruel bitch.”

SportsCarSchmortsCar: The SCSC combines some of SuperSUVman’s seasonal disregard for physics with The Panicker’s ability to block traffic. The SCSC is someone who drives a small, lightweight, over-powered, performance-tire-clad, rear-wheel-drive sports car. Their attitude with snow is “I’m doing the best I can! Yeah it’s a sports car, but it’s how I roll.” Think Camaros, Mustangs, Z-cars, Mazda RX or Miatas, BMWs, Mercedes, etc. They can most often be found stuck in their own driveways, stuck on a level street or parking lot, spun out on a residential corner, turning 360s on expressways, taking an entire cycle of a stoplight to wheelspin themselves across an intersection and more. As they delay the rest of us, they give us that shrug and hands up in the air look of “well, whatcha gonna do?” Here’s what you should do: Buy a $500 beater for winter and park that stupid thing when it snows! That said, I fully and openly admit to being one of these people having had over the last 8 years a Mazda RX-8 followed by a BMW 330Ci convertible. Both of which were utter nightmares in snow. That said, add front or all wheel drive and proper winter tires to a sports car – like Audis, BMW X-drive cars and suddenly these cars and their drivers become …

WRCWannabe: First an explanation: WRC is World Rally Championship – this is the racing series where guys in overpowered little two-seat racing cars go racing over dirt roads through the woods in foreign countries. Here’s a link to some video of this in action: http://www.wrc.com/video/. So … in the winter, WRCW’s are generally people that own performance cars that are very capable in snow, and therefore, turn into capable boy-racers when the roads get slick. And I admit to being this guy now. You can see them launching hard out of stoplights, doing the “Scandinavian Flick” to rocket their cars around corners, using handbrake turns, and generally having a ball in the snow. This is how driving in the snow ought to be! After getting rid of our BMW, we bought a front-wheel-drive VW GTI and put Pirelli Sottozero 210 winter tires on it for snow season – and OMG – now a drive to a friend’s house in the snow becomes an exercise in “how much fun can I have” versus a white-knuckled “holy crap I’m gonna die” experience.I’ve see guys in everything from Subaru Imprezas and Outbacks, to Audi A3 and A4 Quattros, BMW X-drive 3 Series cars, and of course, my own beloved VW GTI, out blasting around in the snow and having so much fun. Cars equipped in this way truly do repeal the laws of physics in the way that the SuperSUVman can only dream about. But, when other cars are around, we just motor on, knowing that when you all are safe at home nursing a scotch after that harrowing ride, we have the snow-covered streets all to ourselves to go have fun on!

The Mailslotter: We all know who this is, right? These are the people who can’t be bothered to brush the snow off their car – so they clean a little slot on the windshield to see through, leaving a foot or more of snow on the hood, on the roof, the side windows covered, etc. Doesn’t need much explanation other than “stay the hell away from me please” – so when you see one of these guys, just know that they cannot see you.

So that wraps up this edition of “Snow People” – look for the “on foot” edition, coming soon!

As you were,

Stew

Railroaded, Part II

11 Jan

Since I had so many people tell me that they loved the “Railroaded” post – one of my co-workers kept saying “so damn funny” every time he walked by me yesterday – and so many people responded with some railroaders of their own, I thought I’d write “Part II” to it.

As I said in “Railroaded” – that was written in 2010 – a few months after I restarted commuting to downtown Chicago on the Metra rail system for work. In the ensuing 2 ½ years since then, I’ve had occasion to observe a whole lot more folks, so let’s get started.

The Cosmetologist – Everyone who commutes sees this – and unfortunately everyone who commutes by car sees this. It is the women who apparently don’t have enough time to get their makeup done in front of the bathroom mirror, so they save the effort for when they hit the train or worse, get in the car to drive to work. In fact, straight across the train from me at this very moment, is a woman putting on her makeup. Her picture is below. Now … let’s be honest, among annoying tendencies, this is probably the smallest one – they don’t take up a ton of room, they don’t make noise, no weird smells, etc.

