Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Creatures of the El

Everyone knows public transportation can be a harrowing experience at times. We’ve all sat next to that person who snored on the plane, smelled bad on the bus, or perhaps just sat too close for comfort on the train. I’ve certainly had my fair run-ins with public transportation characters: the schizophrenic preacher (I wish I was kidding) who simultaneously hit on me and tried to convert me while on a Greyhound bus; the woman who was sobbing on the El, engrossed in a Self Help book; the two German men on the sleeper between Venice and Köln who told jokes all through the night; and who could forget the physical brawl between a man and woman that I found myself caught between as I desperately tried to board an over-packed Tube. Public transportation can be scary and you never know what Dateline special you may inadvertently find yourself a part of.

Last week I had an interview for a job that I was in no way qualified for. I applied to the position out of sheer boredom at work one day and my only thoughts were, “They don’t require a cover letter? Sweet. Don’t need to exert any effort then!” Half an hour later I got an email asking if I could come down for an interview. The position I had applied for was Social Media Manager. Sure, I am on facebook nearly every hour throughout the day, I know about Twitter and I keep a blog, but a Social Media Manager I certainly am not. Nevertheless, they showed some interest so I turned up.

As it turns out, this company knew as much as I did that I was unqualified for the position. They had asked me in for an interview because my resume “fascinated” them. The manager was thrilled I had worked for the National Park Service and adored Mackinac Island. He was also a native of Alabama and stated, “My heart goes out the fellow Southerners.” After explaining to me as nicely as possible that I wasn’t actually qualified for the job and therefore would most likely not be getting it, the manager asked if I might consider a part-time internship. I asked what the internship would be and he replied, “I’m not really sure yet. We would sort of have to create one for you. I would just really really like to fit you in here.” I left not knowing if I should feel flattered or slighted (the internship would be, of course, unpaid).

Per habit, I immediately called a close friend on my walk back to the El (the company was located in Uptown). I told her of the trippy experience and related another Twilight Zone-esque interview I had experienced the week prior when I had been told (by the interviewer) that I must have forgotten to wear my lipstick that day. We scoffed over the nerve of Miss Lipstick as I boarded the Red Line. The car was packed so I had to stand. Just a few feet away from me stood an unstable (both physically and mentally) homeless man I had seen once before on the El. Normally he traveled from car-to-car, panhandling. Tonight, he swayed dramatically from side to side, distressing the commuters around him. As my friend told me about her day, Unstable unbuttoned his pants. He slid them to his knees, looked down, and pulled them back up. He then went and sat beside a college student, who was trying very hard to seem immersed in his Physics textbook.

The train pulled up at the first stop. Seats near me were vacated and I took one of the window chairs. An Indian woman and her boyfriend sat in surrounding seats. My friend continued to talk about recent happenings in her job, but I suddenly noticed the entire car had gone completely silent. The doors remained open and everyone seemed uncomfortable in their seats. Suddenly, the train conductor along with a CTA security guard boarded the car. They approached Unstable and asked him to leave the premises.
I continued to give hushed one-word responses to my friend and felt bad that it was becoming obvious that I was distracted. I wanted to narrate all that was happening, but felt it inappropriate as the security guard escorted Unstable from the platform. The train conductor strode to the front of the El.

I again tried to shift my attention to my friend, but was then distracted by the immediate passenger gossip:

“Did you hear what they said? The code the police said into their radio?”

“Gang bang.”

“Yes! I heard it, too. They said ‘gang bang,’ didn’t they?”

“What do you think that means?”

The woman beside me seemed more offended by Unstable’s smell and pulled out a bottle of perfume. She sprayed the air, hitting the side of my face in her aromatic circle. My coughing perplexed her and she asked if I thought the fragrance smelled bad.

By this point my friend’s call had graciously dropped and I was able to text her a quick synopsis of what had been taking place since I boarded the Red Line. Just as I hit Send, Unstable jumped triumphantly into the car. He puffed out his chest and stared valiantly at those brave enough to make eye contact. Movement on the platform startled him and he dove behind my seat. The CTA security guard walked swiftly past the open doors and a young girl sitting across the aisle from me sprang after him. Unstable looked around for a less obvious hiding place when a man across the car called him over saying there were plenty of empty seats where he sat. Unstable took his rooster stance once again and strutted across the car. The young girl returned followed by the security guard, train conductor, and a cop. They once again approached Unstable and asked him to leave the train.

The excitement finally over, the conductor made an announcement that, due to the delay, the train would be running express and would skip the next seven stops. Three quarters of the car departed leaving only myself and five other people: the Physics student, a small Hispanic woman, a young girl with a mutilated face, the man who had offered Unstable a seat, and a guy with amazing dreadlocks. The doors closed and we finally left the platform after our nearly fifteen minute delay.

The car bounced along hurriedly, the conductor trying to make up for his lost time. I continued to text with my friend and update her on Unstable’s reappearance. Suddenly, the Hispanic woman who had been behind me took the seat right next to me. I tried not to look taken aback, but wondered why, when there was currently a ratio of about 10:1 seats to passengers, she had decided to sit right next to me. It was then that I noticed the girl with the scarred face looking towards the other end of the car. Unstable was back and shuffling towards our seats. He passed us and opened the emergency door. He left the car and stood on the jack that connected our car to the one behind us.

The girl looked at the Hispanic woman and me. “Is he going to jump?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” the Hispanic woman responded.

“Should we do something?” I asked.

