While I ride CTA trains, mostly the Red Line, a few times a week, I was interested in getting a better sense of what conditions are like on the El at other times of the day. So I hung out on the Red and Blue routes from 5pm to 5am, partly inspired by the legendary “This American Life” “24 Hours at the Golden Apple” segment, recorded at the longtime Lakeview diner. I’d take food, drink and bathroom breaks along the way.
There’s not much debate that the CTA has gotten more dangerous and dirty during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a time when many Chicagoans have experienced economic and mental health crises, and transit ridership has plummeted, meaning fewer eyes in the cars to deter bad behavior.
Recent headlines reflect this. Since last July, there have been at least three murders on buses and trains. There have been a rash of stabbings on local transit, as well as a wave of assaults on CTA workers, and even a series of hammer attacks.
The Red and Blue lines, the two El routes that operate twenty-four-seven, have been crime hot spots. During a recent ten-day period this winter, there were at least five violent crimes on Red Line trains or outside Red stations, including the February 28 murder of Vadarrion A. Knight, sixteen, outside the Grand stop, three other shooting incidents and a robbery.
A significant number of recent, seemingly random, violent crimes on the CTA have seemed to involve suspects with mental illness, reflecting Chicago’s failure to address our mental health crisis. A few notable headlines:
- February 4, 2020: Male street musician, twenty-six, repeatedly stabbed with large kitchen knife on Jackson Red platform, allegedly by a woman with a history of mental health issues.
- July 2, 2021: Man, sixty-six, fatally stabbed in chest on bus in Chatham, allegedly by a male stranger with a mental illness.
- October 15, 2021: Woman, sixty-six, visiting for marathon, fell on Cermak Green Line station tracks after a man who reportedly had mental health issues allegedly punched her.
I wasn’t worried for my safety. In my thirty-two years in Chicago, I’ve ridden the CTA all over town at all times of night and, with the minor exception of an incident last year when a teen randomly slapped my head on the south Red Line in broad daylight, I’ve never been assaulted on trains or buses.
I realize I’m fortunate that my male gender, middle age, relatively light skin color and compact size may be the ideal demographic to minimize my risk of being hassled on the El. (I have a theory that because I’m not a big, intimidating guy, people have nothing to prove by picking a fight with me.) I’m mindful that, say, a younger woman might have a very different experience doing this kind of journey. But to be on the safe side, I’m not carrying valuables, and I’ve emptied my wallet and photographed my IDs and bank and credit cards.
I start my journey on Friday, March 11 at 5pm at the Red Line’s Jackson platform. During the past couple of years, there have been a string of violent incidents in this station and its Blue counterpart, including the fatal, execution-style shooting of Edward Charleston, twenty-four, just after 2am, on February 17, 2020, in the tunnel that connects the two stops.
But right now, after two years of low ridership, it seems like a normal busy Friday rush hour. The only thing unusual is a young woman wearing a white Mennonite-style bonnet.
When I board a northbound train, as expected, it seems filled with mostly middle-class-or-wealthier white folks, but an unhoused person is sleeping in one of the cars. The fact that Red Line trains typically switch from a predominantly white ridership on the North Side to almost all African American passengers south of downtown reflects Chicago’s status as one of the most segregated cities in the United States.
North of the Addison stop after the crowd has thinned out, someone lights a cigarette in my car, the first smoker I encounter on the trip. At the Sheridan station I switch cars the legal way, stepping out onto the platform and hustling to an adjacent carriage before the doors close, and then enjoy a view of the sun descending over Graceland Cemetery.
After passing construction at several stations, part of the CTA’s $2.1 billion Red and Purple Modernization overhaul, just short of the Jarvis stop, we’re stuck waiting for signal clearance. There’s only one other passenger in my car.
At Howard Street, the northern terminus, I cross the platform to a southbound train. A CTA cleaner briefly steps into my car and perfunctorily zaps a single spot on a seat with a spray bottle. One of the other riders has a long yellow plaid coat and hair dyed bright red, a striking combo. The sunset is deepening to crimson.
The train is pretty full again by Addison. “Those are fancy shoes,” an older man says to his son, pointing at his gray wingtips. “Yeah, Cole Haans,” the young man responds. “It’s only the second time I’ve worn them.”
I get off at Lake Street, where the platform is fairly bustling, and someone is puffing a cigarette, the second smoking incident of the trip. I’ve got a little time to kill before heading northwest on the Blue Line to meet my friend at a bar at O’Hare, so I poke my head upstairs.
