I’m reading a new report claiming Chicagoans “lost” an average of 503 days commuting over their lives, time they “waste” traveling to and from their jobs.
I am agog, aghast and aquiver.
I have been commuting in and around the Chicago area for … 35 years now, going to newspapers in Barrington, Wheaton and, since 1987, downtown Chicago. I’ve gotten to work by foot, bike, car, cab, train, bus. I once hitched a ride to the office from Belmont Harbor in a lovely Chris-Craft cabin cruiser.
However done, commuting has always been among the most pleasurable moments of the day.
Going back to that first job, at the Barrington Courier-Review, driving my grandmother’s little blue Chevy Citation. Stopping at a Dunkin’ Donuts to pick up breakfast — a raisin bran muffin and, for desert, a chocolate chip muffin. Reaching into the bag, pulling up the top — the best part, dense and glossy and delicious — and pressing it against my lips.
I lived in Oak Park when I started working at the Sun-Times and did at first view my daily commute downtown with alarm. For about 10 seconds, then shrugged and decided, “I’ll just have to read ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ then.” Sitting in the front of the ‘L,’ a fat volume cracked in front of me, occasionally glancing up from the gardens of Combray to watch the city rushing toward me.
Some of my most memorable moments came during a commute. After we got married, we moved to East Lake View. Sometimes I’d take the 151 bus.
An elderly gent once tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I didn’t realize young people still read Thurber.”
“We do,” I replied, smiling. “And thank you for calling me ‘young.'”
Sometimes my wife and I would drive in together. Maybe I’m fonder of commuting than is decent because I often have her to talk with. We were stopped at a light, and a bus pulled up with one of those Calvin Klein ads featuring Kate Moss, the boyish British model.
“I don’t care what people say, I’d have an affair with her,” I blurted out, then, realizing to whom I was talking, added, “But I’d always come running home.”
My wife didn’t miss a beat.
“To what?” she asked.
You can watch a year of television and not hear a quip as sharp as that.
After children we moved to the suburbs, buying an old ruin a block from the Metra station. To grab the 7:54, we must leave the house by 7:47, 7:48 at the latest. When they were younger, sometimes a boy or two would take the train into work with me, and we’d sit in the upper level, playing chess on a portable board.
Is that time lost?
Yes, driving in traffic can be deadening.
But with audio books, the slowest crawl down the Kennedy can be an hour with a cup of coffee and Captain Jack Aubrey taking the HMS Surprise around the Horn.
Yes, Metra has problems.
Leaving a rush-hour train at Union Station, you join the slow crush of semi-humanity shuffling down the dark, shrieking, smokey netherworld — a queue of damned souls lacking only leather-winged demons prodding us forward with pitchforks to complete the effect.
But even that ordeal, though unpleasant, isn’t time wasted. Whose day doesn’t significantly brighten once they’ve survived that gantlet and returned to the bright shining living world?
Commuting is not time lost, but time found. Time spent reflecting. Even if your love your job, even if it is the most satisfying occupation imaginable, even if your home life is loving, you still need that Third Place, somewhere in between to merely be, to do the crossword puzzle, read the paper or a book, regroup, nap — I intentionally don’t carry my laptop on the train, because then I’d never stop working.
You would never tote up the hours spent doing other obligatory tasks — eating, or going to the bathroom — and declare them a waste. There is a savor and satisfaction in consuming food, and, well, I’m not going to laud excretion. At least I’m producing something up that meets our current standards of political discourse. I don’t see why commuting can’t fall into the same category. If you have to do it, do it right. You only have the one precious life; no part of it should be wasted.