(Continuing the story of my cross-country summer adventure with AMTRAK.)
Pulling in to Chicago Union Station brought a rush of emotions to the surface for me. The exhilaration of completing the first leg of my journey, the contentment of my body having released all of its tension as we rumbled and swayed our way up from Little Rock, the anticipation of experiencing the Metropolitan Lounge for the very first time, how could anyone not want to experience this for themselves?
My first trip to this iconic station was many years ago and in my excitement to get to my friend’s wedding I didn’t pause to soak in the full experience of the station. This time I knew I would have nothing but time because the layover for my connecting train to Washington, DC was SIX HOURS! I wasn’t worried at all because I had my chargers, my AirPods and I planned on taking ALL the pictures this time plus I had the entire Metropolitan Lounge to explore (which by the way, has a shower area in the women’s bathroom that you can use).
While I was on the train it was easy to forget that the world of travel had changed so drastically. Sure, I had to wear a mask when I left my sleeper car on the train but I didn’t do a lot of that. And yes, the food options were VERY different from my last trip but the views from those windows just swept me away as I recorded and photographed the changing countryside.
And then the reality that we are still living in the midst of a pandemic set in.
When I checked into the Metropolitan Lounge the first thing that struck me was how empty it was for 2pm on a Wednesday.
The 2nd floor was roped off and inaccessible to guests which was a real bummer because I wanted to take pictures from up there but the mood and atmosphere of the lounge did not lend itself to asking for special treatment. The few people I did encounter in the lounge did their best to be polite but there was a tension that couldn’t hide behind our required masks.
Since I was only carrying one backpack I decided to just keep it with me and wander the station a bit mostly out of loneliness. My grumbling tummy also demanded that I find food.
Many of the eateries in the food court were closed so I decided to go with Jersey Mike’s which took a REALLY long time despite my being second in line. Part of me wondered if the employees were trying to hang on to the human contact we all seemed to be lacking with our policies of social distancing.
About five hours in to my layover I made another important discovery. It is hard to keep a mask on for hours at a time when that or something you’re accustomed to doing.
While I was eating my sandwich back in the lounge I found a counter that faced a wall well away from others so that I could eat with my back to the room. I noticed I was instinctively eating slower than normal and only taking short sips from my water bottle as I drug out the time I was allowed to stay unmasked. Once my meal was complete and I reapplied my mask within 15 minutes I felt myself in the beginning stages of a panic attack.
I reached up to remove my mask and realized that I couldn’t because of the new rules. So I popped up and proceeded to the nearest street exit trying not to draw attention to myself. Despite my best efforts there were some people giving me strange looks but I had to get somewhere it was okay to take that mask off my face. I found a spot nearby and when I tell you fresh air smelled quite so sweet, I mean every corny bit of that cliché. And after about a minute or two I realized why I was getting looks. It was raining, but I didn’t care because at that point getting a little wet was a fine exchange for not having that mask on my face.
I hung outside until the rain got to be too much and reluctantly descended back into the station with one of my lighter weight fabric masks on.
Not long after I re-entered the station they called for us to line up for boarding. While the pandemic protocols put a big damper on the activity of Union Station, it could not take away the feeling of standing in a space that shared the hopes and dreams of many different people from many different times in our nation’s history. It was in this very station that two branches of my family tree arrived from The South to begin new lives of opportunity that were denied to many African Americans during the Great Migration.
Next stop, the nation’s capital, Washington, DC!
Marta C. Youngblood is the founder and creative engine behind TheWRITEaddiction creatives co-op founded in 2014 as a virtual community supporting writers from all over the United States of America. Marta’s passion drives her to support the success of creatives from all walks of life to honor their talent and share it with the world. She believes that working in our creative callings does not have to be synonymous with being a “starving artist” and helps creatives master the business skills and strategies they need to work in their gifts.