|"So... do you utilize public transportation around here often much?"|
Can I tell you about my morning? Don't get your hopes up. The story I'm about to tell you would not even qualify as a story in most people's lives. It barely qualifies as one in mine, but it was something out of the ordinary which happened to me, and I wanted to write it down for posterity's sake. Okay? Here goes. Be forewarned: I'll probably tell you way more than you wanted to know... which I'll assume is nothing. You can skim the first few paragraphs if that helps.
I've been a little anxious this weekend because I took some days off last week and was queasy about returning to work on Monday morning. That's nothing unusual for me. I'm always agitated about something. This work thing just happens to be the anxiety du jour. I decided that one thing I could do to ease my anxiety was to pop by the office for an hour or two over the weekend when no one else was there. That way, I could get caught up on a few little tasks and get everything set up just the way I like it for Monday. But I'm a commuter, so "popping by the office" for me means driving to a train station downtown and then taking an hour-long train ride into the city. But I figured, "Hey, it's Sunday. I've got literally nothing else to do. Why the heck not?"
So this morning, I rolled out of bed just in time to brush my teeth, hop in my car, and drive to the station to catch the first train into Chicago. I didn't bother to shave or shower because I knew I'd be working alone that day. Besides, I'd done both right before bed last night. Anyway, during the work week, the Metra trains are pretty regimented and on-time, but things are a little more lax on the weekends. And on Sunday in particular, there are far fewer trains to and from the city. The first one wasn't scheduled to arrive at Arlington Heights, where I live, until 9:31. And this being a Sunday, I knew that 9:31 was just a vague guideline. The train would probably arrive at 9:35 or 9:40.
I was a little leery -- or a lot leery -- about going anywhere near Chicago today, because this Tuesday is St. Patrick's Day, and yesterday (Saturday) was when the city had its big St. Patty's celebration and dyed the river green. From past experience, I knew that this holiday was an excuse for people to be loud, stupid, rude, and profoundly, publicly intoxicated. I had once even taken a Metra train on the Saturday before St. Patrick's Day. It was not a fun experience. So, naturally, I had a dread fear of seeing even one green plastic leprechaun hat this morning. But I figured that this was Sunday and that the loud, obnoxious drunks would all be home nursing hangovers today. I was mostly right. When I got to the Arlington Heights train station, I was a little disturbed to see a few stray green feathers and shamrock-shaped decals on the platform, and I kept an eye out for any bright green t-shirts, jackets, or sweatshirts. Luckily, I only saw a few, and their owners seemed to be fairly sedate. It was 9:30 in the morning on a Sunday, though, which may have played a role.
As I had suspected, there was no train in sight when I got to the station. But I knew one would be coming along eventually, so I took a spot on the platform and waited. I don't normally take the train on the weekends, so I didn't have any idea where the train was going to stop. I just walked up to the big yellow line which runs parallel to the train tracks, chose an arbitrary point, and stood there. I'm a nervous person, though, so I paced back and forth a bit. While I did this, I could not help but notice that a young woman was checking me out. Not in a suspicious or irritated way, but rather in an intrigued or amused way. This is, in and of itself, absolutely remarkable. Normally during my commute, single women treat me as if I am radioactive. I am viewed from their perspective as human plutonium -- something very dangerous to be avoided if at all possible.
The way I figure it, I must give off a strong "antisocial, deranged psychopath" vibe which is obvious to everyone else in the greater Chicago area. That's understandable; it's a shitty world. We've all heard the news stories. No one wants to end up in a ravine somewhere, right? I tend to be a sweaty, stubbly guy, so maybe I do give people the creeps without really trying. It doesn't even bother me to be treated like a potential ax murderer every time I venture out in public. I'm completely used to it by now. I just take it as a given and move on with my life. Sometimes, I even forget about it. For instance, when I'm sitting in a crowded train car and a woman chooses to stand in the aisle next to the foul-smelling bathroom rather than take the empty seat next to me, I'll occasionally wonder, "Why did she do that?" And then I remember: "Oh, right. To her, I'm Charles Manson." After over a decade of commuting, I just shrug it off when this happens. But there's always that awful moment when she stands there, looks at the empty seat, looks at me, and makes the decision not to sit down. If that kind of thing happened to you a handful of times, it could hurt your feelings. If it happens dozens of times a year for more than a decade, you don't even feel it anymore.
