Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Tale of Twigs, Bags, and Animals: More Adventures from the CTA

Spring has sprung in the Windy City, dear readers! I have been able to walk outside in nothing but a dress and cardigan for the past week! It has been glorious. It’s been a while since I last wrote something on here. I suppose that means my life has become boring? I work at the Heartbeat Theatre, work at the Gap, pet-sit almost every other weekend and try to see what few friends I have in the city at least once a week. Thankfully, I have the trusty Notes feature on my iPhone, which allows me to quickly jot down anything peculiar that I come across throughout the day. As one would expect, most of these happenings occur on the wonderful CTA. And thus we begin with more tales from the CTA (cue fog and eerie music):

1. Gorilla Boy

I wish I were joking when I say that there was a young man on the CTA one morning pretending to be a gorilla (or at least some kind of primate). He was not wearing a costume or anything, but instead beat his chest, hooted, hollered, grunted, and periodically swung from the bars (a real feat since there are really no horizontal bars on the El). I am also unsure as to whether he was pretending to be a gorilla or whether he actually thought he was a gorilla. He was by himself and not showing off for any friends, which leads me to believe the latter may be true.

2. The Bag Ladies

I have had the pleasure of running into these two women twice (and I mean that without a trace of irony). The Bag Ladies are two elderly women who travel around with two small carts (the kind you see older city people using to carry their groceries home). These carts are absolutely over flowing with clear garbage bags full of paper. The carts themselves probably measure only 2.5 feet tall. The carts plus the bags, however, tower over me by about a foot.

The Bag Ladies typically take up one whole end of an El car. They park their carts in the area reserved for a wheel chair and then line the rest of the space with paper from the bags. Having only run into them on the Red Line I assume that they just ride different lines back and forth to escape the cold.

The first time I encountered the Bag Ladies I was rushing to make the northbound Red Line. I ran up the stairs as I heard the train arrive and bee-lined into the first available door. One Bag Lady stood in the threshold of the door while the other picked up all the papers spread along the floors and walls (I don’t even know how they managed that). Bag Lady #2 was very methodical in how she picked up the paper. I do not remember seeing the expected gradual progression of clutter to spotless. It was simply like there was paper there and then it was gone. She handed the paper to Bag Lady #1, who swiftly tucked them into the top garbage bag. When they had double-checked to make sure they had everything, Bag Lady #2 called to the conductor, “Okay! We’re done now! Thanks!” My friend who was waiting for the southbound Red Line texted me later to say that the Bag Ladies had simply boarded the southbound train and set up their paper camp at the end of one car.

The second time I met the Bag Ladies was as I headed downtown one evening. I stepped onto the Red Line looking down at my phone and stood with my back to one of the walls. When I looked up I noticed two carts parked in the handicapped section. They were piled high with clear garbage bags. The surrounding areas where completely white in a blanket of paper. I looked over and there were the Bag Ladies. They wore their same matching black leather trench coats and red and green plaid winter scarves. Bag Lady #1 was sleeping as she sat upright. Bag Lady #2 sat beside her to serve as a prop. As the train moved, Bag Lady #2 picked up bits of trash around her. When the train came to its next stop, Bag Lady #2 got up and threw all of these items off the train.

A student boarded at Loyola and took a seat across from the Bag Ladies. Like everyone my age, she immediately began playing with her phone. Obviously aware of their eccentricities, Bag Lady #2 (the apparent alpha of the two women) leaned across and asked the young girl to please not hold her phone completely upright. The Bag Ladies were used to being gawked at and she explained that they did not want to suspect anyone of trying to take their picture. The student seemed a bit taken aback, but happily complied. Never before have I witnessed such a polite and surreal conversation. I made sure not to point my phone towards them either.

3. You’re So Pretty

I catch the same train to work every morning: 10:37am. Through a series of trial and error I learned that this one gave me both a good chunk of my morning to slowly get ready, while also getting me to the theatre right around 11am (even on the days when it stops randomly). One morning, however, I lounged a bit too long and missed my train. As I waited around for the 10:45 a man approached me. He looked to be in his late fifties, balding, and wore owl-like glasses. “Excuse me,” he said, “can I just tell you that you are really pretty?”

“Oh thank you,” I responded. I’m certainly never one to turn down a compliment.

“Yeah. You are just very very attractive. I think you are the nicest looking girl I have seen in weeks.”

“Well thank you very much.”

The man strolled down the platform.

I was constructing an email to my office manager explaining that I was going to be late when Owl Eyes approached again. “Is that your natural hair colour?” he asked.

“Yes it is.”

“Wow. You are just really pretty.”

“Well thank you very much.”

He left again.

I finished the email to the office manager and hit ‘Send'. “The train’s coming.” I looked up. Owl Eyes was smiling widely at me and pointing down the tracks. “The train’s right there,” he said.”

“Oh good,” I replied.

“You are really really pretty.”

“Thank you.” The flattery was swiftly moving to Creep Land.

“You are just the nicest girl I have seen in weeks. Thank you.”

“Thanks.” My mind had gone into temporary shock from the unwanted and surprising attention. The train arrived. I waited to see what car Owl Eyes was boarding and then made sure to get on another one. I knew I couldn’t handle more “you’re so pretty” remarks in an enclosed space for ten minutes.

Everyone departed the train at Howard and waited for the Red Line. I texted my best friend to share the strange encounter.“You are just so pretty.” I turned with a mixture of horror and disbelief. Owl Eyes had found me on the platform. What exactly was the point of all this? What did he get out of it? “Do you go to Northwestern?” he asked.

“No,” I responded and resisted the reflex to tell him what I was doing in Chicago.

