Chicago Trains In Wartime, Published 25 February 1944I do not know that I feel at the moment like telling you much about the city that Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over. Suffice to say that the Windy City. is bigger and busier than ever, and to me more beautiful. But the crowds are endless, and you can no more avoid them than you could turn off Niagara. What's more, they both roar on incessantly.
I have said before that travel has lost much of its kick, and just about all its pleasure. Only real railway fans like myself can put up with what the average American traveller endures. The fact that I list only the bright side, that I talk lusciously of smart parlor cars and svelte streamliners in no way mitigates the fact that travel, on the whole, is a miserable business. In Canada, there is still no such thing as not being able to get on a train. In the States it often happens. I saw a sign in the Northwestern Station saying that preference in boarding trains would be given to fighting men, and women with children. Again, in the farther west, often a railway ticket is not good enough; you must also hold a supplemental ticket saying you will be permitted to board some particular train.
That soldiers and sailors sit in the aisles, that diners are jammed, that they serve only two meals a day on many trains, and that cars of the McKinley and Roosevelt the First eras are exhumed to carry traffic is pretty well known. But I think a person has to go through it to realize how infinitely better Canadian travel is, and how lucky this country has been.
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Imagine people not able to get on trains because they simply could not get tickets. In less irksome situation was the man ahead of me, who having missed his train due to a jam, tried to get seats on the next one and was out of luck. That put him over into Saturday, when travel would be even worse. How he got to St. Louis I never heard. He was in nasty humor, so I didn't talk to him.
You stand in line at the station, and perhaps the fellow ahead of you wants a sleeper. The tired ticket clerk goes to the phone, and calls the Pullman. That often takes five minutes. I have seen them time and time again, holding on patiently till the Pullman answered. You can imagine how harassed they were at the other end of the line. Then the two clerks talk their jargon, exchange numbers, and issue a berth. But as often as not, there was no space, and the battle starts all over again for other space.
"But I've got to go" says the young mother, or young bride.
"Sorry lady," says the weary agent. That "sorry lady" is getting to be the two saddest words on this continent. Hearts torn apart, women frantic to see their husbands before last leave, young lads wanting to say goodbye to mom and dad. and no space.
I think the ultimate in waiting is achieved by the efficient Pennsylvania in their La Salle street office, where people throng all day long to get tickets.
You go in first, lean on the counter five minutes, and nothing happens. No one looks at you. You wonder why all the people are sitting round, like a waiting room. Don't they know that Pennsylvania trains don't come into Pennsylvania waiting rooms? You want to say: go down to the depot, ladies and gentlemen: all Pennsylvania trains leave from the Union Station.
But after five minutes, someone called a number, and one of the waiting public jumped up. Then I caught on. You go back and get a number first. Mine was 85. They had just called 72. I calculated my chances, and figured I would be there about two or three hours, just to buy my little ticket. So I decided I would take my chances in the mob scene down at the station. I accordingly tossed No. 85 on the table, where the charwoman doubtless that night would find it.
As it turned out, I got behind first, a sailor, and second, a chair-car seeking St. Louis-ound man. and being No. 3, I finished my business in no time - a mere seven to ten minutes - and had the rest of my day to myself. A man is wise if he allows himself half a day to get his railway tickets, if they involve Pullman or chair-car space and if he doesn't book space, he is never entirely sure he can get on the train, and he certainly takes his chances on standing the whole journey.
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I could multiply these instances and heap on the agony. I could tell you of the confusion of baggage, of red caps, and above all. of the trouble in getting taxis. Having to transfer from Fort Street Station. Detroit, to Brush Street Station, Detroit, I encountered a cab famine. Here I am getting ahead of my trip a bit, but am on the beam in my theme. So the folks at Detroit had to double up, a la Ottawa. "Which way you goin'?; Out Woodward? Here's a lady goin that way." That I should live to see the day that one had to fight for taxis in Detroit seems almost incredible.
There are all kinds of irritating things, like railways failing to answer letters. There are such things as not being allowed in diners till soldiers are fed, because no one remembered to tell the railway about the soldiers! and then of course, the troops come first. There are a hundred headaches. The main thing of course is that there just are not enough trains to go round. Unless you really love train trips, under any conditions, the best way to travel in the States these days is to stay home.