So here's the conundrum:
Human beings love company but hate crowds.
We don't want to be lonely, but prefer nobody sits next to us on trains.
We hate litter, as evidence of the lunkish carelessness of our fellows. But admire the soft patina their hands rub over the years on a brass handrail or, in Union Station, these footworn stairs, almost resembling a geologic formation.
I never really thought about it until Friday, after a post, about how Amtrak shouldn't break its arm patting itself on the back for putting $12 million into Union Station, a figure that probably is not enough to give the filthy, smokey netherworld a good scrubbing.
In passing, I mentioned the stone steps. Amtrak had said they were going to be repaired, and I wrote that they shouldn't do that, that the dips that nearly a century of feet have worn into them was the closest thing Chicago has to the ancient feel of Jerusalem or Rome.
That lone comment was what most readers focused in on. People love those steps, not only for being in "The Untouchables," but for the same quality I noticed.
"Don't replace the worn marble stairs unless you also have a contract to rehab the Parthenon," wrote Tom Golz, in the comments section, echoing a common refrain that the Great hall should be left alone. (On Twitter, a reader pointed out that the steps are not "marble," as the Tribune imagines, but travertine, a form of limestone, which the AIA Guide to Chicago confirms).
Why do people we encounter in the present—the line in front of us in the grocery, the fellow hikers spoiling the quiet of our trail—so often annoy, while those in the past, whoever trod these steps, intrigue and inspire us?
A pretty easy conundrum, when put that way. We are inconvenienced by our fellow citizens now: they brush against us in our seats, delay our paying for our groceries, take our parking spaces. There's something about other human beings that repulses us.
"Of all animals, men are the least fitted to live in herds," Rousseau wrote. "If they were crowded together as sheep are they would all perish in a short time. The breath of man is fatal to his fellows."
("Crowded together as sheep are"—sounds like he's been to the South Platform at Union Station).
On the other hand, people safely relegated to the past, well, they're gone and not coming back, so thus make less demanding companions. When I wrote about why earthlings imagine UFOs are space visitors, the most common theory is that we can't stand the idea of being alone in the universe. So the same folks who would give you a dirty look if you asked to sit next to them on the train, who protest a condominium being built down the block, because the neighborhood of course reached its full saturation with the arrival of themselves, will confabulate every streak in the sky into a mothership, so as not to be alone in the universe.
A contradiction. But one that makes sense, in a perverse kind of way, and points toward strategy we can perhaps use to improve our lives. Maybe our petty impatience with our fellows masks a deeper need, for fellowship, and if we could somehow conquer that, we would be happier. Maybe the deep truths we expect to get from outer space are available from those individuals moving in down the street, if we only could overcome our displeasure at their arrival, our fear of inconvenience and proximity, and sought them out. Maybe a bit of the romantic affection draped over these worn stairs could be expended toward those who are wearing them down right now, to this very day, the motley passengers camping out between trains on the wooden benches nearby in the Great Hall. Now there's a thought.