Jackson – Red: Miss Flow is grooving at 8am, her Arizona Iced Tea bumping along with the bass that pulsates from her Crate amplifier. A Karaoke version of Alicia Keys’ “No One” echoes throughout the subway as Miss Flow brings it hard to six utterly uninterested riders, their hands holding up their faces in a futile effort to stay awake.
“Good morning, ev-ray-bahh-dee,” Miss Flow sings, still in Alicia Keys’ mode. “Happy Friii-day, enjoy your daaa-aaayyyy, yeah yeah.”
Though nobody really seems to dig Miss Flow, she’s apropos of the subway and a friendly beginning to my weekend, to my upcoming ordeal. For the next two days, I will ride to the ends of every track the CTA offers, take in every station and every train I encounter, and watch people do and say foolish, outlandish things. Everybody has their own “El story” that they effortlessly come across. I want to find a couple for myself.
The goal: Ride to and stop at every single El station over the course of two days while documenting the individual behaviors of typical riders to the shocking actions of…well, other typical riders. I also have two secondary goals: 1) Figure out why the El is such a haven for insane conduct, and 2) Don’t die. What follows are observations and encounters from my weekend, which was coincidentally on the 116th anniversary of the El’s first service.
47th – Red: Holy hell, it’s frighteningly windy on these wide-open platforms, and my papers have already blown away violently. I yelp, “No!” and look for consolation—thank goodness this station is advertising “Saw IV: It’s a Trap,” in theaters, October 26, 2007. I can barely wait.
63rd – Red: Not a lot of mayhem to document at 9am, so I start planning my strategy: make six or so stations every hour to complete the goal in twenty-four hours. Right on cue, three northbound trains arrive before the southbound one I’m waiting for, and when it does come, it’s an express train that breezes right past me, the wind acting as a serious slap in the face when I realize I have like 140 stations to go. Depending on the CTA to get you somewhere on time is sort of like cheering for a racehorse that’s guaranteed to lose.
Garfield – Red: While he waits, a college-aged male pulls out a yo-yo and starts dazzling himself with tricks like it’s 1962. He’s walking the dog, doing the throwdown, rockin’ the baby and—unbeknownst to him—he’s sending the kids around into a trance-like awe, who watch with mouths wide open.
Harrison – Red: I’m beginning to realize one of the biggest annoyances to riding to every one of these stations is not so much the smells or the time wasted, but having to see all of these advertisements for that Adam Sandler “Zohan” movie and for Mike Myers’ “Love Guru” film. A couple of friends are discussing an acquaintance’s facial hair. “He had a massive beard, like not that long,” one of them says, pointing to the Love Guru’s overblown fuzz. “But definitely that thick.”
I enter the train and find myself sitting next to a used cotton swab.
Sedgwick – Brown: A trio of teenage girls carry on conversation about what they spotted while on a CTA bus.
“That guy, sitting next to us on the bus,” one of them says, suddenly about to whisper. “…was drinking.”
The others look incredulous. “Are you serious?”
Belmont – Brown: Construction city! There are at least forty CTA employees waiting upon arrival and—no offense to these fine workers—it appears their main duties are smoking and staring at us passengers.
Back on the train, I’m met with a sensual example of the time-wasting tactic of reading a favorite book. The most expressive type of bookworm (other than drunken ones) is the romance reader, and this particular woman is deeply engrossed in Andrea Kane’s “Scent of Danger.” Is she on the verge of bawling, or of pure ecstasy? I can’t tell, but her mouth moves with every word and her eyes are transfixed and mesmerized. You can almost smell the danger.
Kimball – Brown: A curious child on the train, maybe 6 years old, evades his guardians and tries to eat the metal bars holding up the seats. That is probably not the most sanitary cuisine in the world.
Armitage – Brown: Just yesterday, the Armitage station unveiled their new public art exhibit, and who should happen to be there today than the artist himself, Jonathan Gitelson (as well as his charming mother). For the three months before the station was dismantled, Gitelson interviewed passengers waiting for the train, asking them, point blank, to share the first story that came to mind about the city, perhaps about their relationship to the Armitage station itself. The result: forty-two pictures that accompany a caption from selected answers, each relaying a specific part of an El passenger’s nostalgic recollections.
“People were really receptive,” he says. “People were surprisingly open and forthcoming. That was one thing that really surprised me. People weren’t scared and apprehensive to talk to a stranger about their personal life.”