A Cosmetologist in action this morning

But, there’s always this guy:

The Razorman: I don’t experience it too often but every now and then you’ll see this – a guy whips out an electric shaver, fires up the fuzz-buzz and proceeds to “mow” his face. Thankfully, it’s not a real long time to listen to the buzz, and it’s again, a bit limited, but … nonetheless, having used plenty of electric shavers in my day, I do know those tend to generate a cloud of clipped hair as they operate, and well … it’s a bit gross. And once, just once, I watched a guy use a standard Gillette twin blade razor on the train – dry shaving himself as the train lurched and vibrated along. Really?

The Oral Hygenist: Again, you ride the train long enough, you see everything. Always there’s the toothpick guys – guys with a toothpick in their mouths, chewing on it. When this gets gross is when they throw them onto the floors. But … I’ve seen it all – full-on toothbrushing, using a water bottle and a coffee cup to rinse and spit, of course lots and lots of flossing, which again, is just something you don’t want to see. And mouthwash – but what’s amazed me on the mouthwash guys is that they seem to swallow it – and it usually is a fairly drunk dude riding a late train out to home after an after-work bender.

We’ll end the personal grooming habits, with one woman I liked to call “the reverse stripper“. I caught her routine about four times. She rode the train last summer and I’d put her age at “in college” or early 20s most likely. Young woman, likely headed to the city for an internship. She was riding the train from an earlier stop than mine, so I never saw her get on, but on the train, she’d be sound asleep behind huge sunglasses, a sweatshirt or other baggy t-shirt, and pajama pants with wet hair pulled up into a pony tail. She always carried a big sports bag. At some point in the ride about 15-20 minutes before we hit downtown, she would literally get dressed for work. Again, you see a lot of things on the train, but this little phenomena caught my eye when I happened to see her pull a bra out of her bag, slip it up under her big t-shirt, pull her arms in and put it on! Then, using an odd combination of plenty of dexterity with some illusion mixed in, she managed to then put on a blouse over the t-shirt and somehow slip the shirt over her head without exposing the rest of us (much) to too much of her, then sort of half-stood-up in her seat, shimmied into a little skirt over the pajama pants, and remove the pajama pants. Then a cute pair of heels came out of the bag, and she was done – she then turned into a “Cosmetologist” to do her hair and makeup, and of course the crowning touch was just a touch of cologne which wafted through the car erasing the coffee aroma. Everything else went into the bag, and when we stood up to leave, there she was – a young girl ready for work in a big downtown office. Pretty crazy! I honestly have to say I was impressed by her ingenuity. Now calling a category from yesterday, she was also a “Seat Hog” so she had the room to do this.

These days of 60 hour work weeks and the like, both train rides and train riders have changed a lot. With wireless internet, you can work from everywhere, so on every train, every morning you have:

“The Executive”: The executive is someone who is working 100% nonstop all the time on the train. They get on the train, out comes the laptop, usually there’s a wireless USB or hotspot involved, and they are off to the races. Now, this isn’t at all unusual, and I fit this category most days in the “light” version – at the computer, catching up on email, occasionally doing some writing, reviewing, etc. – but the “heavy” version is where it gets ridiculous – they turn their seat into a rolling office. On Metra trains at the end of each car compartment that is the “front” in the direction of travel, there are a pair of seats that face each other. Metra trains, they flip the direction of the seats to always face forward – the seatbacks flip over to do this. So, those facing seats are desirable because it is the only place where being a Seat Hog is acceptable behavior. There isn’t enough room, unless you’re married to the person across from you, or you’re with your kids, to seat four in those facing seats but two Seat Hogs fit nicely. There’s one woman that rides my train line most days and she’s a classic Heavy Executive. She always grabs that double seat section, spreads out across her two seats, opens files, lays out work, does stuff on her computer, and … holds conference calls. It’s all good until she dials into her 7:30 AM conf call. She is clearly the boss, and she’s clearly talking to a group of her staffers that are already in the office. In a loud, stern voice. And by the tone of her voice and how she runs that meeting, well … she doesn’t sound like a pleasant person in the least to work for or with.

Again, I do the The Executive Light thing most days, but I rarely hold conference calls from the train, and when I do, I use my headphones and do my best to keep my voice very low.

