Out of Touch


As I sat on my commuter train riding in to work a few weeks ago, an empty seat next to me so I could stretch out with my thoughts, it occurred to me that I might be losing touch with what it means to be a Chicagoan. For probably the past four years, I have avoided taking the El to work because it ends up being faster and cheaper to take the Metra commuter rail.

Each morning, I drive the 1.5 miles to the train station, hop on my regularly scheduled train, ride it for precisely two stops, and fourteen minutes later, I arrive downtown. When I take the El, I walk to the El stop, hop on the train, ride it for six stops, get off, change trains, then ride that train for another eight stops, arriving downtown in about 40 minutes. Now admittedly, with the driving and parking time factored in, I’m not saving all that much time with the Metra, but somehow it feels faster.

But still, the sterility of the commuter rail started to bother me. Have I effectively become a suburbanite? Have I lost all my street cred? Did I have any street cred to begin with?

The questions were eating at me, so I decided to start taking the El to work, just to see if it would help make me feel like more of a city dweller once again. My first ride in to work was pretty pleasant. I got a seat, so things started off on the right foot. As soon as I stepped off the Red Line, the Brown Line train to the Loop was ready and waiting for me with open doors, as though there had been no bad blood between us. It seemed like everyone was more alive on the El. More interesting. They were reading books I wanted to read. Wearing shoes I wanted to wear. I suddenly realized that my fears were right – I had been missing out.

After work that evening, I walked to the El station with a bounce in my stride I hadn’t felt in years. Just as I reached the top of the stairs, the Purple Line train pulled up in time for me to hop on. Again, I got a seat. In the crowded evening rush hour, the aisles became steadily packed with people clinging to whatever pole they could find. I turned up the volume on my iPod to a level that would have gotten me shushed on the Metra, but went unnoticed on the El.

A man wearing plaid pajama bottoms stood next to my seat, holding a loosely covered container of what appeared to be carrot soup that sloshed precariously close to my head with every bump and turn. I became a bit more concerned when he adopted a straddle stance for balance as he held the soup in one hand and texted with the other hand, with a few very close calls as the train came to a halt at the next stop.

Fortunately, it was time for me to change trains. The next train was much more crowded, but I was able to worm my way into the back seat in one car. As soon as I sat down, I was pretty sure I knew why the seat was still available. It was the distinctive smell of subway pee that immediately made me flash fondly to my days in Paris.

So clearly, there are some distinct pros and cons.

  • The Metra is cheaper and slightly faster, but it’s filled with white-haired lawyers from Lake in the Hills who play gin the entire time.
  • The El allows me much more flexibility in schedules, but sometimes I come home smelling like the day after a frat party.

So it’s really a toss-up. My experiment is not yet over. I still need to make sure that I’m not missing out on some essential part of being a Chicagoan by avoiding the El, but so far, the scales are tipped in Metra’s direction due to the fact that if I step off the Metra smelling like urine, I can take comfort in the knowledge that it is more than likely my own.

100 Bullets, or Train Station Bathroom Conversations

You know what’s what.
You know what time it is.
You know the deal.
I will put 100 bullets in your motherf*ckin’ ass.
You ain’t no man.
You ain’t even an animal.
Animal’s got more intelligence than you.
Don’t act like you don’t know what’s what.
100 motherf*ckin’ bullets in your motherf*ckin’ ass.

The Hard Way


Most people, upon entering a subway car where 99% of the passengers were clustered toward one end of the train, would suspect that there was a reason no one was sitting near the lone man in the front of the car.

I, on the other hand, saw this as a sign of my good fortune to have found so many empty seats on what was an otherwise crowded train.

And I was wrong.

As soon as I sat down, the lone man, dressed in paint-covered khaki pants and wearing a stained cap, switched seats to the one directly in front of me. He then turned toward me, pulled on his white beard, and in a thick Russian accent, began shouting what seemed to be a combination of mythological and biblical references that made absolutely no sense whatsoever.

There were dragon slayings and fiery pits, brother against brother and eternal damnation. I tried to follow the story for a while, but all I caught was that we were all going to die, and there would be a lot of blood.

Fairly skilled in the art of subway face, I might have been able to tune him out, had it not been for the retched stench seeping from his mouth. Every time he turned toward me, I had to quickly hold my breath so as not to catch a whiff of whatever had died in his stomach that day. I leaned toward the window, only to discover that the air-conditioning had gone out in our car.

In the middle of one of his tirades, during which he stood up to demonstrate how somebody stabbed a sword into some three-headed creature, or into one of the Apostles (his story got a little foggy there), I turned back and looked at the other 99% of the train. Some of them averted their eyes. Others gave me a sympathetic shoulder shrug.

I remembered hearing that in an emergency, you are supposed to single someone out in a mob so that they feel responsible for helping you. If you simply yell, “Somebody help me,” no one will. But if you yell, “You, in the purple Northwestern sweatshirt, call 911,” that person will feel responsible and will come to your aid.

So at one point, I contemplated yelling, “Hey! You – yes, you – in the tight Cubs tanktop and the platform flip flops! Listen, Trixie. Open up that ginormous purse of yours and toss this man some goddamn Tic Tacs. NOW!”

But instead, I practiced measured breathing, waited until the next stop, and bolted out the door the second it opened. I wasn’t too far from my apartment, and my instincts told me it would be wiser for me to walk the rest of the way home to clear out my nasal cavities.

And my instincts might have been correct, had I not gotten off in the three block stretch known as Little Vietnam, where all the restaurants had piled their garbage high in the 95 degree midday sun.

Rotting maggoty fish guts, or the thick, sour breath of a lunatic. It’s just like our motto says, “Chicago – city in a garden.”