It’s a neat, simple exhibit that says something about how people begin to define the city; some start with the El, another with the Art Institute, one talks about going to a party off of this very station, or a food drive, run by a Catholic church in the area.
“I think the theme is just learning about the people who use this space,” he says. “I don’t think that I had an agenda in what I wanted it to say…I just [like] hearing stories from people. My only hope was that people would open up to me and tell me something personal.”
I ask why he thought a majority of people opened up, dug deep in their memory and produced a sometimes very emotional answer, and his response speaks to the nature of a typical El passenger: “I guess when you’re waiting, you don’t have anything better to do.”
Chicago – Brown: A couple of hipsters, one of whom is wearing a pair of Blue Blockers, tell some joke (I think) about selling crack to the Amish. I expect sly smiles and some chuckling, but there is none.
Cicero – Green: Things people have left on the track: an uneaten coconut-covered donut and a pair of headphones, still in its original packaging.
Austin – Green: Metra blows by us with Mussolini-like efficiency, and it would appear the impatience of one nearby father is starting to affect how he handles his kids’ giddiness. He’s pacing in front of them like he’s the coach of the junior-high basketball team, “Would you just hold the ball?” he asks one of them, who’s rustling around with a soccer ball.
“It hurts my hands,” says the little chap.
“Shut your mouth,” dad says. “Just hold the damn ball.”
Pulaski – Green: Two kids and their boisterous mother recognize a little toddler from across the station, and all three of them go bonkers in an attempt to get its attention. “Marty! Martin! Marty man! Big red! Big red! Buh-bye, big red!” The 2-year-old stares back, motionless, taking the cool and mature route.
Polk – Pink: The Green Line had banners displayed in a few stations that read “Go Green!” Now the Pink Line fights back with a slogan of its own, “Think Pink!” What ad wizard came up with these slogans? And why is the CTA trying to manufacture some sort of rivalry between lines?
Damen – Pink: The first outright crazy dude I encounter walks onto the train with an emphatic “woo!” A Chicago Bulls “Back 2 Back” t-shirt is loosely worn over his bare chest. My first impressions are indeed that he might be on drugs. He sips from an orange Jarritos soda and speaks to me within seconds.
“Hey!” he says. “You know what time it is?”
It’s 6:10pm, I say.
“So it’s after four?”
Uh, yes. Well after four.
“That all I’m wondering, man. Just wondering if I’m late for work.” He fidgets around for about forty seconds, then says, “I’m the manager at Best Buy. Never been late a day in my life.” He grins. For some reason, he’s really giddy that he’s late for work. “You sure it’s after four?”
Kedzie – Pink: The Best Buy employee of the month exits the train.
Pulaski – Pink: More things left on the track: a pair of blue jeans, hanging by a thread on the elevated railing.
Clark – Blue Line: “Scooter, Scooter Libby,” sings a male subway performer with an acoustic guitar and an “Impeach the President” pin on his hat as he applies his new lyrics to the tune of the “Davy Crockett” song. “Yes, we know how much W loves throwing people in jail, you know Scooter Libby might start singing like a quail,” he sings, going into a incoherent mumble until finishing with “September 11th!” Doesn’t this guy realize the CIA leak trial was like a year and a half ago?
Montrose – Blue: Four girls have created a fun new game called “Slap Each Other on the Wrist.” The objective: make each other scream, as loud and as intense as possible. They’re having a grand time, but I’m sure I’m not alone when I say my fellow passengers would really love to shut these girls up.
Division – Blue: For a solid five minutes, I am alone in the subway with another man in his forties who’s wearing sunglasses, despite the fact that it’s the middle of the night, and we’re underground. This doesn’t strike me as particularly strange until he starts playing around with a plastic bag and a dollar bill, which he rolls up, flicks with his finger, puts up to his nose and snorts—rather discreetly—whatever was in there. I give him the benefit of the doubt—perhaps it was merely pixie-stick sugar!—when he takes a joint out of his bag and lights that sucker, and the glorious aroma of marijuana fills the subway.
And with that, I decide I’ve had enough for the day, especially since I haven’t been to the bathroom in roughly eleven hours.
Clark/Lake – Orange: Day two has begun, and the Orange Line to Midway inspires me to think up CTA-like slogans to combat the Pink and Green lines. I’m thinking “Oy! Orange!”
Ashland – Orange: “This is 35th and Archer,” says the CTA announcer, even though it’s not. The driver eventually realizes the error, and we hear: “This is Ashland. This is Ashland. This is Ashland. This is Ashland. This is Ashland.”
