By Terri Kapsalis

If we’d been there, we could have heard the shift into the Ice Age. Not only would we have seen our breath and felt our fingers freeze, we would have heard the squeaky sounds of the cold. If we’d been around, we could have heard the evolution of our own species, the transformation of grunts and calls into speech as the vocal apparatus changed. History, place, and time are marked by sound.

The el was different last Thursday. Things have been changing for a while now, of course: some stations have new paint and fancier signage, personnel have been eliminated, and some cars have been updated and renovated. Gradual, rather subtle changes. But Thursday there was a tectonic shift. As I entered the car, I heard an electronic two-tone chime followed by a recording of a man’s stiff voice: “The doors are closing.” Normally I welcome the conductor’s voice issuing the familiar “Watch the doors, the doors are closing”–a phrase so poetic that Sicilian trombonist Sebi Tramontana composed a piece of music around it.

CTA administrators and higher-ups rode the very same car, overseeing this momentous trial run of the automatic voice. They beamed as though showing off new school shoes. One of them was particularly cheerful, exuberant even, and questioned certain passengers. “Should it say ‘Doors closing’ or ‘Doors are closing’?” I thought it should say what the conductors used to say. Most passengers seemed to enjoy this brief market survey and shared their preferences. A fellow skeptic who’d clearly experienced years of CTA malfunction sat near me mumbling under his breath, “As long as the doors do close. As long as the doors keep closing.” The automatic voice proclaimed, “Next stop Berwyn. Doors will open on the left.” One CTA official said to another in a serious, thoughtful tone, “Doors open on the left. It says ‘Doors open on the left.’ Now which left is that?” The other explained that it’s the left according to the direction of the train. The questioner was not entirely pleased with the answer and pressed the issue, but soon let it go for lack of a better alternative.

Such automatic recordings are common in airports, often offering multilingual information or providing exhaustive lists of gate locations for connecting flights. Perhaps those announcements were inspired by the preflight videos on airplanes clarifying exits and safety procedures. As I sat on the el that day, it struck me just how much of a privilege it is not to fly often. The dull male voice proclaimed cheerily, “Thanks for riding the CTA.” Riding the train frequently, I find it an important time to be still and meditate. This recorded voice was not a suitable mantra.

A couple behind me wondered aloud what Saturday Night Live would spoof now that there wouldn’t be conductors garbling their announcements anymore. As a child on the CTA I made it a kind of game to guess what the man on the speaker had said. One conductor had adopted a unique approach and announced the stops in a kind of 40s radio style, taking great care to overarticulate and meticulously intone the various stops in singsongy cadences. Last year, a conductor departed from the script to warn passengers of a pickpocket on board.

On this particular day on the CTA all we had was generic northern white-guy articulation and seemingly endless reportage: “Doors are closing. Doors are closing. Next stop Argyle. Doors will open on the left.” My fellow skeptic launched into a mournful rampage on the passing of the blissful days of tokens. Now, he said, he often missed two or even three trains waiting in line to put money on a fare card. He complained about the collection of cards he had at home, with 30 cents on one, 15 cents on another–a growing stack that inevitably reminded him of his dear departed tokens. He was sure that the congregation of CTA officials on this very car was visible evidence of time and money wasted, which would certainly lead to fare hikes.

The train screeched to a stop for no apparent reason, and the administrators suddenly wore concerned frowns. Clearly they rarely took the CTA or they wouldn’t have blinked. An official with a headset strode toward the end of the car as if she were going to investigate. When the train started up again, she drifted back to her original spot.

But the sudden stop had caused the new automatic voice to malfunction: while we were in motion, the recorded voice insisted confidently, “The doors are closing. The doors are closing.” Even the administrators cracked a smile at the confused machine. The skeptic humphed, self-satisfied. And the cheerful bureaucrat took this opportunity to poll more passengers about whether the voice ushering in a new epoch in Chicago’s soundscape should say “Doors closing” or “Doors are closing.”