I realized today that people on the Chicago trains let their thoughts pass over their faces much more freely than on the New York subway. You don’t need a prop to distract and protect you, because you can silently interact with your fellow riders. The shared thoughts on the train are public property. You can people-watch. Everyone else is doing it.
Headphones are rare, as are sunglasses. The eyes of the riders wander like flies around the car. Everyone looks at everyone, and acknowledges that they are looking. They don’t turn off the Commander Data emotion chip in their brain for the duration of the commute. They are on the train, together.
And you’re surrounded by sky. You’re not staring at the wrong side of the earth’s crust, thinking about analogies beginning with bowels and bellies and Grendel’s mother’s digestive system – the train is flying through the air, eye to eye with birds and skyscrapers, making a loop above the rivers.
In New York, all I could see on people’s faces on the subway was “Don’t look at me,” and I had to have an elaborate equipage to survive an hour of it. Sunglasses, book, headphones, outfit, all armed and ready from the moment I got onto the train. On the daily commute from not-so-Prospect-Park-adjacent to 23rd and 6th, you were judged by the strength of your defenses against the other inhabitants of the subway cars. It was not okay to put your headphones on in the train. That made you look stupid. They had to be on already. You had to enter the train looking as if you slept with your headphones in your ears. (I think many of the people there did. In fact, I’ve just remembered, unpleasantly, that when I was in New York, I started sleeping with my headphones in, too. I started feeling naked and unprotected without them.)
Due to something being wrong with my skull, I couldn’t ever make the little Ipod buds stay in, so I was stumbling around the G and C and A trains cramming them back into my ears and looking like I didn’t know Brooklyn from a hole in the ground (which was true – I spent more time in a hole in the ground than I ever did in Brooklyn).
I finally caved in and went out bought white wraparound headphones with ear clips to make them stay on, but with the white cord so I could still be an Ipod poser hipster. Thus fully disguised, I sat there writing poetry through the battlements of my sunglasses, all over the yellowed pages of a chemistry notebook, staring around the train like the country mouse from Planet California that I was. I knew better – I knew you weren’t supposed to look – but no one has yet explained to me how to spend an hour trapped in a car with a hundred other people and not look at their faces.
But here, in what Rush calls “The Middle West,” everyone is so comfortable with themselves, their city, and their trains that you could recite poetry, I think, without incident, on a Brown Line car from Montrose to Merchandise Mart. Someone is probably doing so right now.
I told my father that after New York, Boston felt like Yosemite National Park, for its nature. Likewise, after New York, Chicago feels like the Emerald City of Oz, for the friendliness of its inhabitants. Or perhaps Munchkinland. Everybody wishes to welcome you. Chicago is the Miss Congeniality of cities.
New York is a one-night stand. Chicago is the city you go home with. (That is, if the train is running late enough.)