Let’s talk, if we can for a moment, about public transportation. I’ve been taking CTA busses to school by myself since I was ten. It used to cost 40 cents for a kid to take the bus and I’d go to the currency exchange and get rolls of tokens about once every two weeks. The tokens were gold, large and had holes punched in them to give a sort of hubcap vibe. The full fare tokens, 90 centers, were smaller and silver. It was a weird day when I turned sixteen (? It’s been a while) and suddenly switched to the thinner rolls of more expensive tokens. It was a real end-of-an-era type of feel.
When I went to college, I went to Northwestern, which is located in Evanston, the town that borders Chicago immediately to the north. I lived on campus for about 4 months and then, unable to stand the boredom of existing right next door to my hometown in a suburb that had outlawed bowling and given birth to the prohibition movement, I moved back into the city, where I eventually wound up sharing an apartment with my friends Chris and Mark in a building that was called the Lawrence Arms.
In order to get from the Lawrence Arms to the Northwestern campus, I had to take the redline south 4 stops to Belmont, then transfer to the brown line, take that all the way north to Howard and then transfer to the Evanston purple line (there was/is an express train during peak hours that makes this whole thing slightly less complicated, but I almost never travelled during peak hours, so whatever…bear with me. There’s a point to all this). This was, in no uncertain terms, the period of my life where I spent the most time on the train. If you look at the Lawrence Arms songs from this era, songs from the first two records, you’ll notice an almost maniacal preoccupation with Chicago’s public transportation and feelings of constantly
Chris, who went to Columbia downtown, also spent inordinate amounts of time on the train, so the saturation was complete. We’d just take the train back and forth, then hole up in our place and write songs about our lives, which mostly involved books (due to being in college) and trains (due to getting to and fro). This paradigm really kind of defined our band for a long time. We were bookworms on the train, traversing shitty zones, buying 40’s at the JJ Peppers, and getting hammered in our crappy apartment when we had moments of free time. We also played a whole shit ton of Nintendo 64 (which is like a primitive ball-and-cup version of a Playstation III) but that doesn’t translate very well to lyrical expression, so for the most part we left that shit out.
Anyway, after college, we went on tour and my days of taking the train everywhere kind of stopped, or at the very least slowed way down. I wasn’t around as much and when I was, I either got rides places or took cabs or (most of the time) rode my skateboard. Throughout my 20s it was not at all uncommon to see me skateboarding through a snowstorm at 1am, heading from Wicker Park northbound towards uptown. During this period I also did a tiny bit of hitchhiking, which wound up being a fun way to meet the absolute dregs of society who still had their shit together enough to have a car. That’s neither here nor there, and, while someday I’ll tell you all about my hitching experiences, today, we’re talking trains.
So, shit flipped and flopped and we got evicted from the Lawrence Arms and then moved to a new place down the street, then we gave up that place to keep touring, and I moved onto the floor of my friend Marcus’s basement. Marcus had a car, so I didn’t take the train very often. I was also making a little bit of money at this point and had literally nothing to spend it on, so if I needed to get somewhere without Marcus (which was almost never), I was taking cabs.
Eventually this party (being homeless and sharing a basement floor with your weird subterranean buddy is a total party, by the way) came to an end and I moved in with my girlfriend, who would eventually become my wife. Our place was on the red line and we’d take the train back and forth to Belmont sometimes, but generally, my public transit use had dropped way off. Eventually, we got a car, moved, and then had kids.
In the past 5-7 years, I’ve taken the train VERY minimally. I mean, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I took the train in 2011. The few times I DID take the train, I was either headed to or from a show, the airport or going downtown to do something weird. I never dealt with rush hour. I never dealt with regularly keeping tokens or money on my card. It was a non-issue. My relationship with public transportation, it seemed, was over.
Well, as some of you know, I recently got a job and now I take the train at least twice a day, both times right smack in the middle of nuts-to-butts rush hour. It’s a fascinating thing, being back in the commute. Firstly, a tight train really spells out who the alcoholics on the train are, as they just absolutely STINK to high heaven when you’re pressed against them. It’s really kind of shocking how many people (it seems) spend their days at the office getting hammered. Good for them, I guess. I don’t think I could figure out how to stay awake/get shit done if I was doing that, but, hey, if you’re handling your shit, good on ya. Keep the party alive.