Pulaski – Orange: A pack of teens barge in and start yapping it up, when abruptly one of them lets out a dreadfully piercing scream: “You get out of my Sun Chips! I’ve only had two of my own damn Sun Chips!”
“You better sit down and shut up,” yells the one holding the precious Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips.
“Oh hell no,” says the first teen, who raises her arm to go for the slap—albeit slapping in a playful, teasing manner. Everyone else has been utterly silent during this, and now we realize it’s just a joke. Widespread disappointment.
Morse – Red: I skirt all the way up the Red Line to be on time for lunch with the king (or at least the supreme moderator) of El stories, Kevin O’Neill, the editor of ctatattler.com, a Web site originally (and still partially) devoted to reporting the strange anecdotes seen and various phone conversations overheard while on the El. These days, much of the Web site focuses on hard news, especially after the CTA’s funding crisis, but O’Neill still comes back to good ol’ weird-ass stories once in a while.
I ask if anything surprises him anymore. “Basically nothing does,” he says. “Like coming from a Sox game, walk into a train and you smell poop. You’re like, ‘What the hell?’…And there it was, a big pile of poop. You see piss running down the middle of the train cars.”
“I’ve heard other women talking about going to their gynecologist and getting an exam,” he says of people on the phone. “‘Oh yeah, it looks like I have herpes. I’ve got a sore. I can’t have sex for awhile.’ OK, thanks for sharing.”
O’Neill says that—for whatever reason—people have become so comfortable and lax in the CTA that they stop realizing it’s a public place. “It’s funny because people think they’re in their own world,” he says. “Would you talk about that if someone was sitting right next to you at a bar? People get on the CTA and they think they’re in their own cocoon of silence or privacy, and that’s just not the case.”
“It’s kind of self-imposed and self-perpetuated,” he continues. “Because for the most part you don’t want to deal with other people, you just wanna sit in your own world… You start feeling like, ‘Oh yeah, no one can hear me.’”
Howard – Red: Bah! The Skokie Swift Yellow Line is closed for the weekend. This, along with the construction that keeps the Red Line subway partially inoperable, means that I can only possibly visit 134 stations, rather than the full 144. I’m disappointed, but then again, how do you tell a story about the CTA without having construction muck things up?
Davis – Purple Line: Four girls pose in front of a railing for an innocent, cutesy picture. What’s not as innocent is the creepy guy sitting on the staircase behind the railing, secretly taking pictures of their asses with his cell phone.
Main – Purple: Two girls get out of the train and just stand there. A rowdy group of men can’t help but say something sexual.
“Are they waiting for the next train?” one asks.
“They’re probably going to bang,” says another.
“I wish I could go sit in some dark corner, all you could see is the orange glow of my cigarette,” says another, who then changes the subject to how they’ve drank heavily every day but one for the last four weeks.
Thorndale – Red: The train is packed to the brim so tightly that we can’t even reach into our pockets for our cell phones without touching the sweaty arms of about six other people. And just about every demographic is represented: black, white, Asian, Middle Eastern, indie kids with cartoons on their t-shirts, stately women with their hands in their laps, punk-rockers with their skateboards and nose rings, textbook-reading uber-nerds. And that’s all great and symbolic, but somebody smells like they spilled cologne all over themselves, so I exit quickly.
Wilson – Red: There’s a pretty heavy contingency of people who want to stay in their own world and not communicate with anyone else: the headphoners, who listen to music or the radio or whatever, as long as it’s not anyone on the freaking train. On this particular ride, one gentlemen has a pair of headphones that are individually—no exaggeration—three times the size of a typical ear, at least. They almost cover the entire sides of his head.
Roosevelt – Green: Two rug-rats—one in a Nike t-shirt, the other in a Harvard Law t-shirt—are apparently sugar-high, running around with reckless abandon. The train is totally stopped and Harvard boy says what’s on everybody’s mind: “Doesn’t this train go any faster!?!”
“Wanna play Mario?” he asks his buddy.
“Yeah, you have to hold onto the train,” Nike boy says, starting to proudly sing the Mario theme music.
“Fireball! Phcew!” Harvard boy says, trying to make the “Mario-shoots-a-fireball” sound. “People are on fire! And they’re dead.”
35th/IIT/Bronzeville – Green: A man in his forties leans over, exhausted, his arms touching the train floor, his mouth beginning to drool from both lips. The man would love nothing more than to sleep for the next sixteen hours.
