“First Day” is a true story about my first experience as a daily commuter on the Chicago, South Shore & South Bend Railroad on November 16, 1992. For nearly five years, I rode the South Shore 86 miles one way from South Bend, IN, to work at the University of Chicago.

There comes a time in every person’s life when their environment imposes some kind of evolutionary change in their being. For example, when someone moves from the sunny south to the frigid wastelands of the north, the environment inevitably alters one personal schedule. After the first frost, one quickly discovers that the cars won’t always start and the stubborn auto’s windshield is rarely clear. Within a week of coming into work or school late after cursing the cold and arguing with the silent vehicle, one finally gives in to those greater external forces, and wakes up fifteen minutes earlier, plugs in the car when home, and ultimately alters his or her lifestyle to fit the world around them (not to mention financial burden of a drastic wardrobe change). In my case, I had nearly always lived within walking distance of work or school. At most (aside from the weekly 46-mile trip to the main office of a job or two ago), I had to travel fifteen minutes to anywhere. In ten minutes, that record was to change forever.

Happily assured the car was secure, I turned and briskly walked over to the small shack that resembled more of a highway rest area than a train station. Illuminated by the fluorescent tubes beneath the eaves of the building, two stainless steel rail cars sporting red and orange striping stood proudly on the track. With their end doors open and steps lowered, they beckoned to me to enter the unknown within.

I had always been a fan of railroading. Back when I was a child in North Dakota, I assembled a large model railroad layout that encompassed nearly a quarter of the family basement. It was an odd assortment of components collected by my father and I, covering a wide variety of periods and scales. There was the N-scale coalmine area (the “narrow gauge” line utilizing an incredibly under-scaled, over-sized steam freight engine that in reality, would have collapsed the mine itself), the HO city (which was nothing more than several sheets of plywood covered in the typical green grass paper and speckled cork), and the ever-popular switching yard. One of my favorite pieces of HO rolling stock was a non-functional rail-diesel car (RDC). Growing up in the rural areas of the Midwest, I had never seen such a creature in real life. It was as self-propelled passenger car used for commuting on non-electrified track between cities throughout North America. Frankly, I never imagined ever seeing one (for that matter, at times I never imagined a city larger than sixty thousand people or an airplane bigger than a Boeing 727), let alone having the opportunity to ride in one. Since this track was electrified (I deduced that from the presence of the overhead wire and the rail car’s pantograph that touched it), I would not enjoy the opportunity to ride an RDC. Taking into account that nearly all of them had been retired a decade ago, there probably was little chance of encountering one anyway.

Having never been on a train (actually, this was my second time; the first was back when I could barely see out of an automobile window), moving into this new alien world was both fantastic and traumatic. I am a relatively intelligent, college-educated adult with excellent motor skills and good hand-eye coordination. However, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to open the sliding stainless steel cabin door. Where a knob should have been, there was a small twisted upside down handle through which no human could fit his or her hand without accomplishing some major acrobatic feat. Carefully analyzing the geometry of the handle in relationship to the door, I firmly grasped a portion of it in my left hand and tugged to the left. Alas, it barely budged. Using my superior intellectual capacity that sets humanity apart from apes, I tugged it to the right. Again, little movement.

The human race is a relatively social lot, thriving on contact and conversation with others. Much of what we learn comes from observing others’ actions and reactions, and from which we apply our own experiences and generate new solutions to complex problems. Given my situation, a normal human (whatever that is) would have either waited for someone to come and open the door for them or ask for help from the nearest person in charge. Unfortunately, I’ve never been one for asking stupid questions (though, undoubtedly the question about how the door works had been asked at least once before), and I don’t consider myself normal enough to ask for help. In light of this, I set my bag on the ground, grabbed the handle with my right hand, and yanked the mechanism to the right with every drop of early morning pre-caffeinated energy that permeated my muscles. Much to my amazement and embarrassment, the door easily slid open, and because I was thrown off-balance, I immediately fell through the opening into the cabin. Fortunately for my own ego, no one appeared to notice.

There is something a bit strange about stepping onto a commuter train for the first time. First of all, it’s not a bus, but a train. In practically everyone’s romantic vision of railroading, a train is supposed to be something special. We read of the Orient Express, watch Amtrak commercials that glorify the rails as cars snake between mountain passes and mirrored lakes. Well, this particular train was blandly adorned with the mass transit orange and brown seats, almond walls and simulated wood grain contact paper panels, and in the end, represented a perfect example of classic of American mass transit.

As I regained my composure and snatched up my bag, I peered out over the sea of orange vinyl seats. Dotted throughout the brightly lit cabin were about ten, maybe fifteen other people who were most likely doing what I was, commuting into Chicago. A group of them gathered at the center of the car, swapping stories and sipping coffee. A few were in isolated corners resting their heads on the backs of seats, sides of windows or whatever appeared to be comfortable at the time. I had expected to see a conductor looming in the distance, stalking me for a ticket, but I saw no one.

I wandered up the brown rubber skid pad aisle and found a seat on the left side of the car next to a window. Trying to look like I’d done this a thousand times before (another odd quirk of human nature), I tossed my bag into the seat beside me and removed my jacket. After I made my nest, I opened the bag and pulled out my traveling coffee mug filled with ice, and a bottle of cold cappuccino (ah, the exotic cultured traveler I am). Carefully preparing my morning coffee experience, I snapped on the plastic lid and sipped happily away.

