Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The 12:25 Milwaukee Road Out Of Union Station

I was knocking around the Internet the other evening. I do that sometimes late at night when the rest of the family has gone to bed. I sit at my desk in the spare bedroom and rummage around as if the Internet were an enormous kitchen junk drawer.

I’d been thinking about the old Milwaukee Road commuter rail line that ran north, out of Chicago’s Union Station to Libertyville, where we lived while I was growing up, and from Libertyville west and north—up to Fox Lake near the Illinois-Wisconsin state line. I’d been thinking about the last train out of the city at night. The one that left Union Station at 12:25 in the morning and got into Libertyville an hour or so later. I just had to know if they still ran the 12:25.

And so to the web. The Milwaukee Road is long gone, supplanted by some part-government, part-God-only-knows-what regional transit system called Metra. This I dutifully Googled. Seconds later, the timetable for what was clearly the old Milwaukee Road North Suburban line was glowing at me from the monitor.

It was reassuring to see the stops hadn’t changed. They were all still there and, a lifetime removed, I knew them immediately, and I recited them from memory.

I knew them backward and forward—into the city and out. They’d been drilled into me by countless trips and a generation of Milwaukee Road conductors, who slid from car to car, padding the aisle on tired legs wearing dandruff-flecked conductor’s caps, clicking their punches, calling for tickets, droning those stops in that tired, nasally voice they must have learned in conductor school, sounding as tired and rote and bored as an old parish priest at Saint Joe’s leading the Ladies Rosary Guild at somebody’s Tuesday night wake.

Every mile of the gritty little pilgrimage came flooding back to me. The rail yards and industrial neighborhoods north of the Loop yielding to bungalow-lined north side streets. The first flickers of open space and forest preserve at the edge of the city. The old suburbs, followed by newer, sprawlier suburbs. A few miles of open prairies dotted with hawthorn trees. The switching yard at Rondout. Saint Mary’s Road, the Des Plaines River viaduct, and then Libertyville.

The trip was a rolling meditation. Between the clang of the warning bell, the clack of the track, the whistle at crossings, and the almost-too-regular spacing between stops, there was a rhythm, repetition, and ritual to it. Tibet had mantras and prayer wheels, Lake County had that train.

The 12:25 was the last prayer of the day. If you arrived at the station at 12:26, and you would be in for a long, expensive cab ride home or a fitful night on the waiting room benches. So at the stroke of midnight you’d tear yourself away from your crowd at some Rush Street bar, race across the loop and climb aboard with two or three minutes to spare.

You climbed aboard feeling alcoholically affable, like William Powell’s Thin Man, the last round with your friends at the bar standing you in good stead. But your fellow commuters already on the train started dampening your spirits pretty quickly.

Tired blue collar swing-shift regulars with lunch boxes and tomorrow morning’s Sun Times. Businessmen heading home after dinner with clients. Fans who’d stopped for a beer after whatever game they’d been to. All of them oozing that sallow, almost luminous post-midnight fatigue.

Suddenly, you too would feel immensely tired. You found a seat and, head against the nicotine-oily window, an hour from home, just one more prodigal son awash in reveler’s remorse, you would join them and wait for the hangover to begin.

The car’s door would open, then slam closed, and other passengers would come up the aisle and find single seats. No one spoke. Everyone kept to themselves. You—all of you—sat there, alone together in the cigarette smoke and the diesel fumes and the oil-and-cleaning-compound-scented subterranean dark of late night Union Station. You all sat there, listening to the big locomotive idle, waiting for the engineer to throttle up, and the train to make that first slow, powerful northbound tug.

You sat alone, and yet there was a communion of sorts. It was as if you were all sitting in an Edward Hopper painting, sharing a little island of light and moving down a tunnel that augured through the city night. You were each your own story, to be continued tomorrow; not finished, but certainly done for the day. You were ready to go home and go to bed.

The feeling is not unique to the 12:25. It’s there, on the last train out of every city. It rattles through the night on every subway and commuter line in the world. There’s an empathy at the heart of it—an empathy so strong that it holds you forever. Once you climb on the 12:25, you never, ever get all the way off.

There is a small stretch of right of way for an old, long-defunct municipal trolley line near my house in the suburbs of Minneapolis. It’s no more than two blocks long. It runs through a patch of municipally-owned woods that they couldn’t sell when they tore out the tracks sixty years ago. The right of way is part of a trail system now, and, walking it, I sometimes sense the doppelganger of the last trolley of the night surging past, the same tired motorman, the same tired anonymous passengers, everyone eternally on their way home to bed.

The people riding my doppelganger 12:25 out of Union Station are nameless too. They sit there, bone weary, reading the Sun Times or staring out the window into the night. One man I do know always gets on one stop north of Union Station. He’s a careworn second generation Irishman—the factory working father of a huge family of playground thugs I went to parochial school with.

The door opens, He steps into the car. The door slams closed behind him. He sits, back to the bulkhead, facing me, Irish tough, preoccupied, not looking past the end of his nose.

Who knows? Maybe he’s still with us, in a nursing home in Libertyville. Maybe some nights after whichever of his ten or eleven children who came to visit leaves and the orderly dims the lights in the hall, the old man falls asleep. And, maybe, in his dream, he climbs aboard his own 12:25. And maybe I’m there—a kid he recognizes from 9:15 mass on Sunday, sitting halfway down the car on the left, a little drunk, head against the window, half asleep.

My 12:25 always gets into Libertyville at 1:25. The Irishman and I always step down onto the old platform, and he always walks off into the night.

I stand there for another moment and watch the train pull out of the station, heading west, around a slight curve to the north toward Grayslake. And when the tail end of the last coach disappears around the curve, I light a cigarette, turn my coat collar up and walk off into the night too.