Secondly, the commute is depressing (I suppose these first two points are probably related, now that I think about it). People are unyielding, simultaneously squished and distant (how weird is it to be mashed, full-body-press style against someone who is pretending you don’t exist???), and generally, there’s a feeling of cold, hard, grayness that just pervades everything. People are plugged into their phones and tablets and books and there’s a lot of dead eyed staring going on. I’ve actually gotten a whole ton of reading done since I started commuting, which is great since reading is one of the leisure activities that’s unfortunately taken a back seat since I had kids…I’ve also gotten plugged back into the matrix of human experience after the past decade of relative isolation as a guy in a bus/van/backstage room, followed up by the COMPLETE isolation of being a stay at home dad. In short, the train has re-exposed me to some half buried, dark truths, but it’s also gotten me thinking as a social, critical human again, which I think is helpful, especially as I continue to write more and more new songs.
It ALSO bears mentioning that this summer, I took a train all over Europe with my buddy Dan, and I just trained it all over a post-Sandy NYC and New Jersey, so I’m pretty much back on the rails, folks. As weird as it sounds, it feels good to be getting my hands dirty on the trains again. It’s been way too long. I was starting to lose the eye of the tiger (or whatever nerds say to denote a return to form). Whooooo! Sly Stallone man. Come on!
So anyway, this week, the New York subway went and ran over a drunk guy that had been trying to calm down a crazy hobo. The hobo threw the drunk guy onto the tracks and the train ran him down while people photographed the whole thing. Depressing. The MOST depressing part, to me, is that the dude was apparently drunk because he had been fighting with his wife. That shit is so sad.
He’s sad because no one likes to fight with someone they love, so he’s drinking. Then, he attempts to calm down the crazy hobo because he’s A) drunk and B) sick of conflict. I understand that impulse too well. You’re in a fight with someone you care about and you see someone harassing someone else, and suddenly, you’ve got this moment of clarity, where you feel like you can stop this conflict, prevent anyone from winding up with hurt feelings like the ones you have, and then you can go home and, bolstered by the small moral victory on the subway platform, figure out how to resolve whatever conflict you have going on with your spouse/loved one.
But instead he got squished by the Q train. His wife, who’s last words to her husband were probably something like “Fine, get the fuck out of here. Fuck you! You pindicked pantywaist! (speculative, of course),” never got to see him alive again and reveal (to herself as much as to him) that fights aren’t forever and anger and love can coexist, even when times are dire. He just died and she never got to get over being angry, and neither did he. That’s some very, very depressing shit. I don’t even care about the other people on the platforms. I, personally would like to think I’d help someone in that situation, but if I’d just seen a crazy hobo toss someone else into the pit, I don’t know that I wouldn’t just be running for my own life/cowering somewhere/staying as far from the tracks as possible…I don’t know. I don’t have any idea how I’d react in that situation. It’s not common, so it’s safe to say that there’d be a moment of confusion, and that may have been all it took. I don’t know. I wasn’t there and I definitely can’t cast aspersions on people when it comes to truly petrifying, unusual moments like that. No one knows. I PROBABLY wouldn’t have just taken pictures, but hey, I’m not a photographer. If I was a photographer, that may have been my knee-jerk reaction in the face of total panic: to focus on doing something I know how to do. I can see that. To explain by way of anecdote, I wouldn’t begrudge a priest for just starting to pray, and lemme tell you, that’s a COMPLETELY fucking useless move. At least the picture captures a truly human moment.
Anyway, I was bummed on trains. Then I saw that video of Jay Z and the little old lady. That shit is pretty cute. I don’t care that it’s obviously at least a little staged and more than a little bit PR drenched. It’s adorable and it really does highlight what’s so awesome about public transportation: Motherfuckers are forced to interact. Sometimes it’s with terrible results (dead guy from last paragraph) and sometimes it’s sweet and awesome (like when my kid makes friends with grizzled old dudes in helmets [my kid loves helmets], or when some old lady goes “oh! You’re Jay Z? I know Jay Z!”) That’s cool shit, to live in a universe with other people. The train is one of those places where you realize that, for better or for worse, there are a lot of other motherfuckers in the trenches too. It’s a little bit like an analog Twitter in that regard.
Okay, I’m going to get on the train.