As I gaze at the Chicago Theatre, where rightwing conspiracy theory-monger Jordan Peterson is appearing, it occurs to me that the foot traffic in the Loop is starting to look pretty normal again. Maybe we really are coming out of the pandemic.
I stop at a bakery in the Block 37 shopping mall and buy some cheesecake to surprise my friend. I go upstairs to use a public bathroom then down to the lower-level arcade where you transfer between Red and Blue lines. There’s a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop there.
On the Washington Blue platform, an unhoused person is sleeping, camped out on a bench with lots of belongings nearby. Passengers move out of the way as two scruffy older men, one Black and one Asian American, recklessly dance around the platform and pretend to kung-fu fight. The latter sings “Say You, Say Me” by Lionel Richie.
After I board a train bound northwest, the operator announces over the PA that there’s a sick passenger in the second car, and asks if anyone has medical expertise. Within ten minutes, fire-department paramedics evacuate the patient, who appears to be unhoused, on a stretcher, and the train is moving.
We pass through Wicker Park and Logan Square. Not coincidentally, multiple young people with bright blue and acid-green hair have gotten on the train.
My friend is arriving from Uptown by bus to the Jefferson Park Transit Center just after my train arrives, so I go upstairs. The colorful, surreal bus shelters are boarded up, due to a February 27 incident when a man who was reportedly having a mental health episode used a drill and a jackhammer to damage their art-glass panels.
Even before that, the heated bus shelters were largely unusable by weary O’Hare workers waiting in the cold for buses, because unhoused folks regularly slept inside them, lying on sheets of cardboard. Before these facilities are reopened, the city should provide an alternative site at the station where people experiencing homelessness can stay warm and sleep, so that the shelters can be used for their intended purpose.
Soon we’re approaching the airport, but the train is delayed for fifteen minutes near the Rosemont stop, waiting for signal clearance. The only other passenger in our car looks like he’s having a really bad day, at risk of vomiting. But soon he’s sleeping in a fetal position on one of the car’s two-seat benches.
What if I told you that steps from the O’Hare station, in the lobby of the profoundly bland airport Hilton, there’s a speakeasy with giant chandeliers, blood-red wallpaper, and lots of paintings of zaftig nudes, making it resemble a late-1800s Parisian bordello where Toulouse-Lautrec might hang out? I’m not gaslighting you. But I am talking about the Gaslight Club, the airport branch of which opened in 1973 and has somehow survived into the modern era.
We belly up to the bar below a sign that reads, “Work is the curse of the drinking class.” Carol, the feisty bartender who’s been working here for decades, expertly mixes Prohibition-era cocktails. The piano player plays a bass line with her left hand while blowing into a melodica that’s sitting on top of the keyboard and fingering a tune with her right.
A youthful senior in a sequined dress and top hat joins the pianist to sing “Willkommen” from “Cabaret” and “Always on My Mind” by Willie Nelson. Then Carol steps out from behind the bar to croon Burt Bacharach’s “Walk on By.” Above the duo is a 1970s photo of an elderly Jimmy Durante at a piano, surrounded by a crowd of Gaslight Club waitresses in Playboy Bunny-like outfits. Nowadays they wear black flapper dresses.
Refreshed, we return to the station and board a Forest Park-bound train, which is fairly full. A couple of guys are sleeping across seats in another car. Our car smells faintly of weed. Then someone starts smoking a cigarette. It’s the third time tonight. We switch cars at Rosemont, and my friend says goodnight at Jeff Park.
In addition to the surge in violence, an increase in rule-breaking has made riding the El less healthy and pleasant during COVID. Smoking is increasingly common at night, and more people are using rail cars as garbage cans and restrooms. In January 2021, I was sitting in a Red train waiting at the 95th/Dan Ryan station when a disheveled man urinated out the door onto the platform, also spilling plenty on the car floor and his pants. I looked across the car at the only other occupant, who was calmly smoking a cigarette.
It’s obvious that if city officials let the CTA further descend toward chaos, people who can afford it will stop riding transit, leading to a “transit death spiral” of falling ridership, fare hikes and service cuts. That would hurt all Chicagoans, but it would be especially damaging for poor and working-class residents who rely on the system for daily transportation.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot made it clear she understands there’s a problem. She held a press conference on March 9 at the Chicago Avenue Red station, in which she called the CTA crime wave “simply unacceptable,” adding “We want to make sure the transit experience is not only safe but clean, something we can all be proud of.”
