D#@ks on a Train: Stress of Commuting Can Be Deadly

I’ve been riding Metra downtown and back (with only a short hiatus) for the past 20 years. I think that makes me a veteran train commuter.

Last Tuesday was another one of those mornings. It had just snowed the day before, President’s Day. Another five inches on top of the 60-something already dumped on us. Sidewalks and parking lots half-shoveled and slushy.

Trains were late, again. They’re never actually on time anymore anyway, not ever. But today was exceptionally bad because a derailment in the middle of the night slowed traffic in and out of the city even slower. As any veteran of the rails knows, when a train is late, say, the 8 o’clock, it’ll be over-crowded because people who’d normally miss it can catch it at 8:05 or 8:10.

The regulars grab their regular spots first: the little group of neighbors, the foursome who sit facing each other so they can exchange small talk the whole ride--- whose kid won what hockey game or who’s getting their gutters cleaned.

All the window seats on the first level fill up next, riders signaling they’d rather be alone. The aisle seats, the seats next to them, fill in with excuse me’s and may I’s and sighs of resignation. There’s an upper level of single seats, twenty or so that’re taken now, too.

When the train is that crowded, like last Tuesday, the remaining passengers have to stand--- in the aisles, the vestibule, wherever. It’s not the same as standing on the “L.” There are no poles or rails to hang onto on a Metra train and it’s not a short ride. I hate standing.


When the train is packed, it's the best seat in the house...

I find a step in a stairway leading to the second level and sit down. Other commuters do the same. I poke around at some stuff on my laptop, type a few things here and there and close it. I slip it into my backpack then lean back and close my eyes, listening to music.

NOTE: I wear a huge, green army-type coat (from Abercrombie!) in winter. It’s warm; it weighs seven pounds. But with the hoodie I wear under it, I bear a striking resemblance to a homeless man.

As the train takes that final curve into the yards outside Union Station, a guy (let’s call him Guy #1) taps me on the shoulder with his foot. He’s standing right next to my head on the stairs. Calmly, I pull out an earbud and look up at him.

“He wants to get out,” Guy #1 tells me, pointing to Guy #2, behind him. He’s one of those balding guys who shave the hair he has left down to bristle. Both in their 30s. Black overcoats, carrying stylish leather bags. Guy #2 NEEDS to get out. I wonder for a second if Guy #2 is sick or having a seizure but Guy #1 doesn’t say so. No, Guy #2 just NEEDS to get out, like the rest of us DON’T need to get out, I’m thinking. We’re going to stay on the train when it stops. No, no, we’ll be perfectly fine here, we’re staying. We’ll ride back to the suburbs. You go ahead.

“Um, we all do,” I tell him with a sideways glance. “But, okay.”

So I stand up; I give him that much. But I can’t go anywhere because people are cramming the aisles in front of me. Guy #1 takes one step down. He’s now one step closer to his office, one step closer to conquering the world at whatever mid-level, white-collar job he’s rushing off to.

Any veteran of the rails knows that if Guy #2 was really in a hurry, if he was really the go-getter he tells himself he is while he takes that umpteenth selfie and Snapchats it to his frat buddies, he wouldn’t be in the fourth car from the end blocked in on the upper level. Guy #2 would be in the front car, standing the whole way by the door in the vestibule so he’d be the very first one out, like Seabiscuit waiting for the starting bell.

I know this because I used to be that guy racing to the office. That’s when the stress of being that guy kept me from eating anything spicy or fried or made from dairy, when my blood pressure spiked to 190/120, when I nearly keeled over from a heart attack. Back when I thought sprinting to the office every morning was a symbol of… something.

Studies show fighter pilots have lower stress levels than commuters packed on an overcrowded train for half an hour. Those Two Guys’ stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, were probably pretty jacked. High levels of cortisol lead to increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and what doctors like to call: “early death.”

I’ve slowed down lately; I’m usually one of the last ones off the train now. Except for last Tuesday. Last Tuesday, this veteran commuter was third or fourth out the door, leaving Guy #1 and #2 trapped in the stairwell.

Yeah, well, I NEEDED to get out.


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