Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Two tickets to Chicago

    Ritual is protective. Doing the same thing, the same way, all the time, might be timid. And it might be dull. But you cut a groove of experience, the walls of which prop you up as you hurtle forward. 
     Depart from that groove, well, you're free to roam, sure. But also free to careen into trouble.   
    When riding the Metra, the conductor appears at the front of the car and cries, "Tickets please!" 
     I pull out my iPhone, assuming it isn't already in my hand, tap on the Ventra app, summon a new ticket up, and wait.
     And wait.
     Not long. A minute or so, as the conductor works his way toward me, my eyes upon him 
     That's how I do it. But it's also time wasted. Why not, I thought pop into another app, and fidget with that while waiting? I had something I wanted to explore, the app associated with my new Bose headphones—birthday gift from the wife. Then I would return to the ticket at the proper moment.
    I considered pulling out a paper ticket—kept in the wallet in case of phone freeze and other related emergencies. But no need. I've got this.
    The conductor approached. The Bose app had shunted me to iTunes which would not let me go. I mashed at the phone, impotently, and by the time I got to the ticket the conductor was looming above me. I mashed another button, showed him the ticket. 
    As he left, I realized I had somehow, in my panic, purchased two tickets.
    $6.40 down the drain.
     There is an inverse between the minuteness of a woe and its reverberation. The county might be run by a crook, but that is not my doing. This was. I explained what happened to my wife, who was nonplussed.
    "Forget it," she said. "Price of a cup of coffee."
    Not any coffee that I'd buy.
    My next thought was to appeal to the conductor. Show him my error and ask for a physical ticket I could use on the train coming home this afternoon. But the aisles and entryway were filled with commuters—the trains have been shorter lately. I'd have to push past them. The conductor would be busy.
    To my credit, I forgot all about it the moment I left the train station. I had planned to phone Metra—I can't be the first goofus to waste an electronic ticket. What is the procedure, the protocol? But I didn't call Metra. There was a column to write, a friend to meet for lunch. We sat at a table by the river on a perfect June day.
     Then to Union Station where, slipping onto the train, it came back to me. My Gaffe. I took a seat at the very back of the car, by where the conductor usually set up shop. He was a man perhaps 20 years my junior, all business, like most Metra conductors. I explained The Situation to him.
    "No worries, happy to help out," he said, explaining that he would waive the need for a ticket on the way home. "We always try to do what we can."
     A few minutes later he came through the car, collecting tickets. And though we had an agreement, and I had used my two tickets that day, as he came toward me, it felt odd, almost illicit. I didn't like not handing over a ticket to be punched. It felt wrong; I had to remind myself not to summon a ticket up again, the third for the day. I remembered traveling in with the engineer once, in the cab, for a column. The conductor came up to the engine to collect not only my ticket, but the Metra PR guy. Even conductors have to show tickets.
     But I endured. Later, talking about it with another conductor, he pointed out that conductors tend to know the people who ride their trains. Even if not by name, they know who is there habitually and who is not. You show your ticket dutifully for almost 20 years, taking pains to make sure you are ready at the proper time so as not to inconvenience or delay the conductor, well, it buys you goodwill on the day you screw up.



  1. I really have to applaud Neil for allowing us into the inner recesses of his brain, a dark and forbidding place to go...for all of us, I'm sure. The Fibber McGee closet where all our jangling fears and crushing inhibitions hide out, only to spill forth once disturbed in embarrassing and noisy clangor.


  2. You have no idea...this is just the frothy surface.

  3. When I started at the Merc, working trading hours only at first, I would stay at the Iron Horse in Union Station with friends. By the time I had made my way to the Ogilvie for the trip to Cumberland or Mt. Prospect I was ready for a nap. Which too often caused me to miss my stop, always waking as we pulled away from where my vehicle was parked. I would board the next inbound train for the short ride back. I never offered to buy a ticket and no conductor ever got to me in time to even ask. I would have explained the situation and refused to pay, all they could do was make me disembark anyway. Fortunately this was at the time of new Casio digital watches with alarm. Worth every penny of that $30 as I never missed my stop again, avoiding an unpleasant confrontation with an innocent conductor, not to mention waiting for a train feeling stupid.


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