“Welcome to the Zoo” is a story based on a number of experiences I had during the nearly five years I spent riding the Chicago, South Shore & South Bend Railroad as a commuter from South Bend, IN, to Chicago. After spending a half-decade on the train, my view of the world as a commuter became a bit cynical and jaded. Here’s what five years of spending four hours per day on a commuter train will do to a regular rider.

Impending doom from an overstuffed killer whale and a fuzzy cute miniature dolphin can be in certain contexts, one’s worst nightmare. Like most of the other commuters on this train, I am trapped in a minute corner in amongst a raging torrent of tiny mouths. My friend is the quiet clicking of the rails and this beautiful eggshell tan, stained wall of cheap laminate plastic. A stench permeates the air, reminding me of the days of high school locker rooms and dingy gymnasiums, where as I recall, ventilation was just a blissful dream. All around me, herds of gremlins are shouting, perpetuating aural agony, in turn, creating an intense Bayer moment. A sea of baseball hats and braids extends from the farthest reaches of the railcar undulating with an unnatural motion only discernible from an army of rampaging ants.

Through it all, the lone conductor, Rudy, cuts a path. A certain sternness is in his eye this evening. He’s no one’s grandfather tonight. This night he is a man of an elite military, in charge of the greatest battle of all — safely transporting critical troops through hostile territory. Unfortunately, his troops are extremely uncooperative. In fact, they don’t really care. It’s like every one of them is having their own private Mardi Gras.

When one has not been in touch with children for several years, such an experience can be traumatic at best. What seems so incredible to an uninformed outsider is the powerful herd mentality. For example, as one person speaks, the next must, and so must the next, etc. Pretty soon, each child is shouting at each other in one tumultuous roar until, at one moment, everyone ceases to speak. A mysterious lull rolls across them like an impending weather front. A hush falls across the children making the moment so serene and pleasant. Just as one begins to relish the silence, the talking starts and the cycle repeats.

In the distance, a boxing match is going on in the center of the car. It appears as if two girls are trying to rip each other’s hair out. Of course, the hair is in convenient hand-sized braids, just perfect for tugging. I’m beginning to like my corner. It is so secluded. Paranoia is starting to infiltrate my being. I am sitting in a remote corner of the car with an extremely interesting portable computer on my lap. So interesting, in fact, that it may attract the attention of the Game Boy wielding monster just one seat ahead of me.

Lord, they’re singing at the far end of the car. I really like my corner.

Oh no, one is approaching the seat — my seat. Whew. He doesn’t notice the machine on my lap. I just noticed that the lights are starting to dim. Riding on an electric train has its benefits and drawbacks. A great benefit of electrified trains is the lack of any real pollutants. It is, for the most part, an environmentally safe mode of transportation. One of the major drawbacks (especially in this situation) is the tendency for the train to lose power from time to time, leaving the entire car in the dark. I can’t even fathom the mayhem a power loss would produce.

They’re starting to sing again.

With children (as I understand it), one has to constantly keep them occupied. Boredom is a constant fear of any adult when surrounded by large volumes of agitated kids. To offset boredom, adults create games to pass the time and occupy idle minds. One thing that adults cannot control is the environment. When a particular confined space (such as a railcar) grows old, containing the kids’ energy can become impossible. Well, this particular bunch is just sitting on the edge, waiting to explode.

Not to seem too excited, I think they are departing at the next stop or two. Hopefully, the lights won’t go out.

Well, we just had a cheer for “Father Mark.” Using my incredible powers of deduction nurtured by an incredibly expensive and time-consuming liberal arts education at a Jesuit university, I surmise that these kids belong to some kind Catholic Church group or school. There’s nothing quite like the leader of this mess wandering though the train to the next car, returning moments later with a bag of Solo cups for the water dispenser. Again, utilizing my deductive processes, that must have been “Father Mark.” Like a pack of rats, thirsty (or bored) children cluster around the water dispenser, clamoring for the warm water within.

Much to my dismay, they’re going all the way and not getting off at the next stop. I’ve got to put up with them for another hour.

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