We all know about the typical El commute: buy cup of decaf at Java Depot; sprint up stairs to train platform; stand in front of unopened train door to take prized one person seat (instead of two person bench); plant nose in book; then wait for loud speaker to announce "State and Lake is next."
No one gets sociable on the El. No one expects you to be productive or pleasant. I treasure it. But I have one guilty El secret. While it is nice to see friends on the train, sometimes I avert my eyes so I can read a little longer.
Here is another secret. While no one has ever mentioned this, I think some of my friends do the same thing. It's not that we are not happy to catch up. It's just that we would rather keep reading and then chat walking out of the station. And so my commute typically passes.
The other evening though, what to my wondering eyes should appear at the State and Lake station, but an El train covered with blinking Italian lights. Its advance was covered by blaring Christmas music. In the middle of the train was an open car with Santa riding his sleigh and wishing "Happy Holidays."
Instead of the green sign on the side of the train saying Harlem and Lake, it said the North Pole. I thought this must be a train for tourists that circles the Loop. When the conductor greeted us with holiday wishes and assured us that the train was going to Harlem Avenue, I climbed aboard.
Inside, I found a crowded train trimmed in garland, hand poles dressed up as candy canes and Nat King Cole singing "chestnuts roasting?" over the loud speaker. Despite my standard El demeanor, I cracked a smile and settled in to listen to Koko Taylor, Sinatra and Tony Bennett sing holiday standards.
Halfway home, CTA employees dressed as elves entered the car and were handing out candy canes when it happened.
One of the elves said, "Merry Christmas?#34;oops, I mean Happy Holidays. Is everybody having a good time on the Holiday Express?"
No one had the temerity to answer out loud, but a few mumbled, "uh huh."
"OK, now I want everyone to put down your books and newspapers because we're going to sing a Christmas carol." A few people laughed nervously.
I thought to myself, holiday or no holiday, there is no way this band of commuters is going to break into song.
"I mean it. Put down those books." She was taking the gag too far.
"OK. I'm not really going to make you sing," she said. "But if you won't sing, then you have to do one thing for me. I want you to turn to the person next to you and say 'Happy Holidays.'"
For an instant nobody moved. "Go on," she urged us.
Then every person on the train turned to the person next to them. I turned to a woman wearing a pink parka. A young man from the West side wearing drooping jeans turned to a man wearing work boots. A prim woman dressed businesslike turned to a woman reading from the Book of Matthew.
Everyone said, "Happy Holidays," followed by sighs or awkward silence.
"All right," the elf said. "Now I want you all to remember this, and Happy Holidays to all of you."
The elf moved on to the next car. Everyone turned back to their books or newspapers or stared out the window. That night on the El train riding to Oak Park, it felt like it was Christmas.