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Peterson: Commute’s precision undone by downpour

Published: Friday, April 19, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

I think I’ve found a new worst place to be, and I wasn’t even looking.

It’s on a crowded CTA bus that is running late in a downpour in the Loop.

I’ve been riding buses for about nine months now, and I’m getting used to getting around. But I hadn’t been in a downpour before. It changes people and buses.

The windows fog over with all the body heat, so you can’t see where you are. The smells are funky. Your precious-little personal space is violated. The red lights on the message panel at the front of the bus that tell you where you are aren’t working. The voice that announces the next stop can’t be heard. So you wait to hope someone says Wells or Wacker or whatever. Certainly, the driver will say something.

Certainly, someone will get off the bus.

I was seated on that bus in Wednesday’s rainstorm. I couldn’t see, hear or move. I was having a hard time breathing. And I was wondering just how I was going to get off the bus, seated where I was in the middle, and the aisle was jammed with people standing up. And no one was getting off the bus; more people were piling on to get out of the rain. Weren’t they going somewhere? Or are buses rain shelters on wheels and you just ride the storm out?

My escape route had collapsed on me, and I was in trouble. If it was just me, it would be one thing. But I was carrying a backpack that weighs as much as two bowling balls, and is as cumbersome as two loose bowling balls, and I had to get that off the bus somehow, too.

What I could move was my left wrist to look at my watch. I had 19 minutes to cover the mile from Michigan Avenue to Clinton Street, and that’s never been a problem. It cuts things close, but by close, I mean five to 10 minutes, which is plenty of time to catch a train.

But this bus just wasn’t moving. I couldn’t see out the window to see what the traffic was doing, but I suspected it wasn’t doing much, either. And time was wasting. My train would be leaving without me.

I was ready for the rain because that morning’s Northwest Herald seemed confident it was going to rain, and even though at 6:30 a.m. it looked like that was the last thing it was going to do, I broke out my heavy, extra coverage, extra large shoe-phylactics to keep my new black shoes and old white feet dry.

They are hardly fashionable; they’re downright ugly, the kind of shoe covering Frankenstein would wear. But they do the job. And if people don’t like them, it gives them something to snicker at to lighten their day. But if it’s raining, my dry feet will be envied. And I always carry a micro-umbrella.

It’s not like the end of the world, but when you are literally stuck on the bus in a downpour, ordinary things take on exaggerated proportions. On a normal day, I would make my Metra train connection that would get me back in Woodstock by 7 p.m. If I missed it, I wouldn’t get home until 7:48 p.m., and that was just too late. And my mental state was such that I probably should add an exclamation point.

Last week, I beat the clock by three minutes, and I was grateful. But there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m at the mercy of professors, bus schedules and transfers. If everything is running right, I can make it from the seminary in Hyde Park to the Governor Who Wasn’t Imprisoned Transportation Center in one hour, which leaves me three minutes to spare.

Lately, the professor has been using the full three and a half hours, dismissing class at 4:30 p.m. Getting to the 5:33 p.m. Northwest Line becomes a race, and I’m not in the driver’s seat. A lot of times I am not even in a seat, but standing at a bus stop.

The bus did arrive at Clinton Street on Wednesday, and I used my bowling balls as a plow to get through that knot of people overcrowding the aisle, but by the time I got to the revolving doors where the trains were, it was 5:35 p.m., and my Woodstock train was gone. Drat. Two measly minutes. Forty-eight minutes could just as well have been 48 hours.

At least I was extracted from the bus and waiting with plenty of room in the train station.

• Dick Peterson, who lives in Woodstock, is a mental-health advocate, freelance writer and a former Northwest Herald Opinion Page editor. He can be contacted at dickpeterson76@gmail.com.

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