All Aboard! But First, Let’s Overanalyze

The world breaks down between people who agonize over six possible answers to every true-false question and those who see two. Judging from my ability to navigate what my friend Janis described as a very simple public transit system, I am apparently in category number one.

“Nothing to it,” she said, suggesting I “hop the train” to Naperville during Christmas, when both of us were visiting our daughters in Chicago. “Just run over to Union Station. Everything runs through there.”

To my credit, I found the station and checked the schedule. For someone who complicates her life by overanalyzing the possibilities, everything went downhill from there.

Not to minimize the architectural wonders of Columbus, but for openers, I was overwhelmed by a train station described online as a “20,000 foot classic Beaux Arts style room which boasts 18 soaring Corinthian columns, terracotta walls, a pink Tennessee marble floor … crowned with a spectacular five-story, barrel-vaulted, atrium ceiling.”

I was even more overwhelmed by what the site neglected to add: “Behind some of the Corinthian columns are directional signs with arrows pointing to trains, which may refer either to suburban Metra trains, which themselves have a number of different lines, or to Amtrak trains, which can quickly sweep an unsuspecting traveler on a two-day jaunt to Seattle.”

I discovered all this for myself after agonizing over the real intent of a series of directional arrows that eventually had me at an Amtrak window trying to buy a ticket for a ride on the Metra. (I still maintain that the Metra arrows, if followed literally, lead right into the Amtrak line.)

“Over there!” said the Amtrak agent, who pointed vaguely toward another part of the cavernous station. It housed little self-service Metra machines that offered “full-fare” tickets to Aurora and back – but not Naperville – and flashed “Sold Out” signs as unfriendly as a vending machine that has exhausted its supply of Diet Coke.

“Does this mean the train doesn’t run to Naperville?” I wondered aloud. “Does this mean the tickets are all gone? And what do I have to do to get a discount?”

I felt as confused as the time the kindergarten teacher wrote “Draw five green trees” on the board, and I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to draw the trees or write down the directions. Setting a lifelong precedent, I made the unfortunate second choice.

At the station, a fellow traveler directed me into the very long Metra ticket line. Finally, the curmudgeon at the ticket window explained that Aurora was at the end of a line that stopped in Naperville, that the machine was sold out but not the train, and – in the most encouraging moment of the day – required me to show my ID before he would give me a senior discount. He threw his arm out supposedly pointing the way to the “South Concourse,” where he said I could board the Naperville (well, really Aurora) train at Gate 6.

“Will I have time?” I asked breathlessly.

He threw me a look of disgust. “It’s 20-second walk,” he said. Inaccurately.

Off I bolted, in the direction of his outstretched arm and in search of a South Concourse sign. There was none in view, and I still maintain that his arm, if followed precisely, would have led directly into a blank wall just to the right of a janitorial closet.

Through some miracle, I finally spotted the concourse sign, which had been concealed by a soaring Corinthian column, shot through Gate 6 and boarded the train with seconds to spare.

“Easy, eh?” said my friend when she met me at the Naperville station.

Sometimes it’s simpler just to put your best foot forward.

“I got the senior rate,” I told her, “but they made me show my ID.”

Copyright 2013 Pat Snyder

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