“I went to Northwestern. I wasn’t very smart though. I’m a good man. I’ve always said, It’s better to be a good man, than a smart man.

“Ah.” I inched closer to a young guy standing at the front of the platform. I thought that if Owl Eyes didn’t let up them I might be able to somehow act like I was there with someone.

“You are just so pretty."

“Thank. You.”

Mercifully, the Red Line arrived. Once again I waited for Owl Eyes to board before I chose my car. When I got off at my stop, however (and a stop that is not even that popular to boot!), there he was. Owl Eyes stopped at the top of the stairs and waited for me. He smiled as I passed, but I was fed up with being polite. A few months in the Big City has caused me to lose what Southern niceties I once possessed. I booked it out of the train station, my eyes fixed on the ground.

I crossed the road and headed for the theatre. When I glanced behind, there he was: Owl Eyes a mere few feet behind me. I don’t believe the man meant any harm, but I was now completely pissed off and ready to verbally attack if he spoke one more word. I turned sharply at the ramp to the theatre. Owl Eyes stopped momentarily and then continued on his way.

I learned a valuable lesson that day: I will never again miss my train.

4. Twiggy

Last but not least, I will end with perhaps my favourite of the El Eccentrics: Twiggy. I first saw Twiggy back in January when we both waited for the Purple Line. Twiggy immediately caught my eye because not only did she wear an Obama 2012 button (go Twiggy!), but she chewed a twig. The sight of the twig piqued my interest and I made sure to get as close to Twiggy as possible to see if what was hanging out of her mouth was indeed a twig. I thought that perhaps it was a sprig of rosemary or some other herb. Maybe this was a cold remedy I hadn’t heard of. Upon closer inspection I learned that it was an actual twig.

As we road the train, Twiggy looked intently at the elderly man sitting across from her. Twiggy herself was no spring chicken, but she looked to be in her mid-fifties. This man was easily in his eighties. “You’re looking nice,” Twiggy said. She waited for the man to look around when no one responded. She gestured to his outfit, “You look very spiffy.”

“Oh why thank you,” the old man said.

“Are you goin’ somewhere special?”

“No, no. Just headed downtown for a few things.”

“Well you look very nice.”

“Why thank you.”

Not yet completely fascinated by Twiggy I drifted off into some other thought. When I came back to The World on the El Twiggy was asking the man if his wife had dressed him. The man’s eyes misted over. “No ma’am,” he responded. “I do not have a wife anymore, thank you.”

“What?” Twiggy exclaimed. Oh no, I thought, please tell me you are not about to try and pick this man up. And yet: “A good looking man like you shouldn’t be left on his own,” Twiggy cooed. “How could she possibly leave you?”

“My wife has passed away, if you please, ma’am.”

“Oh well that’s a shame.” (Tone translation: "Hello, rip for the picking!”)

Twiggy continued to try and schmooze with the old man, but it was obvious that he was in his own world thinking of his wife. Behind my sunglasses I glared at Twiggy. “Chew your damn twig and let the man be,” I wanted to say.

Since this day, Twiggy and I have gotten on and off at the same train stops a total of twelve times. Twiggy wears the same outfit: canvas pants, light blue Nikes, periwinkle rain jacket, and the Obama button. Twiggy looks exactly the same from day to day (it seems like even strands of gray hair stay in the exact same place). The only thing that changes is her twig. About every three days Twiggy is chewing on a new twig, which you can tell because the leaves on the twig are different (for a while I thought maybe she was just so excited to find green leaves in winter that she wanted to carry them around with her as long as possible).

It is obvious that Twiggy is lonely. Whenever there is a single elderly person on the train, Twiggy sits as near to them as possible and gradually starts a conversation. Unfortunately it is also obvious that Twiggy lacks common social cues. If she speaks to a man then she immediately inquires as to whether he has a wife or not (each time the man has been a widower). If it is a woman (typically not entirely “normal” looking whereas the men look very put together) Twiggy asks where she works and then asks what hours she works.

I say that Twiggy is lonely, but this does not necessarily mean that she is alone. A small man named Jacques rides on Twiggy’s shoulder. I believe that Twiggy and Jacques used to be an item because Twiggy now scolds Jacques for his interest in younger women. Twiggy speaks harshly to Jacques on this subject, but there is a definite sound of hurt in her voice at the same time. Twiggy has also complained of Jacques “getting in [her] way” and has threatened to flick him off her shoulder. These two can get into some very heated discussions although it is not entirely clear whether Jacques is fighting back or just trying to explain himself.

The last time I saw Twiggy, we were the sole occupants of the train car. If you haven't noticed, I've made it a habit to sit or stand as close to Twiggy as possible so that I can hear everything that she says. We sat across from one another, bobbing periodically with the movement of the train. I wondered if Twiggy recognized me as the girl who always boards the train with her. She stared at me over the top of her glasses. With my sunglasses on and earphones in place, I kept my head turned stoically towards a poster that read "Tucson: The REAL Southwest." Inside my two halves battled it out. One part wanted to welcome a conversation with the woman I had been observing for almost two months. What would we talk about? Could I bring up the name Jacques and see how she responded? Would this then mean that we would have to talk to each other every time we rode the train? Could I ask her about the twig? The other part of me did not want to engage Twiggy because I did not want to ruin the magic that is Twiggy. Talking to Twiggy would be like talking to your favourite movie star and then you have to face the fact that he is just a man, who is a talented actor and not actually Mr. Darcy.

I kept my eyes fixated on the cactus and laughing cowgirl in the poster. I was not ready to give up my Twiggy.

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