At the presser, it was announced that more police resources will focus on the CTA, but officials were vague when asked how many more officers could be deployed. “As much as we need to send to the CTA to make it safe,” said police chief David Brown.
Adding more armed personnel to the system could increase the possibility of the enforcement of minor infractions escalating to bloodshed. That issue was highlighted on February 29, 2020, the same afternoon Lightfoot announced a plan to have fifty additional police officers patrol the system in response to the most recent crime wave, when police shot and critically wounded an unarmed man at the Grand Red Line stop after trying to detain him for illegally walking between train cars. The officers had fired their guns up an escalator at the busy station, which could have resulted in bystanders being wounded or killed.
On the other hand, Lightfoot specified that the CTA board had approved $71 million in multiyear contracts to double the number of unarmed security guards on the system to over 200. According to CTA spokesperson Brian Steele, these guards will act as a deterrent to crime and rule-breaking, as well as performing outreach to the increasing number of homeless persons, including those with mental health challenges, who have used the CTA as an emergency shelter during COVID, and offering to connect them with city services. Steele indicated that the guards won’t call for police backup unless there is an immediate threat of violence, or if a rider is engaging in exceptionally problematic behavior like harassment or smoking, and refuses to stop.
At Division Street a woman gets on and pulls out a self-rolled cigarette or joint and a lighter. It’s usually best not to confront CTA smokers, since there’s always the chance nowadays that they could be carrying knives and box cutters. But she seems harmless, so I say, “Uh, miss, could you not smoke on the train, please?” She mutters incoherently and lights up. That’s four smoking incidents today.
My car empties out after we pass through the Loop and head west in the median of the Eisenhower Expressway. One of the two other people left is broadcasting James Brown’s “The Payback” on a boombox. (The other is asleep.) Playing loud music violates the CTA’s Code of Conduct, and technically, the security guards are supposed to be enforcing this rule.
But loud audio on transit is generally only a problem if you have a headache, or someone is playing a genre of music you dislike. (Drill music, a particularly nihilistic style of rap invented in Chicago, which is prevalent on the El, is not my thing.) And after all the smokers I’ve encountered tonight, this funky revenge anthem suits my mood perfectly. As it turns out, this guy’s taste in music is impeccable and diverse, and it makes the bleak ride through the West Side go by quickly. Here’s the rest of his playlist:
- Curtis Mayfield (a Chicago native): “Pusherman”
- AC/DC: “Thunderstruck”
- AC/DC: “Highway to Hell” (I did not expect to roll into East Garfield Park on the Blue Line at 11:30pm to a double-shot of Sydney hard rock.)
- Survivor: “Eye of the Tiger” (This is appropriate, since we’re approaching Berwyn, where the song’s co-writer Jim Peterik grew up and now lives.)
- Chuck Berry: “Johnny B. Goode”
- Booker T. & the M.G.’s: “Green Onions”
- Prince: “When Doves Cry”
Other than this terrific party mix, the trip is uneventful, save for a peddler passing through selling jumbo Reese’s peanut butter cups, Kit Kats and Hershey’s Cookies ‘N’ Creme bars. I’m tempted.
We arrive at Forest Park, where the same train will head east, back into the city. For the sake of variety, I switch cars. This one has three occupants, all sleeping across the short seats, which looks uncomfortable, and the car smells faintly of cigarette smoke.
A peddler passes through the car advertising “squares, squares”—loose cigarettes. Guys like this seem pretty common, which may explain why smoking is so prevalent on the El.
Earlier during the pandemic, I fled a Red Line car after someone started smoking. The next carriage was smoke-free, but a vendor came through and sold a cigarette to another passenger. “Please don’t light up, please don’t light up,” I thought. He lit up.
By the time we reach Kedzie Avenue, I’ve switched cars a few times. Most smell a bit smoky and have loose tobacco on the floor, but the vibe is peaceful. A guy in my current car just started drinking a large can of malt liquor.
The cars have filled up as we pass the Illinois Medical District and UIC-Halsted stations, and while just about everyone else on the Forest Park branch appears to be a low-income or working-class middle-aged or older Black man, by now the demographic grows more diverse in terms of class, age, race and gender.
At the Jackson station, I’ll transfer to the Red Line and head south. Again, this stop has been a crime hotspot at night, so I expect to see guards and cops.
Surprisingly, there are no security personnel, but there’s no obvious trouble either, although passing through the tunnel where a man was murdered two years ago is eerie. On the Red platform there’s a hawker selling deodorant: “Axes, Axes, two for five.” Another guy asks someone, “Hey man, got a light?” and then smokes a cigarette on the platform. That’s five incidents of smoking tonight.