We watched him as he wavered back and forth on the jack. We didn’t want him to jump, nor did we want to open the door and possibly cause him to fall. And let’s be honest, interacting with him wasn’t exactly at the top of anyone’s list either. El cars are not the same as Metra trains. The doors leading from car-to-car are for emergency only because when you leave a car you are outside. There is no platform, no railing, nothing to keep you from being jerked to the ground. Unstable wavered a moment more and then opened the door again. As he re-entered the car the three of us looked around the floor and ceiling as if something else had interested us.

Unstable wandered up and down the car once before taking the seat next to his good buddy Physics Student once more. He then proceeded to bark. Now, I’m not talking “Woof! Woof!” I am talking about legit barking like a dog that really wants to bite the postman. Poor Physics Student. He sat there, textbook book pressed close to his face, but his eyes were glued to Unstable.

Finally, after what seemed like an interminable train ride, we arrived at the second to last stop. Unstable departed of his own free will this time. The next stop was Howard, the end of the Red Line, and those of us traveling to Evanston got off the train and waited for the Purple Line to show. Unfortunately, since this is the L, the majority of the trains are elevated. Meaning: it was bloody cold. Thankfully, Chicago is smart and has placed heaters in many of the awnings. I joined a group of fellow Purple Liners under one of these awnings and updated my friend even further on The Adventures of Unstable.

I was listening to my iPod at this point and it took me a few moments to realize someone, somewhere was yelling. I looked around and saw a large man in a Letterman jacket yelling in my direction. I turned down the volume on my iPod in time to hear him yell, “Ah shoot, man! Y’all stuck up bitches not gonna tell me what train is coming? I’m just askin’ what train is COMIN’!” I immediately deduced that he had asked a general ‘which train is this’ to the crowd I happened to be standing in and no one had answered him. Letterman slowly made his way closer to the crowd, ranting and raving the whole way. Even without smelling his breath, it was very apparent that he was wasted.

“What time it is?” Letterman demanded, stumbling down the platform. “Why ain’t no one tell me what TIME. IT. IS.” He walked right in front of me.

“The time?” I said, hoping to quiet him. My question stopped him suddenly.

“Yeah. What time it is?”


“Thank you. Thank you, Miss. That’s really nice.”

“Oh you’re welcome,” I said, starting to put my earphone back in my ear.

“What’s your name?” Letterman asked.

“Elizabeth,” I fibbed.

“Elizabeth?” he shook my hand and took a step closer. “That’s a real pretty name, Elizabeth.”

“Thank you.”

“You traveling alone tonight, Elizabeth?”

“Yep. Looks like it.”

“You gotta boyfriend?”

“Yep. He’s meeting me at the next stop.” I looked down at my phone and wondered which of my friends would answer a mayday text the fastest.

Letterman pressed himself, obscuring my phone’s screen with his stomach. “Well he shouldn’t let a pretty little thing like you travel alone.”

“Haha no he shouldn’t,” I responded, shaking my fist in the air. I looked around. My crowd of Purple Liners was noticeably inching away from Letterman and myself. Bastards, I thought.

“I gotta girlfriend,” Letterman announced.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.” He looked across the platform. “BABY GIRL!” he yelled, “BABY GIRL! Commere. Commere!”

Baby Girl came over. Baby Girl did not look happy. She slammed a ring of keys into Letterman’s hand. “Take these,” she said harshly and stomped off. Letterman’s confusion over Baby Girl’s attitude gave me enough time to send my “CALL ME NOW THIS IS NOT A JOKE!” text. He then turned back to me and began talking about the Bears. Apparently they had lost that night. Or maybe they won. I honestly wasn’t paying attention.

Like a godsend, my phone suddenly blared a song from ‘Across the Universe’. “Opps,” I said, “I’ve got to get this.” I answered and immediately began telling my friend (who lives in Boston) about how I was just waiting for the train and that I would meet her at the next stop. Letterman continued to talk to me about the Bears and was absolutely oblivious to the phone at my ear. Luckily, a young man walked by reading Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress (one of his earlier ones that came out before The Da Vinci Code made him famous). Letterman snatched the book from the bewildered man’s hands. “I read this book,” he said. “This the sequel? Damn what was that book called? Damn that was a good book, whatn’it?” This momentary distraction gave me enough room to slip between Letterman and the wall he had me trapped against. I thanked my friend for the phone call and waited for the Purple Line to finally bloody arrive.

“Excuse me? Miss?”

I turned around. A woman very similar in appearance and dress to Professor Trelawney from ‘Harry Potter’ (wild curly gray hair, giant round glasses and patch-worked clothing) beamed at me. “What?” I said, having had enough Creatures of the El experiences for one night.

“Is that a dress you’re wearing or a skirt?”

I looked down. Beneath my yellow pea coat was the bottom of my purple and black zigzagged sweater dress. “It’s a dress,” I said, still wondering why on earth this woman needed to know.

“It’s very lovely,” she said. “Very unique. People should wear more stuff that is pretty and unique.” And with that, Professor Trelawney turned and walked away.


  1. I admire your ability to recreate a scene. This is laugh out loud funny, though, having lived in NYC for 40 years, I understand the discomfort it must have given you. You rock!! I want to see that dress now.

  2. And that's why I love to take the train, but rarely, ever, talk to anyone. Eye contact, for a guy, is generally not a good move either. Don't ask. Glad to hear you were able to avoid Letterman. Agreed, it would have been damn decent if someone had attempted to bail you out. And I'm sorry again that you had trouble with the pickpocket. Cheers!