During the Golden Age of train travel, Chicago’s Union Station was America’s most important rail hub, with passengers from almost everywhere connecting with trains going to just about anywhere.
The glory days of the Broadway Limited and the Super Chief and the Dixie Flyer may be long gone, but some 50,000 rail passengers still pass through this venerable station every day. Some are commuters heading home to one of Chicago’s outlying bedroom communities; others are hurrying to board one of Amtrak’s long-distance trains – the Empire Builder to Seattle, perhaps, or the California Zephyr, which will be departing in just a few minutes on its two-night journey to the San Francisco Bay area.
My destination today is much less exotic – in 90 minutes I’ll be aboard the Pere Marquette and headed to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for a business meeting – but at the moment I find myself absorbed with the constant flow of foot traffic passing my seat in the Great Hall of this magnificent old station. After a while, I begin jotting down some observations: Regardless of age, men all pretty much look alike; only the shapes vary as well as the haircuts. An airline pilot hurries past. It’s not the uniform that makes him look so dashing, it’s the cap. Some women, no matter how slim and stylish, simply cannot manage to not look his way.
Veteran travelers walk briskly, pulling their small wheeled bags; first-timers appear tentative and struggle awkwardly with impossibly oversized luggage. Western boots look absolutely fabulous on some women; ridiculous on others.
And, on the subject of boots, several Amish families pass by dressed in their modest dark blue and black garments – straw hats on the men, demure bonnets on the women. The men wear practical leather boots, but the women are all sporting the latest athletic footwear from Adidas or
How does a Jewish man prevent his yarmulke from slipping off?
What prompts an overweight woman in her 60s to get a tattoo of Tweety Bird on her upper arm?
Once in the station, 90 percent of the women push sunglasses up onto
their foreheads; only a few of the men do (none of the bald guys).
With time to kill, older travelers tend to read or watch the passing
parade; the younger ones are texting – some even as they hurry to their
But the time has passed, and my train to Grand Rapids will soon be
boarding. I stand up, gather my things, and step out into the teeming flow
of white and black, yellow and brown, young and old – all of us focused on
our own coming or going. And for a few minutes, I’m part of a uniquely
American scene, passing through the Great Hall of Chicago’s Union Station.
Let’s see now . which way is Track 21?