I chuckle at an ad on the wall for Butcher Boy cooking oil, which sponsored free CTA rides for CPS students on the first day of school last year: “Your heart deserves the best!” Sure, if you’re going to clog your arteries with coconut oil and lard, shown in the ad, you might as well make it Butcher Boy.
I keep hearing “squares,” but fortunately they’re not talking about me. Lots of cigarettes are changing hands. A guy asks if he can buy Swisher Sweets. “No man, I only have squares.” One of the peddlers has a fifteen-pack of Bud and an open tall boy of Natural Ice. Someone is blasting a tasteless rap tune: “I’m like R. Kelly, I might pee on a bitch.” It doesn’t seem dangerous here, but it’s seedy.
I’m glad when my southbound train shows up. I’m hungry, so I’m heading to Chinatown for noodle soup.
Thanks to the Red Line cars’ long benches, everyone stretched out sleeping looks more comfortable than their Blue Line counterparts. Still, the seats are bumpy, and the ride is rough and noisy. Worse, last summer a man was charged with stabbing four sleeping unhoused people, one fatally, including wounding two men who were sheltering on the Red Line. Clearly, no one would sleep this way unless they had to.
Is it necessarily a bad thing that the CTA is available for those who lack better options for staying warm and getting some sleep, especially if they’re mostly doing it at night? During the press event’s Q & A, I noted that a significant amount of the public safety and sanitation issues on the El seem to involve people experiencing homelessness and/or mental illness. (According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless staffer, twenty-nine percent of unhoused Chicagoans living on the street have mental health problems.) I asked Lightfoot whether the city had considered increasing funding to house the homeless and provide mental health services to those who need them as a strategy to make the CTA safer and cleaner.
“It’s not one or the other,” Lightfoot responded, citing $1.2 million in resources “for mental illness and trauma across the city, in addition to providing resources specifically for homeless prevention, as well as making sure that we’re expanding our offerings of affordable and transitional housing.”
While I don’t have a problem with deploying more unarmed guards, shortly after the press event I read a story in the San Francisco Chronicle about a pilot to build seventy tiny homes for unhoused people, with dining halls, bathrooms and computers for each resident at a total of $30,000 per unit. For $71 million, Chicago could fund 2,366 such dwellings.
In a recent interview with Amber Drea of Streetsblog, where I am co-editor, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless policy director Julie Dworkin acknowledged that there have been more people sleeping on the CTA during the pandemic, which she attributed to reduced capacity at shelters because of social distancing.
The newer 5000 Series cars on the Red Line have also encouraged sleeping in trains, with their long, aisle-facing benches that enable people to stretch out across four or five seats.
Dworkin said she has a wait-and-see attitude toward the increase in unarmed CTA security guards. “I would be concerned if the guards will be there to push people off or criminalize people in any way. We will be monitoring the situation and hopefully there’s not going to be any issues with it.”
She added that the Lightfoot administration still needs to do much more to address homelessness. CCH’s Bring Chicago Home campaign calls for a one-time increase in the real estate transfer tax that would affect homes sold for more than $1 million, which Dworkin said could house 12,000 people for over a decade. She argued that’s the most realistic long-term solution for reducing the number of people sheltering on trains.
The colorful traditional architecture of Chinatown is a nice change of scenery, but the walk from the station is bitterly cold at sixteen degrees. Soon the cheerful flashing yellow sign of Seven Treasures Cantonese Restaurant, my favorite greasy spoon in the neighborhood, open until 2am, stands before me like a beacon in the night. I get my usual order, a fortifying bowl of noodle soup with shrimp dumplings, barbecued pork and Chinese broccoli, and my spirits are lifted. A young man sits down in front of me wearing a furry green Care Bears costume with a shamrock on the chest, pregaming for tomorrow’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
Back at the El stop, I wait in the station house because there’s a stiff north wind on the platform and no effective shelter. The customer assistant is nowhere to be seen, so as two young men enter, one pushes a button to let himself in through the wheelchair gate and says, “You don’t have to pay! Don’t waste your money!” His friend ignores him and heads to the Ventra machine.
It’s good to be back on a warm train. I’m sitting in the first car, theoretically the safest one because the driver is present in a booth. A guy across from me with short dreads and a Mr. T-style collection of chains is eating a cherry fruit pie. His pants have an anti-shoplifting device attached.
