#991: Nothing But Trouble

October 10th, 2018

The three best bits of advice I ever heard about riding Chicago public transit are:

  • “My bus is my bus. I don’t try to make my bus my taxi.”
  • “There’s a reason that car is empty.”
  • and “Nothing but trouble comes through those doors.”

The first one, of course, is about being patient. The second, about avoiding the stanky car. The third is about those “For Emergency Only,” big red stop sign, “Do Not Open,” “Oh god it’s opening and a homeless guy is going to come into the car and yell ‘Excuse me’ with some nonsense story and go person to person or it’s going to be some lady with a card about being deaf or else it’ll be some kids selling candy for some fake sports program that does not exist, has not existed, will have never have had been existing and I just want to listen to my podcast” doors on each end of the car.

I vowed that before this 1,001-story project is done, I would, at least once, be nothing but trouble.

I’ve been rude on trains before. I’ve danced and I’ve sang and one time I graffito-tagged the wall but I had a Sharpie on me and the priority seating senior citizen with a cane icon is just one top hat and a dot from being a member of The Residents and the temptation was overwhelming. But I always stopped before going car-to-car.

Something about it seemed terrifying, and beyond me. Beyond the notion of the train hitting a random bump and me going flying unnoticed down an ink-black subway tunnel, or getting my shoelace caught and having it pull my ankle slowly, grindingly between axles, or walking in on a car with like 50 cops in it, or some other mishap misadventure that would leave me dead, arrested, mangled in a tube station or otherwise discomfited kept me from pulling that lever and heading to the next car mid-trip.

No more, I thought. Cowardice would no longer be my guiding star. I would find a new Polaris, one based on courage and derring-do and having an old lady eye me askance, pull her grandkids close and say I’m nothing but trouble.

So late at night (it was about 8:30) I crept out from my home (told my wife I was running errands) and headed out for my delve into the underworld (actually ran those errands).

I waited at an elevated station, hot wind rustling my hair on an autumn night that seemed like summer. Through the streetlit, whooshing and dinging and a wind rushing from the tracks announced my train’s arrival. I smiled.

“Depending on the rider, buses and trains can be libraries, bedrooms, cafes, prayer rooms, study halls, confessional booths. They’re mobile piazzas,” writer Adam Morgan once tweeted, because we are in the world where blogs quote tweets.

Medium of the thought aside, it’s a beautiful thought, and true. These grimy, smelly, human-infested transpo-bullets are our shared spaces. They’re the place where people must interact, even if it’s just standing, jostling, eyeing seats and pretending you’re playing music in your earbuds but you really just don’t want anyone to talk to you.

It seems silly that walking between cars meant so much to me. It’s something that other people do every day, not as rebellion or blog fodder, but as the simplest path from A to B. But it was something that scared me, so it had to be done.

The train tumbled northwest through the dark. It went over apartments and parking lots, skirted between condo blocks and zipped over the river, rustling yellowing leaves for a moment before shooting across the water and making me realize this was the train I saw last week from a kayak.

People eased out. Alone in the piazza, I walked slowly to the door.

I put my hand on the lever, and pulled.

Play our CTA simulator

A recent conversation

The kayak

Watching a panhandler panhandle a panhandler

A moment of theater on a New Year train

The Residents

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