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Column: Vaccinated, but not fully liberated
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Column: Vaccinated, but not fully liberated

Schmich photo

A CTA "L" Green Line train heads east to the Loop in Chicago from the Ashland station Monday, March 8, 2021. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

On the day that I was fully vaccinated against COVID-19, I decided to take a trip.

This was on Tuesday, exactly two weeks after my second dose of vaccine, a day I’d been waiting for the way a kid waits for Santa Claus. When the day finally came, I woke up to a gust of fresh air, the sense of a door opening to reveal a remembered world.

Before I continue, let me say: I know that getting even a first dose of the vaccine remains no more than a wish for most Americans. But being over 65 occasionally has advantages, and whenever you reach your fully vaccinated day, you’ll know it’s a milestone worth marking.

In that celebratory spirit, I decided to do something I’d longed to do but hadn’t done in a year.

Get on a plane? Nope. Not yet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still cautions against travel unless it’s necessary. But I wanted to go somewhere, see the world from a different angle. And so I fished around in a junk drawer and found my passport to freedom.

AKA my Ventra card.

I was going to ride the Brown Line "L" to the Loop and back.

There are people who have continued to ride public transportation through the pandemic, many of them workers who don’t have any other way to get to and from their jobs. For most of us, though, riding around in closed spaces with strangers hasn’t been a risk worth taking.

Now here I was, tapping my old card on the turnstile reader, elated by the familiar ping that confirmed, "Yes, you do have money left on this card!"

I hiked up the familiar, grungy stairs toward a promising patch of sky.

Then there was Chicago, the way you can see it only from an elevated train platform, looking not so different than it had a year ago. There were wooden porches and brick chimneys and old wooden stairs, flat roofs and sloping roofs, the peeling paint of old turrets, graffiti etched so high on walls it was hard to imagine how it got there. Out on the horizon, beyond the tops of bare trees, stretched Chicago’s skyscrapers.

I hadn’t waited long when the train rumbled up from the distance, headlights on, looking just like I remembered. The metal doors opened with the familiar ruckus. The train set off down the tracks with a familiar clatter.

Only four other people were in the car. They sat far apart. All of us were masked. I glanced down at the blue seat in front of me. Someone had etched a uniquely male body part into the plastic.

Yes, the "L" was still the "L." The pandemic hadn’t changed everything.

But if the ride felt familiar, it didn’t feel the same. The train rocked past theaters and restaurants where I’d once gone; they were now closed temporarily or forever. Cars passed in the streets below, but not as many as there used to be.

After I’d been riding for a while, a male voice announced, "Doors open on the right at Merchandise Mart." I was glad to recognize his voice. But when the doors opened and two of the passengers in my car got off, no one got on. The platform at that usually busy stop was empty.

Same thing at the next stop. From there, I rode alone.

From the "L," I could see through the upper windows of Loop buildings, which helped to explain the empty platforms. In a few windows, the lights were on and bodies moved around at a distance from each other.

But many offices, places once bustling with people, now sat dark, their indoor window ledges resembling still lifes from a vanished time: pens crowded in coffee cups, bottles of lotion, staplers, objects that probably hadn’t felt a human hand in a year.

And chairs. In those empty offices sat so many chairs. Beautiful, ergonomic chairs pushed up against desks or arranged around conference tables. Empty chairs. Waiting chairs. Chairs that hadn’t felt a human derriere in a year.

Eventually, the train pulled into the Washington and Wabash stop, where in a pre-pandemic age I would have gotten off to go to work. Now through the "L" window, I watched the stop fade into the distance as the train clattered on. In my empty "L" car, I headed home, fully vaccinated though not fully liberated, glad that I’d gone to visit the waiting city.

Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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