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No Hugs On The CTA

In a recent contribution to Jargon Chicago, former non-Chicagoan Amber Hussung writes a short essay on the state of morning-commute CTA passengers. "Before I moved to Chicago, a friend from Boston told me that people make a point of looking as miserable as possible on public transportation," she writes. "I never really believed it. But then I rode the CTA everyday and saw it for myself."

Not content to let folks like Bob Geldof and the late Fred Rogers corner the market on volunteering helpful ways to improve the world, Hussung closes her essay thusly: "So I propose this: Start a conversation with a complete stranger on the CTA today. After all, it's an easy way to pass the time, and, slowly but surely, we can bring pleasant back to the commute."

Silly girl.

Bring pleasant "back" to the commute? I was raised in Chicago, and I've had countless encounters with the CTA. Commutes have never been a pleasant undertaking. Not even during the 1960s, when everyone was on dope and had an actual reason to be pleasant. Really, the only commute that remotely resembles the common definition of pleasant would be the Friday evening ride out of the city into Northwest Indiana on the South Shore Line. That's because a fair percentage of the riders are hooched up.

As Hussung accurately observes, "There are unwritten rules of the city, circumstances and behavior that aren't questioned and are, perhaps, not even noticed." This is true in Chicago or any other major metropolitan burg where anyone has free access to all manner of illegal weaponry. This is why unquestioned circumstances and behaviors were invented in the first place. It's called self-preservation. Contrary to what Chicago writers who are *still* whining about Marshall Field's might say, Chicago is not a town of friendly, happy people. Of course, we're friendly once we know you; anything other than that most always involves a tip, a commission, alcohol, or a patronage job. Really, we're no friendlier than the people of New York City. They're just able to get away with being openly hostile to the world because, quite honestly, everyone there just scares the living shit out of you.

True, there's a difference between casual eye contact and the piercing stare of a psychopath, but who determines where that line in the sand really lies? When the person next to you might be on the lam from Cook County Jail, most of us would rather not press our luck, especially in a confined space. Start a conversation with a complete stranger on the CTA today, my ass. Nothing rewards social experimentation like finding yourself lying on the floor of the bus trying to keep your innards from spilling out a gaping belly wound.

However, the greatest act of self-preservation for most people, if given the choice, would be to avoid the CTA and their sullen commuting brethren completely. This is especially true in the winter, when the CTA is a reminder of what commuting by immigrant boat was like. If the constant threat of lice, someone vomiting on your shoes, and whatever lung fungus everyone's hacking up doesn't put a chill in your day, nothing will. But this choice isn't available to most of us, so riding CTA is a daily reminder of the great divide between the haves and have-nots. If we had enough money or an expense account, we'd take a cab. If we had a chauffeur, we'd have someone drive us. If we had a job closer to the train station, we'd laugh in the face of the danger from being impaled by falling skyscraper icicles and walk.

But there's a much simpler reason everyone riding the CTA looks so miserable: We are miserable, because half of us are just too damn tired, and the other half is hung over. When you're lugging around baggage like that all day, the earbuds of an iPod is a natural and acceptable defense. Besides, if you can pull off looking miserable or dangerous enough, nobody will sit next to you, and you can use the vacant seat to stretch out.

Living in the city, there's just some things you learn. And when you learn, you live to ride another day. It's our own Circle of Life thing.

When Scott Buckner isn't riding the rails, he's watching a lot of TV.


Posted on January 16, 2007

MUSIC - Chief Keef Changed The Industry.
TV - Vizio's Best Product Is You.
POLITICS - UIC: Soda Taxes Work.
SPORTS - More McCaskey Malpractice.

BOOKS - All About Poop.


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