Heroes and villains of the CTA

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A man walks onto the Lawrence bus in Chicago, the 81, leans into the driver’s nook, and bellows, “How far away is Kedzie? WHAT? Thirty-two blocks? Does that mean 30 minutes? WHAT?”

He allows his inner monologue to become the bus’s white noise as he walks toward a seat; “30 minutes? Where do I put my gloves? Never mind. I don’t have all day. I won’t be home until one. Ma’am can I sit here? FORGET IT! Thirty minutes…”

He moves farther back, sitting next to an old woman with white hair and a diminutive frame, her neck craned slightly forward and her hands clutching her purse. She turns her eyes out the window. “Ma’am? MA’AM? How long does it take to get to Kedzie? The bus driver says it’s 32 blocks. What?! Speak up, I can’t hear you. What?! Thirty minutes? I just didn’t think it’d take that long. I have to travel. And I’m in pain. And I have to travel. Cause that makes pain better, right?” The woman nods; he continues. “Oh god. I gotta go to the chiropractor.”

A truck stops traffic; “Oh God are we gonna be stuck HERE for 30 minutes??? Go figure. I saved all that money for nothing. Come on. Move!! I got places to be!”

He turns to the old woman again; “It’s not fun to be in pain. My foot hurts. And it’s going to take 30 minutes, right?” She nods her head, turning her eyes toward the window. “It’s just hard to be alive when you’re in so much pain. I wish someone would kill me.”


That afternoon, I walked onto the red line train at Lake headed north toward Howard. I had just finished an interview with a woman who represents homeless people on Chicago and was feeling quite serene. It was a warm day for the season and I was going to read some Lillian Ross and.. “GET OFF THE TRAIN THERE’S A FIGHT,” a man said to me.

I stepped on, looked around, and saw that a throng of people had let two men have a three-by-six-foot area of the train to themselves. A man with angry eyes stood in the back of the train staring at an irritated man with a bike, the length of which covered three seats. The man with the bike had bumped the angry-eyed man. Now, the angry-eyed man was posturing, telling bike man—in short—that he was a first-class asshole.

Other people on the train looked frustrated, happy, bored, intimidated, oblivious, frozen. Some bounced on and off the train like a pinball as the posturing escalated and swooned. Some were still nose-deep in their phone. A couple cuddled and giggled, looking from each other’s eyes toward the two men. One little blond boy was pressed into the wall, his father standing in front of him, along with a group of passengers forming a human wall.

“Soon as we get off this fuckin train…” the angry-eyed man said.

“If you’re so upset about it, why don’t we step outside now?” bike man said.

“GOOD, let’s go now.”

Both were standing now, face to face with the bike lodged between them like a western directed by Lance Armstrong. Bike man jabbed his bike at the angry-eyed man, whose eyes grew wide with shock.

“You just hit me with your bike? That’s assault! I’m gonna file charges against you.”

A few people chuckled. Most looked away, jutting their eyes toward the argument but staying quiet. The same man yelled “GET OFF THE TRAIN THERE’S A FIGHT.”

A CTA conductor showed up looking like an exacerbated mother. “We can either separate you or..” he said as both men started yelling about each other to him. He put his hands up and motioned them out the door. The two men followed the conductor, slinking out of the train with shoulders toward their ears, eyeing each other, yelling their case.

“HEY BRO!!! HEY!!” a third man yelled, running toward the men. He pulled his headphone wires off the bike now being yanked away.

Five minutes later, the train was still held at Lake. A rusty haired policeman with a pallid complexion stood in front of the open train doors. “…Yeah I mean, he apologized to the guy right in front of us but the other guy wasn’t having it, so…”

The scared blond boy looked stared straight ahead, eyes wide, pressing his body against the wall of the train. The group of people who were standing around him had loosened into their own worlds, staring off in their own directions—anywhere but direct eye contact with anyone else.

The boy’s father patted the boy’s head and smiled, “Well, we got to see a boxing match today, isn’t that cool?” The boy shook his head no. “Wanna go see more fights?” The boy shook his head no.

“Dad, why is the train still stopped?” the boy asked in a small voice. “Because someone tried to play hero today,” his dad said.

Outside, it rained slightly, the October sky puckering.

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