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November 19, 2002

Union Station: Where dumb meets deaf

From: UIC Today
Nov. 19, 2002

by Matthew Hetling
UIC Today
November 19, 2002

As I walked into the Great Hall of Union Station from Jackson Street, I realized I had to pee. I had gone just before my girlfriend took me to the train station, but I was excited and nervous. I was there to embark on my trip, which consisted of a Metra train ride to the west, and then a long walk: all the way to the Mississippi River.

In keeping with the spirit of adventure, I was taking minimal supplies, and nothing to plot my path except a compass that would enable me to keep moving westward.

I had no idea that, over the course of my travels, I would prove myself to be an idiot. Over and over again, I would display a consistent ability to make the wrong decision. I was like a domesticated pig that's been released into the wild. A retarded domesticated pig.

Let me say it again, so that there can be no room for interpretation: I am an idiot. The idea of walking from Chicago to the Mississippi River is a dumb idea.

It's like when those kids set themselves on fire to emulate Johnny Knoxville in Jackass, or when that guy attached a hot air balloon to his lawn chair and froze to death miles above the earth. A monumentally bad idea.

Please keep this in mind as I try to romanticize my experiences, which amount to nothing more than countless hours of humiliation, heartbreak, and pain. In the beginning, however, there was no pain; only excitement.

The Great Hall is exactly the sort of place that lets me pretend that I'm undertaking some sort of grand journey instead of scratching a silly adventurer's itch. Built in 1925, it is spoken of reverently by railroad enthusiasts across the country, who call it one of the last surviving relics of the Golden Ages of railroads.

It doesn't look like a train station. It looks like a cathedral, with the pink Tennessee marble floor, the Corinthian columns, and the bronze floor torches, all bathed in a natural light let in by the vaulted skylight in the distant ceiling.

I found my pace slowing as I crossed the empty space of the floor. Despite the fact that 50,000 commuters use the station every day (fewer than half as many as used it in the railroad heyday of the 30s), the Great Hall always has space to wander, sit, and breathe, if you're not in a hurry. I was reminded of a former girlfriend who lived on the Honors Floor in Commons West,; she used to walk to the Great Hall with her friends to smoke and watch the world go by.

As often as not, she would then get completely drunk with her friends and then come over and puke in my toilet, which was a big factor in our eventual breakup. But that's a different story.

I picked up a pamphlet, intending to take Metra as far west as I could. Aurora, Illinois, about 40 miles out of the Loop, is the last stop for the westward line, and a bored ticket teller regarded me with a complete and utter lack of respect for my wanderlust.

"Aurora is the furthest west I can go on the Metra?" I asked, emulating, in my mind, the thousands of American pioneers and settlers who have asked themselves the question: how far West can I go?

She grunted in response, and gave a lethargic shrug of her shoulders.

"Then I'll take a ticket to Aurora," I said, not at all deflated. I turned slightly sideways so that she could see the large backpack perched on my back. "A one way ticket," I added.

The ticket teller with the remarkable lack of vision passed me my ticket and change. "Come on, who's next," she asked, suddenly displaying a bit of interest and liveliness. I stuffed the ticket in my pocket, and walked away.

I went to the food court, bought some crappy Chinese food and sat down to wait for my train to leave.

A deaf woman sat at the opposite corner of my table. She attracted my attention while I was eating and reading the Tribune. She was young and attractive, but her face looked tired, as if it had been worn by years of rough hands and cigarettes.

She had the eighties hairstyle that seems to have taken firm hold of the fashion world in the sticks. I thought she might have been a stripper making enough to pay the bills, but not enough to fix her teeth. She was also eating the crappy Chinese food, and she handed me a slip of paper from her fortune cookie: "You will go to Egypt and see the pyramids."

She shook her head, indicating that visiting the pyramids was not, in fact, something that she would do. I cracked my cookie and found the same fortune. We began writing back and forth.

"I heard there's a strange and spooky on Full moon in Egypt Pyramid," she began.

The woman, Patty June Chapell, had one of those stories that's sad on the surface. But it's difficult to feel sorry for someone who's so clearly not feeling sorry for herself, as was the case here.

Patty June was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father told her that he was away at sea for the US Navy when she was born, but he prayed the she would be a special baby girl who wouldn't have to hear other people's bullshit. Hence, her deafness.

She believes that she has been able to see Angels and other spirits since she was a young girl. When she was eighteen, she was feeling depressed and scattered, so she had a baby herself. His name was Anthony, and she was now visiting him in Memphis on the occasion of his ninth birthday. He lives in Memphis with her mother.

Patty June now lives in California, working as a chef on a boat and modeling part time. She's had bouts with drugs, and hopes to take Anthony back into her home when she can provide a more stable environment.

"His father & I were good friend," she wrote. "He moved -> I found out that we had a baby. I was 18. He was 18 too. He felt bad I think? He is scared to meet him still. I tracked him last year. I'll leave it to Anthony."

She also showed me some of her artwork, two charcoal drawings of candles, crystals, and cauldrons. They were fairly well-done, and I wondered (but was too shy to ask) whether she considers herself a witch.

She said she enjoyed music, especially hard rock, heavy metal and classical music, which she had a better time understanding. "I'm learning to play guitar. Led zeppelin. By my feelings. Vibes are stronger than hear it."

As my departure time approached, Patty June and I exchanged emails. She invited me to visit her someday. As I was leaving, she motioned me back and scribbled some last minute advice:

"Hey get comfortable shoes and socks [triple underline on the socks]. And compass [triple underline on the word compass] always sleep on North [triple underline on North] will be protected better & better energy."

"Facing North?," I asked.

"Yes. And Have Fun!!"

Patty June is one of those people that I haven't interacted with much since I came to UIC and became part of the "University Community." She sounds like a bagful of heartbreaking statistics: Single mother, drug problems, can't support kid, deaf.

But add in the details: her artwork, her belief in spirits, her patchwork career as a chef and model, and her guitar lessons. Suddenly, you have a flesh and blood person in front of you, who needs only that little something extra to be happy and successful.

Patty June was a portent: not in a mystical sense, but she was a precursor to the type of person I would encounter on the road and away from Chicago. It's hard for me to articulate the differences between 'city folk' and 'country folk.' And, deep down, everyone's an individual that you have to judge on their own merits.

But at the same time, there are two different cultures living in two different Americas, and I was going to get a reminder of the gulf between them.

I wasn't sure what lay before me as I boarded the train to Aurora. But, I reflected, it wouldn't hurt to sleep facing north.

As long as it was convenient.

This column is about a trip I undertook in 1996. For my entire conversation with Patty June Chappell (luckily captured in its entirety, as it was written down)click here.

© 2002 UIC Today