Whenever anyone travels on some type of mass transit, there are a few basic procedures each mode subjects us to before embarking on a journey. When traveling by air, one is bored into submission by some type of boarding process followed by the ignored safety demonstrations, and finally an announcement to prepare for departure. Traveling by bus is less exciting but still holds some warning. Quite simply, the doors close and the bus roars to life. One can see the driver checking the mirrors, tugging on the wheel and glancing out the windows in futile preparation for a rapid entrance into traffic. However, on this train, a warning of any kind could not be found. There was no classic conductor’s voice shouting out “all aboard!” The sound of closing doors and roaring engines didn’t exist. In fact, the only noticeable hint of departure was the slow undulation of the car as it rolled silently down the track.

At this point, a good commercial would flash up scenes of bright-eyed children clamoring for a window seat, practically killing each other for a chance at the wonderful view beyond the Plexiglas. Next, one would see their eager faces pressed against the translucent panel, staring in awe of the landscape roaring before their eyes. Their rosy cheeks would beam from the windows as the camera pulls back revealing the incredible view that, until now, we were not privy to. Ah, what an image. Well, no one was rushing to see this view. At 6:50 a.m., there is little to see in the darkness.

The train flew down the track at probably 70 to 75 miles per hour. It is hard to tell when there is little to see out the window. In virtually every classic movie, a train ride was characterized by the rhythmic clickety-clack of the rails. This melodic and repetitious sound would lull the likes of Greta Garbo or Betty Davis to sleep in no time. The aural sensation was part of the romantic perception of rail travel. Somehow, much like the railcars themselves, the ride did not fit into this utopian perspective. The gentle clicking was replaced by an unrelenting jack hammer. The train violently swayed and jerked at every rail seam. There was no hope of lulling my caffeinated body to sleep.

Along the way, we blasted by a factory complex of some kind. It looked like a modern space complex with eerie steam pouring out of nearly every opening and the pink glow of sodium vapor highlighting the corrugated walls. Moments later, the aura disappeared as we passed through a tiny town. Near as I could tell during the one-minute visit, the town did have a grain elevator and a farm adjacent to the tracks. Other than that, the community would have to remain a mystery to uncover on another inevitable trip.

After about five minutes, the train eased to a halt at some obscure place in the middle of oblivion. Illumination from a distant yard light reflected off of a large shiny surface. Using my over-caffeinated mental powers of deduction, I figured there must be a lake out there. Maybe by summer I’d find out.

With the addition of two more passengers (they had no problem with the door), we began the trek into the darkness again. The rails hammered beneath us for another half hour until the train reached the “Shops” station. Not knowing the area, I frantically scanned about, looking for the station’s namesake. I had heard of a great mall located near the tracks in this fabled town. Having such fabulous luck at deducing things on that fine morning, I firmly decided that the “shops” must be the station for a wonderful display of capitalism. Much to my dismay, there were no stores of any kind. In fact, “shops” referred to the railroad repair “shops” and not the commercial entities I had expected. So much for reasoning.

Usually, when a major transportation entity leaves a port, it is fully equipped for the entire trip. One never sees a DC-10 take off with one of its wing engines missing, nor does one see a ship depart with half of its hull. The two electrified wonders of modern Japanese engineering left South Bend for Chicago with myself comfortably situated in the front car. After a handful of people clamored aboard, the train hesitated and then jerked forward as if something had bumped into us from behind. BOOM! The ceiling shook as an unidentified object slammed against the roof of the car. Sensing that others were calm, I (being a social animal) nervously sat in my seat hoping that my first day at work would not also be my first late one. Immediately after the noise echoed in the car, the fluorescent lamps that gave off so much light during our 45-minute trek slowly flickered, dimmed and finally extinguished. The ventilation blowers spun to a halt and a deadly silence filled the stainless-steel tube. Needless to say, I fell into silent panic.

Moments later, the silence was broken by another noise from the roof. It sounded like a finger plucking a string on a guitar. Before I could invest all of my disheveled mental faculties into analyzing the sound, the entire car roared to life with the instantaneous ignition of the fluorescent tubes and the satisfying hum of the ventilation system. Seconds after the monster reawoke, we were off again. During the fracas, the train sprouted six more cars.

A common sight for tourists in New Orleans, San Francisco and most large European cities is the presence of streetcars and trolleys in the middle of the roadway. The single or double mini-trains mesh with the normal street traffic becoming more like buses than railcars. These classic modes of transportation are in their own way, quaint, as they represent a bygone era. As I looked out the window at the surrounding dark buildings that composed Michigan City, the quaint image of a bus-like streetcar was completely shattered as I realized we were in the middle of a major roadway. Automobiles were passing the train just inches away from either side of the steel sides. Virtually every home along the street opened onto the main tracks of the South Shore railroad. The street was a standard width road with enough room for a turn-only lane in the center. The center lane was occupied by a single set of railroad tracks and an overhead wire charged with 1,500 volts of DC electricity. Reflecting on history, an average streetcar was around 40 to 50 feet in length. Therefore, a streetcar would not disrupt normal automobile traffic as it was the size of a typical tour bus and requires the same space to maneuver. Now consider the commuter train. Instead of a single 50-foot streetcar, eight 85-foot cars are coupled together into a gigantic silver snake two and a quarter football fields long. Because of each car’s length, corners are a major problem. The entire creature constitutes a huge mobile traffic nightmare and that is only for one train. On an average weekday, the 226-yard monster passes through the town 26 times. I’d hate to live there.

Once clear of the main portion of the city, another pink aura cut through the darkness. This time, the image was obvious. There’s nothing quite like the glow of a brick-walled prison in the morning.

Another common rail ploy is the display of beautiful scenes available just outside every window. Each passing mile is a step into a perfect natural world where human hands have barely touched the virgin landscape (except, of course, for the railroad). Well, quite frankly, when the sun rose, I found myself riding on the edge of the armpit of an ecological catastrophe. As the train approached Gary, conditions grew more vile in each passing inch of terrain. That’s not to say some of the landscape was appealing; it just was not visible before dawn.

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