Riding in South Shore Style

Author: Kevin Noonan '14

They say life is about the journey, not the destination, but I think that depends on whether or not you get an outlet seat.

One of the questions parents always ask on tours of Notre Dame’s campus is, “How far away is Chicago?” The unrealistically enthusiastic tour guides are always quick to respond, “Oh I’m from just outside Chicago [Peoria], it’s about an hour and a half, two hours maybe with traffic.” They then immediately get back to making up stories about the links between campus and the Shrek movies.

What they sometimes fail to mention is that for your run-of-the-mill, doesn’t-have-a-car student, Chicago isn’t quite that close (or maybe they do mention it; it’s been four or five years since I’ve taken a tour; cut me some slack here I’m telling a story). The average trip to Chicago looks something like this in real life: Between Monday and Thursday, send out five to seven frantic emails asking, “If anyone is driving to the city this weekend, can I bum a ride? No seriously guys, I really need a ride. THIS ISN’T A JOKE YOU GUYS. Also if anybody has an iron and an ironing board and a pair of khaki pants and a brown belt and a comb and a graphing calculator, could I grab those for a few minutes this afternoon?”

On Friday, ask every person you know if you can borrow their car. You know the effort is worthless – no one is going to let you, and in any case, it’s actually a shorter walk to Chicago than the nearest student parking lot. Then, abandoning all hope, call a cab for a ride to the airport – it’s South Shore Line time.

The South Shore Line has been transporting Notre Dame students and South Bend residents between South Bend and downtown Chicago for more than one hundred years, but it truly doesn’t feel a day over 95. For a mere $11.75, you can sit back and enjoy a relaxing, stress-free two-and-a-half to three-hour train ride that drops you off at Randolph and Michigan, a conveniently short walk to that huge metal contortion-y “art” thing in front of which groups of people are eternally taking pictures that will inevitably look much less cool on Facebook than they did in real life.

This past weekend, on a short trip to see some friends who live in the city, I had the good fortune to take not just one but two rides on the famed train line; there and back again, in true Bilbo Baggins style. Three plus years at Notre Dame has molded me into a hardened veteran of the South Shore Line.

First, show up 10 to 15 minutes early; any earlier is pointless because they won’t let you board, and any later will prevent you from completing the all-important step two. Step two, get an outlet seat. There are only two or three electrical outlets per car, and if you want to prevent the possibility of the personal hell of having your phone, laptop or iPod dying on the train, you better be ready to throw some ‘bows to secure one of those coveted outlet seats. And last, put in your headphones and hit shuffle on your iPod, but be sure to play your music at a low enough volume to eavesdrop on the people around you. If you really want to have some fun, pull out a book; that way, you can “read,” while actually peeking over the top of your book every few seconds to eye up your fellow passengers while eavesdropping on them.

I’m half joking about eavesdropping, because no matter what volume at which you’re playing your music, at some point you’ll pull your headphones out to figure out what the ruckus erupting around you is all about. In the dozens of South Shore Line rides I’ve taken, I can count on one hand the number of times there wasn’t somebody drunker than Charlie Sheen at an Amanda Bynes house party. On my very first trip, it was the guy drinking to ease the pain of his dog dying. He shouted it about six thousand times in various forms, including an impromptu a cappella blues jam session in which the only words were, “My dog died man, my dog died.” A train official finally came to talk to the man and calm him down, at which point the man informed him of his plight.

“I’m sorry sir, when did your dog pass away?” the official asked.

“I dunno, six or 10 years ago. What dog?” the man replied.

This past weekend’s trip wasn’t quite as eventful as that memorable first trip, but on the way home it did feature a drunken passenger being told to get off the train. He responded with a simple, “No,” then turned around defiantly and sat down like nothing had happened. That’s bold.

It’s not all drunken passengers and eavesdropping though; the shared misery of the ride can sometimes inspire genuine, short-lived friendship (single-serving friendship, as Ed Norton calls it in Fight Club). On this trip, my phone was dead and I had left my charger at my friends’ house, rendering the outlet seat I managed to snag worthless. But thanks to the generosity of the ladies who sat in front of me, I managed to stop crying my eyes out long enough to revive the phone. In return, I offered some invaluable travel information that only a true, old-hand South Shore Line rider would know: “Yes, this train does go to South Bend.”

I give it a hard time, almost every Notre Dame student I know does, but in truth we love it. The South Shore Line is our portal to Chicago, to a different world — a world where every place you go isn’t filled to the brim with just Notre Dame kids, but instead with Notre Dame alums and sometimes one or two people they work with. It’s cheap transportation, it’s almost always unintentionally entertaining and it has triple the leg room of that ridiculous bus that goes from the bookstore to Midway and O’Hare.

It’s the South Shore Line; if you take it enough, you can learn to love it. But for God’s sake, make sure you get an outlet seat.

Kevin Noonan is this magazine’s summer intern.