Ghosts of commutes past

When I go to and from work every day, I love going through the new transit center in Redmond. It’s just some big driveways for the buses and some shelters to wait under, with another lane for the corporate shuttle buses to use. It all sits among the usual Northwest-style landscaping of tall fir trees, dogwood and other shrubs, a downed log here and there among the plantings, and a messy-looking lagoon of standing water (go figure) right alongside the state highway and its ramps. It’s pretty, for a bus station.

I appreciate it because of the bus station I used for several years in Chicago, from about 1988 to 1992. I lived in the north-side neighborhood of Rogers Park and worked in Skokie at a magazine called Dental Products Report. I took the Sheridan bus every day up to Howard Station, where the Chicago and Evanston el trains came together in an old wood and concrete station above the bus station. For my work commute, I didn’t have to go upstairs to get on the el, though I used that route all the time to go shopping in Evanston. To get to work I had to wait down under the giant bus shelter for the 290 Touhy bus west to Skokie. It only came every twenty or thirty minutes, and the Sheridan bus was unreliable, so I often had plenty of time to stand in the bus station and look around.

Where to wait was a carefully considered decision daily. The shelter was big enough to cover six or seven lanes of buses and the waiting-space between them. But the roof was made of semi-translucent green corrugated fiberglass that came to a peak over a grid of metal supports. These were the permanent homes for hundreds of pigeons. If I chose to stand under the shelter, I had to be sure I wasn’t directly under one of the rafters. Also under the shelter, with its sickly filtered light, I’d be close enough to the bus lanes to scrutinize the thick layer of black grease that had built up under decades of filthy city buses.

But if I waited outside the shelter, along the entrances to the small, old shops next to the station, I was more likely to be asked for money by somebody who either smelled terrible, was drunk, or both, and more likely to find myself watching somebody root all the way through the contents of a full garbage can. More people passed through that area in a hurry to get from the train to the bus, so standing there also made me feel constantly in the way. In either waiting spot, it was almost impossible to find anything in my entire line of sight in any direction that wasn’t filthy, broken, sick, hostile, or otherwise completely depressing.

Across the street to the west was an old art-deco bank building where I had used to visit my orthodontist upstairs in an office suite. I could remember sitting in the dental chair there and looking at the whole bus-station mess from five stories up. Across the street to the south was a sprawling gravel parking lot, and to the north were the station shops and then Howard Street, full of wandering drunks and of little businesses that were plagued by crime. And to the east was the concrete wall that held up the el tracks. I never minded the el. It had an urban rattletrap quality that seemed to come from decades long past. It was more frequent and reliable, and strangely charming. Maybe because the el was noisy, I never worried about having some weirdo start a conversation, as was more likely on the buses.

But waiting in the Howard bus station got me so down that every morning, when the Touhy bus finally came and took me to Skokie, that I not only felt sorry for myself, but imagined that it was my unavoidable fate to pass through there every day for the rest of my life, as if I had no other options. It didn’t seem right to feel so bad about it, because for the most part I loved Rogers Park. And the bus station had a lifetime of familiarity. The problem was that instead of developing an irrational fondness for it as I had for the el, this familiarity had led me to a horror of everything I saw around me there. It seemed to be an outward show of something that was going on inside me, which was that I was seeing someone who treated me badly, and it was taking me years to figure it out.

Last year I visited Chicago by myself. I arranged to meet a friend of my mother’s who I hadn’t seen in twelve years. I would be coming from downtown on the el, and she would meet me at the bottom of the stairs at Howard Station. As my train pulled into the “end of the line, last stop, everyone must leave the train at Howard,” from the window I saw an almost empty landscape. It was stunning. The hodgepodge of decrepit station shops were gone, the dark old bank building was gone, a big courtyard apartment building was gone, all replaced by fields of white preconstruction gravel. Where the bank used to be was a gleaming, sprawling Jewel supermarket. Every other lot was empty and waiting.

Or was it? The train station platform was exactly the same. No demolition or reconstruction there yet. As I left the train, walked down the same old stairs, and saw my mother’s friend standing among the same ticket-taker booths and turnstiles, for all I could see nothing had changed at all. We greeted each other with happy hugs, and she said her car was in the Jewel parking lot. We left the train station through the same old swinging doors. The former little shops and their full garbage cans were gone. You could see Howard Street to the right, and the white empty lots in almost every other direction. But on my immediate left, I couldn’t believe what I saw. The old green fiberglass bus shelter, its pigeons, and its grease-caked pavement were still standing, unchanged.

I guess the actual train and bus stations were going to be the final piece in the redevelopment scheme. The bus station looked more pathetic than ever, standing by itself among the surrounding white, empty spaces. I hope it’s gone by now, replaced by something both adequate and cheerful. But whatever happens to Howard Station, I’d rather be in Seattle.