He doesn’t realize it, but he’s got trouble. Five kids have just discovered him, and they find his current state to be hysterical.
“Hey, some old man on his ass,” one says, as he takes a Styrofoam box full of food and slams it viciously onto the back of his head, spraying buffalo chicken wings and ketchup across the floor.
The attacked man wakes up, bamboozled and decides he needs to find whoever whacked him. The kids start yelling, “Dude, he’s right over there!” pointing randomly into the masses of people standing at the station, and he takes the bait, walking like a zombie out of the train out into the crowds of people. The kids laugh derisively in victory, as the new passengers wonder why there are buffalo wings scattered on the car’s floor.
Cicero – Blue: Without even a hint of eye contact from me, a young adult with sunglasses on top of his head approaches, a fashionable, trendy-looking man, his arm outstretched to shake mine, a smile from cheek to cheek on his 26-year-old face.
“Hi, I’m Thomas!”
“What are you doing in the hood?”
“Just riding? Wow. Well, that’s cool, that’s cool. I’m just trying to get home. Just had to make a pit stop on the way. Just had to pick up some supplies.” He laughs heartily and I force myself to do the same, just to keep this from being the most awkward conversation of all-time. “You know, I don’t consider myself gay…” he says, before explaining that he really enjoys doing homosexual acts.
“Well, here comes my silver limousine,” he says, as the train rolls in. “I’m Thomas, by the way.”
LaSalle – Blue: Hey! It’s Adam Sandler’s crotch for the eighty-ninth time!
Monroe – Blue: One of the last stops of the weekend, and it dawns on me that I’ve somehow managed to miss every drunk person in Chicago in the last thirty-six hours. And then, as a gift from above, the Blues Festival ends, and at least thirty of the intoxicated variety start to trickle into the Monroe Blue Line station. And that’s when the Sox fan shows up.
“Sooooox rule!” whoops the Sox fan in his twenties, raising his Sox banner up in triumph. A trio of friends look at each other amused, and as the lone Sox fan reaches the end of the station, one of them lets out his rebuttal: “Sox suck!”
“Sox suck?” says the Sox fan, with a genuine look of befuddlement on his face. He hadn’t even considered such a proposition in all his years.
“C’mon, man, we’re both in first place, right?” one of the Cubs fans say, and this leads to a four-man bro-hug, even though the Sox fan wants no part of it, struggling to free himself from this act of camaraderie. This debate would’ve continued, but a drop-dead drunken man who doesn’t currently possess the motor skills to stand up has entered the subway and a few of the Cubs fans feel obligated to talk him through his misery.
Meanwhile, the talkative Sox fan has found another debater—a tall, middle-aged man whose general demeanor suggests he may be the only sober person in this station, and whose general attitude suggests he thinks he’s really cool.
“I’m trying to convince him that the Sox. Ain’t. Where. It’s. At,” the sober guy says, emphatically. “It’s the Cubs, man. It’s the Cubs.”
There are more happenings directly across from the sober guy: a teenage couple, a scrawny boy and a redhead girl, have evidently taken this primo opportunity—inebriated and in the subway—to end their relationship. The boy tries to explain something, but it’s probably useless. The girl cries incessantly.
“Dude,” says the middle-aged sober guy as he approaches one of their male friends to give some advice. “Does she ever stop crying?” The friend replies that she’s a cool girl, he just wants no part of her, relationship-wise.
“Hey dude,” sober guy says. “You’re in a really bizarre period, where a girl, literally one day will be the difference for if you’re labeled a sex offender your whole life. You gotta be careful about that.”
I could cover this classic stuff all day long, but here’s the train, and I’m seated face-to-face with the teenage couple, who still appear pretty shaken up.
“What are you looking at?” the scrawny kid says to me.
“Keep your eyes off her,” he says, even though I’ve been trying extremely hard to avoid eye contact with either of them.
I don’t know what you’re talking about.
“Don’t bullshit me,” he says, drunk and full of rage. “Keep your eyes off; keep ‘em on your notebook.”
And it’s here I’m faced with a decision: get into a skirmish with this wasted teenager (at least as weak-looking as I am), thereby ending my 134-station journey in a fitting blaze of glory, or simply get off at this station because it’s simply not worth it if I were arrested. I choose the latter, of course, but I do manage to kick in his general direction a giant clump of hair that’s inexplicably on the floor.
And as I exit for the last time, the thirty-sixth or so hour of this escapade, I hear someone say in the distance, “Man, I love the train. You meet the craziest people on the train.”