July 28th, 2018
That’s how it felt.
Ogilvie Transportation Center is just west of the river on Madison Street in downtown Chicago. It is a nexus for several CTA train lines, along with being the focal point for a number of Metra lines that extend out from Chicago to neighboring cities, and even to neighboring states. Ogilvie is not nearly as daunting as Port Authority in New York, but at 5:00 PM on a Friday, it is still a maelstrom of people. Everything and everybody is in motion.
There are at least a dozen tracks in the station designated just for the various Metra trains that stop there to pick up passengers, or to disgorge them. As soon as a train leaves the station, another one takes its place on the track. The trains are constantly going in and out, in and out. When a train arrives, people pour out of it on to the platform, and then other people flow back on to the train. In and out. In and out. The people generally do not interact with each other. They keep their words and thoughts to themselves. Each one of them is completely alone in a churning human sea.
The vast majority of the people in the station know exactly where they are going and where they want to be. They don’t want to be in Ogilvie Station. They want to be at home, wherever that might be. Nobody really wants to be at Ogilvie. It is never a destination. It is just a point on the way to a destination.
I rushed from my law class to catch a train to Wisconsin. I was totally focused on getting from 228 South Wabash to Ogilvie. The walk takes twenty minutes if all the traffic lights are in my favor. I had to stop a few times at a busy street corner and wait. That made me anxious. I was in a hurry, surrounded by other people who were in a hurry. I was eager to get home.
There were homeless people on the sidewalk on the way to the station. I passed one black man with wild hair and wild eyes. He was singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” in an off key tenor. A woman was sitting on the pavement, sobbing, “Help me. Help me.” A thin man was curled up in a ball near the corner of a building, apparently asleep. Another man was yelling in a hoarse voice, “I need to get me some dinner!” These people were not in a rush. They didn’t want to be there, but they didn’t have a destination. They had nowhere else to go. When I return to Chicago tomorrow morning, some of them will probably still be where they were on Friday. They still won’t have a destination.
As I walked by each of those people, I thought about handing them some cash. I had a little money on me. I didn’t give it to them. It wasn’t that I felt like I couldn’t spare the money. I felt like I couldn’t spare the time.
I was caught up in this rapidly moving river of people. I felt like I couldn’t leave the current. It would have only taken me a minute to flip somebody a bill, but I didn’t want to throw cash at a person and just keep going. That would like paying a toll. That wouldn’t be human. Sure, the person would have some money, but they need more than that. They need my contact. They need my time.
Sometime tomorrow (I don’t know when), I will walk past a homeless person in Chicago. Tomorrow, I will stop and greet that person. I will ask their name. I will tell them mine. I will give them something, but I don’t know what. I will know that when I meet them. The encounter will probably be brief, but it will be personal, and it will be human.