Commuting needn't be a soul-sucking experience. Sometimes, on the right set of tracks, there are even cookies.
One thing you need to know about Dennis Tkach and Joe Nadeau is that they want to be considered chick magnets. But when Nadeau first tried to plant that idea with his friends on the 6:51 out of Big Lake, Minn., the word came out "manchicks."
You can bet that stuck. There's no place for the thin-skinned if you ride with the Train Gang.
Still, the two men are magnets of a sort. One by one, station by station, the morning's commuters are drawn to the convivial bunch in the middle of the upper level of the second car on the Northstar line, defying the idea that this daily routine must be mindless, faceless and soulless.
They're the first to admit their group isn't for everyone.
"As people ride the train, they learn that there's a loud group that sits in the middle," said Nadeau, who drives from St. Cloud to catch the train where its route begins at Big Lake, then rolls 40 miles south to Target Center. "If someone doesn't know this and sits down among us, we engage them. It's never 'Who are you?, but 'Who are you?'" he said, then smiled. "Some, we never see again."
Bottom line: "If you sit with us, you're part of us."
Car drivers lead lives of merging desperation. Buses, with their mainly eyes-front seating, constrain riders to shoulder-to-shoulder chats. Trains, however, seem designed by a cruise ship director, with seats arranged like café booths, some even around tables.
"My theory is that they did not put us in conversation pods if they didn't want us to be friends," said Pam Lyons, who gets on at Fridley. It was she and Nadeau who first struck up a conversation in late 2009, when the Northstar began running. Lyons had carpooled for 15 years, but agreed to take her husband's suggestion to try the train, "although why I'd want to ride on an unfriendly train, I didn't know."
She and Nadeau, each of whom could probably could outtalk a telemarketer, hit it off. Still, it wasn't until Tkach began commuting, about a year later, that the group began to snowball. A natural gatherer, Tkach began reeling in friends like so many walleyes.
The bait remains nothing more than the opportunity to socialize.
"I'm just real good at asking a lot of questions," Tkach said. "People just enjoy talking and learning about other people."
The Train Gang includes all ages, people working at banks, hotels, law offices, the federal ag department, a manufacturing plant, wherever. Tom Mattlon, a biostatistician who works "where no one talks all day," said he was drawn to the sound of conversation. "This is the only talk I hear," he said, just half-joking.
Some days, the banter gets a little raucous, and it helps to have a healthy sense of humor because "the teasing is merciless," said Melissa Bohlsen, with some pride.
Kendra Randel congratulated Packer fan Nadeau on his team's victory over the Vikings: "I was happy for you."
Vikes fan Corey West chimed in: "Were you sad for me?"
"Corey," Randel said with a flat gaze, "I'm always sad for you."
Socializing, station by station
The conversation shifts with each station -- Elk River, Ramsey, Anoka, Coon Rapids, Fridley.
People tend to have "their" seats because, well, it's just simpler that way. As Paul Schwinghammer explained, "I grew up on a farm, and it's kind of like if one cow goes into a different stall, it messes everyone up."
Bohlsen, a force of nature, has a central seat, where she works her smartphone while keeping up a running banter. Her husband is refinishing a bar he bought on Craigslist for the rec room -- maybe by Christmas. She's not sure about her new hair color, although everyone assures her it's great. She wisecracks that she's lobbied the Northstar line for a club car, "but they're not returning my e-mails."
By the time Tkach gets on at Coon Rapids, the group has swelled to close to 20. The difficulty of connecting with everyone led last year to the decision to meet "off the train," at a holiday party last year hosted by the Tkaches. About 15 showed up. This year, double that. "We get to meet the spouses we've been hearing about," Tkach said.
This year also heralded the first commuter Christmas cookie contest. For five days, collections of cookies were passed among the group, with handy plastic bags for those who couldn't ingest that much sugar before 8 a.m. "I'll have to tell my office that I stopped at a Christmas party on my way in," Randel deadpanned on Day 1.
"Has Pam spilled powdered sugar on herself yet?" Bohlsen asked (mercilessly). "We bring powdered sugar doughnuts every once in a while just to amuse ourselves."
Elsewhere on the car, other commuters sat with books open, or earbuds in. Some just stared out the window. None of them seemed annoyed by the ruckus, and if they are, there are other cars.
Having each other's back
The Train Gang is more than powdered sugar jokes. "We've gone through a lot together," said Pam. "Dennis and I have each lost a parent in the past year and people have been there for us. Some came to the visitations, even the funerals."
The group has been a job network for those who have lost theirs. They've polished résumés, and proofread class papers. Older riders share child-rearing advice with younger parents. Together, they form a momentary think tank. "If I can't get my snowblower to start," Nadeau said, "someone has the answer."
They even know who can and can't wear jeans on Fridays, which led to a crucial heads-up for one young man who didn't realize it was only Wednesday.
Nadeau and Tkach both work at U.S. Bank, and although they often discuss office matters while walking to and from the train, "we have a rule," Nadeau said. "When the train starts, work talk is done."
Randel, who sometimes joins a similar group of train friends on the lower level of the car, said the rolling socializing may not be for everyone, but is a boon for her. "The way I look at it, you work all day, then you get on the train with friends and you get to decompress," she said.
Coming or going, Tkach said, he often makes it a point to glance down from the bridge as the train passes over the heavy traffic on Interstate 694.
"I think, 'That's not me.'"
Dawn streaks the sky as the train pulls into the Target Center station. Everyone gathers their briefcases and gloves, subtly assuming their game faces as they step off the train -- but not before acknowledging how the day will end.
"See you tonight!"
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185