The end of the line is the 95th/Dan Ryan station, where I’m planning to head to nearby J.J. Sausage, a Maxwell Street-style fast food joint, to pick up a sweet steak sandwich for lunch. Dressed with a unique tangy red sauce, the sweet steak is a South Side specialty that seems to be impossible to find northeast of the Kennedy Expressway. Sadly, the customer assistant tells me the shop has shut down for the night. “Nowadays they close whenever they feel like it.” The pandemic has put a dent in Chicago’s late-night dining scene.
I content myself with checking out works by local artist Theaster Gates, installed after the station was rebuilt a few years ago into a giant, spaceship-like structure straddling 95th Street. Tapestries made out of fire hoses, a reference to the Civil Rights movement, are titled “america, america.” And “AESOP (An Extended Song of Our People),” is a DJ booth and radio station with an animated neon head, with a hairstyle that grows into a giant Afro.
As I’m about to head back to the platform to catch my ride to the North Side, I recognize a train operator who’s heading to the break room at the end of her shift.
She was the driver of a Red Line train I rode that Thursday, when my friend and I were returning to Uptown from a Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance in the Loop, riding in the front car. After a man briefly passed through our carriage puffing a cigarette, the operator stuck her head out of her booth and announced in a mom voice, “There will be no smoking on my train!”
At 95th on Friday, I tell her I liked how she handled that situation.
I’m sitting in the last car of a northbound train in the median of the Dan Ryan Expressway. There’s a twenty-minute wait until we depart, but I’m in no hurry. All but one of the six other people aboard are asleep. At this time of night, the Red Line is a rolling hotel.
After we leave the station, I decide to make my way up to the front of the train car-by-car to see what’s going on, “Snowpiercer”-style.
At 87th Street, I switch cars. There are fewer people in this one, but two are smoking. (The sixth smoking episode this trip.)
The next car also smells like smoke, and an older guy is holding a half-consumed cigarette in his lips as he scrolls through his phone. He looks non-threatening, so I approach him.
“Excuse me sir, how’re you doin’? I was just wondering—I don’t want to cause you any trouble or anything—I was just curious. I noticed a lot of people are smoking on the CTA nowadays. Can you explain to me what’s up with that? I’m not trying to stop you, but you know smoking is against the rules, right?
“So why are you doing it?”
“I’m not smoking.”
“You’re holding a cigarette.”
“I’m not going to smoke until I get off.”
“Is that right? Well, somebody’s been smoking in this car. There were two guys in the next car smoking. It just seems like everybody’s smoking on the train nowadays. So if you don’t smoke on the train, why do you think other people do?”
“They just don’t care.” He says good night at 47th Street and lights up as he steps onto the platform.
No one’s smoking in the next car, but there’s a pile of chicken bones and an empty bottle of Barefoot white wine on a seat, on top of a filthy surgical mask. I hope they enjoyed their meal.
On the floor of the next car is a 7-Eleven turkey-and-cheese sandwich in a plastic box, with a cigarette butt on top. Lots of people are sleeping, but no one’s smoking.
I switch at Chinatown. A guy’s smoking here, the seventh cigarette incident of the night. I’m getting numb to it. A woman is sleeping across the seats in stocking feet, slippers on the floor.
I get off at Jackson to see if I can find a doughnut. Two cops are here, talking to some apparently unhoused men, the first security personnel I’ve seen all night.
A customer assistant tells me that both of the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts are closed for the night. I head upstairs and see State Street is a total ghost town.
I’m back on a northbound Red train. There are the usual multiple people sleeping across the seats, and a twenty-ounce Clamato can on the floor. But a couple of folks in this car actually look like they are going somewhere, not just sheltering.
I switch cars. There are more sleepers, and another smoker. It’s the eighth smoking incident of the night.
Moving to the front car, there are eleven people, most of them sleeping. After passing Fullerton, I figure I’ll get off at the Belmont nightlife district and find something to eat or drink.
Belmont is also totally abandoned. Even Philly’s Best cheesesteak, a late-night haven for drunk people, is closed, which means there’s absolutely nothing going on on Belmont.
It’s now twelve degrees. After a long, frigid wait at the station, a northbound train pulls up. Sitting in the car by myself, I’m exhausted. Along with great food, drink and music, I’ve witnessed some unsavory stuff tonight. But while I want to wash every item I had with me, including my backpack, I never felt endangered.
I’ve got a couple more stops to Wilson Avenue, my home station, and a ten-minute walk to my warm bed. After what I’ve seen tonight, I’m especially thankful to have one.