Phone Jerk: And speaking of keeping your voice very low, there’s these idiots. We’ve all experienced them. Their phone rings and they proceed to have a phone conversation at normal speaking tones, and they will say ANYTHING – even though it’s in public. I’ve heard people shouting at their kids and spouses, guys trying to arrange to get lucky, girlfriends speaking to girlfriends describing their dates IN DETAIL (yes, even THOSE details! I never thought I’d ever hear “Oh my God, his XXX was so small, I almost started laughing” on a train. But I have.) And the behavior isn’t limited to those that speak English. In fact, I think if you speak Russian, you must think it’s OK to talk loudly on the phone the entire train ride.

And since this train ride is approaching Chicago, I’ll end with this person:

The Petri Dish: Yup, it’s the sick guy or gal on the train, bus or airplane. Hack, wheeze, sneeze. Big wet drippy exhortations of the cold and flu season. Blowing of noses, coughing jags, huge sneezes, etc. etc. Touching everything and spreading the love everywhere they go. Having flown so much and for so many years, thankfully, I think I’ve got the immune system of an alley cat. I very rarely get sick (and by saying that, I’ve doomed myself), but when I do, I’m positive it is because of one of these jerks who cannot figure out that they should take a sick day until they stop being contagious.

Well, another “Railroaded” post has been crafted on yet another train ride. Hope you enjoyed the ride! And, stay tuned for “Railroaded III – the Late Night edition” … oh yeah. Riding Metra at night is a trip for sure!

As you were,

Stew

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

Cubs vs. Sox – The Crosstown Classic

20 Jun

Image

 

Just a short post today … not my usual story-telling novels.  Robin and I are lucky enough this evening to be the guests of our friends this evening at a Chicago White Sox vs. Chicago Cubs “crosstown classic” game at US Cellular Field (the Sox home park).  Being the sort of Chicago sports fan that I am, which is to say “somewhat aloof and above all the rah rah” – that’s borne of not being born here, thought it would be fun to share a few thoughts about this.

My sports fandom is generally one of “I enjoy sporting events but I generally don’t follow sports or teams.”  I’ve never been that guy that reads the sports section every day, never been that guy that is in Rotisserie League baseball or Fantasy Football, never been that person who can spout what happened to the Cubs/Sox/Bulls/Bears/Blackhawks/etc. in the last game.  I don’t tuck in and watch a game (or a whole Sunday of games).  Just not me.  I LOVE going to games – if offered a ticket, hell yes, I will go – I love the scene, the spectacle,and well, the games are more fun to watch live. I do watch some sports on TV (yes, auto racing being the primary one), but it’s most likely as their social gathering going on around it.

So therefore, I’m not afflicted by the whole Cubs vs. Sox rivalry here.  I was going to wear an orange shirt today, just to protest, but wound up in a blue shirt just because it looked better for being in the office.  

ImageBut I find it funny that you can find Sox fans that are more excited to see the Cubs lose than to see their own team win.  And as far as the Cubs attention about the White Sox – mostly it’s “oh, huh.  They won? Whatever.”  Why CAN’T these fans be fans of the City’s teams?  Why can’t one congratulate the other when they win?  

ImageWhen the White Sox went to the World Series a few years ago (and totally ran the table, by the way), why couldn’t Cubs fans put on Sox jerseys and have some fun.  And when the few that did do that, actually do it, why did the Sox fans get upset about it? 

ImageNow then, I do have to admit to a bit of Fandom – the Iowa Hawkeyes.  MY Iowa Hawkeyes.  I have been a Hawkeye since I was a kid.  My Dad was a Hawkeye.  My sister is one.  Hell, I was even Herky The Hawk for a short period!  But I’m not one of those Iowa fans that disses the Iowa State Cyclones or cheers when they lose.  Not my style.  Just as long as the Hawkeyes trounce them every year.

I don’t purport to have any answers.  All I know is tonight is the longest day of the year.  I’m going to go spend the evening in a beautiful ballpark, on a beautiful evening, with good friends, cold beer, a tasty hot dog, awesome seats and my lovely wife.  

And that my friends, is a great night.  I hope Chicago wins the game tonight!  Go Bears!  (wait, what???)

As you were,

Stew 

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