But this woman was undeniably looking my way with a friendly look on her face. This will sound totally mundane to you, but I cannot express to you how rare this is. I did everything I could to not look back at her, because I didn't want to scare her away or upset her. I would steal a brief glance now and then, enough to tell that this was a very attractive, professionally-dressed woman probably in her late twenties or early thirties. A class act, you might say. She had longish, curly, auburn-colored hair which caught the morning sunlight very nicely. I'm trying to remember now whether she wore sunglasses or not. I think she did. Doesn't matter, really. What I'm saying is, she looked very good. Not merely my type, but ridiculously my type. I could have burned a hole in the pavement in my efforts to avoid staring at her.
Then, a funny thing happened. The bells went off at all the crossings, and the crossing gates came down even though the train was still nowhere in sight. The people waiting on the platform all looked around in confusion. What was happening? After a few seconds, it became clear that nothing was happening and that the bells were premature. (Maybe they're on a timer?) I looked down the track in the direction the train should have been coming. The mystery woman, meanwhile, looked in the opposite direction, i.e. right at me. She was still smiling, and I knew then she was going to speak.
"Wow," she said, in a voice just as pleasant as I was hoping it would be. "They really don't want people crossing in front of the train."
I laughed, and she laughed back, and then we were in a conversation. Like I told you, in most people's lives, this is not a story. In mine, it is. Attractive female strangers do not engage me in conversation. It's just not a thing which happens. But this time, see, it did.
"Business or pleasure?" she asked, referring to my reason for wanting to go to Chicago.
It was not an unreasonable query. Most of the people on the platform were either families or groups of friends. They're all laughing and talking among themselves. Me, I was the one serious-looking guy standing alone with a messenger bag slung over one shoulder. Maybe I stood out. I told her I was going in to work for a few hours. She said she understood that. She worked for Catholic Charities, and she was not allowed to work overtime ever, even though she sometimes felt compelled to do so. (I wasn't working overtime today, by the way; this day was strictly off the books. Pro bono. On the house. Totally by my own choice.) She also said she was going to the Art Institute of Chicago to see a new exhibit of Irish art. I admitted that, in the ten years or so I'd been working in the Loop, I'd only visited the Art Institute a couple of times, which was a shame because I liked the place a lot and wished I could go more. She said she had a membership, so she must go there all the time. Or often enough to justify having a membership. During our conversation, there was an announcement over the PA system to the effect that the train was running behind schedule due to "unusually heavy passenger loading." We both had a chuckle over that, because it was a comically bad omen.
By that time, the train really had arrived at the station. All these corny scenes from movies and TV shows flashed in my brain. There was a voice in my head saying, "Introduce yourself! Tell her your name! She was flirting with you, goddamn it!" But there was an even-louder voice saying, "This was nothing! She wasn't flirting, you moron! She was just being polite! Can't you tell when people are being polite, you troglodyte?" What happened instead was that I said, "Have fun at your art exhibit." And she said, "Have fun at work." I said, "I won't, but thank you, anyway." She got on the train first and went right, towards the back of the train. I got on the train after her and went left. I found an empty seat (they were plentiful), sat down, and started reading a book about the making of The Big Lebowski.
You know what was flashing through my head at that moment? I'd like to say it was the "girl in the white dress" scene from Citizen Kane, but it wasn't. Besides, I've already used that scene as an example in another article. (See if you can find it. Hint: It's in one of the Ed Wood articles.) What I was really thinking about was that dumb song "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen. You know: "Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but here's my number, so call me maybe." At last, I understood what that song was about. You meet a stranger, sense some possible attraction, and take a gamble. It really does feel kind of crazy. Despite hating that song with a bubbling passion, I actually found myself in a "Call Me Maybe" situation this Sunday morning. But, unlike Carly Rae, I didn't go through with it. It's easier to be brave in a song than it is in real life.
And that's it. That's all that happened. See, I told you it was nothing. But to me, it was almost kind of something.