Wednesday, June 10, 2009

South Shore Line

Talking about trains by way of metaphor yesterday made me reminisce about the train line I used to ride from Indiana to Chicago called the South Shore. The old trains that rode the rails were known as the Little Train that Could.

I grew up east of Chicago in the Indiana dunes. You could drive into the city in about an hour without traffic, but when my sisters went to college in Chicago, we started riding the train. It was cheap and easy, and we could make the trip by ourselves.

The South Shore line ran from South Bend, Indiana to downtown Chicago and was started in the early 1920s. The cars were electric and got their power from overhead lines, and the ones I rode were built in 1929. They were orange and maroon on the outside with worn, brown leather seats on the inside. You know how the interior of an older car has a certain smell, the smell of age and wear and tear? That's what these train cars smelled like, and I loved them.

Our station was a little hut out in the dunes painted bright orange and just big enough for two people to huddle in, so when you were waiting for the train, you had to stand out in the gravel and sand and hope for clear weather. It was a remote and quiet spot, and you waited there in silence except for an occasional screaming hawk and a sort of howling we attributed to coyotes, a little spooky but peaceful. If we were waiting to pick someone up, sometimes we would put pennies on the rails, and after the train would go by, we would pick up smooth, smashed copper discs to keep as useless souvenirs.

In the early 1980s, the train line replaced all the classic cars with new ones made with unpainted steel and no character whatsoever. The old cars were either scrapped or sold off to museums.

It was about that time that I quit college my junior year and got a job downtown. To save money, I lived with my parents in Indiana and took the train to work every morning. I rode to the station with the neighbor man, Mr. Snape, who had a routine. He picked me up at 5:50 on the dot, and we went through the McDonald's drive-through where he ordered an orange juice and a hot chocolate. He drank the OJ in the car and saved the hot chocolate for the ride in. Then we drove out to the dunes and stood there in the dark with the other commuters.

We barely spoke a word to each other for the nine months I commuted. Once Mr. Snape hit a rabbit on the way out to the station, and we both muttered a regretful "aww," but that was the extent of our conversing. For Christmas, I gave him a card with a McDonald's gift certificate tucked inside—he mumbled an awkward "thank you" and slid the card into his breast pocket and never said another word.

The ticket collectors were old guys in polyester blue uniforms that looked about as worn as the original train cars. The seats of their trousers were shiny from being pressed and sat on for years and years. The east side of Chicago was humbler than the suburbs west of the city, so while the western trains brought executives to work, the South Shore brought in the lackeys and the maids. We rode in groggy and rode home completely spent for the day, and we read paperbacks and slept with our heads bobbing and watched the rust belt go by like a flash. Better than seeing it in slow motion, I suppose.

Here is a tribute to the old South Shore.


savannah said...

what a lovely trip back in time, sugar! xoxox

Rich said...

Cool photos, Robyn. I love old trains and am thinking of taking (for the first time) the Down- Easter from Boston to Maine this summer as a change of pace.

dive said...

Lovely memories, Robyn.
I'll have Chattanooga Choo-Choo stuck in my head all day now, which is no bad thing.
Though of course it reminds me of that scene in one of our favourite movies where Gene Wilder asks "Pardon me, boy; is this the Transylvania Station?"

Mark said...

The details you remember from your childhood and youth continue to amaze me. You make it so real I can almost smell it.