Friday, October 4, 2013

The CTA: A Travel Guide (Part I)

The Chicago Transit Authority. Also known as the CTA, or, if you are talking about only the train system, the El (for Elevated). The CTA comes in various coloured lines: red, purple, brown, pink, green, yellow, blue, and orange. Like the plethora of Chicago neighbourhoods, each line is unique in its route, service, people, and reputation. Let’s go through each colour before beginning your CTA journey:

First, a small map to help you visualize:
Red Line: If there is a “main line” in Chicago then this is it. Spanning from the northern tip of the city – Howard – to the very end – 95th/Dan Ryan – this line runs straight through the center of Chicago (and is one of the few lines that runs underground). One of two trains that operates 24/7 this line is possibly the most diverse line. You start at Howard (aka Sketchville where there are signs in shop windows of a little child saying, “Don’t shoot me. I want to grow up!”) and then travel south picking up bohemians (Rogers Park), college students (Loyola), businesspeople (Fullerton, Belmont), international transplants from Asia (Argyle, Chinatown/Cermack), Yuppies (Bryn Mawr, Berwyn), drunk frat boys (Addison), tourists (Chicago thru Jackson), and homeless people who just want somewhere to sit, sleep, and be safe for a few hours. There are some people who deem this line one of the more dangerous lines (because there are robberies and altercations sometimes, but come on – we’re in a city) and avoid it after 5 p.m. However, those of us who travel the Red Line every single day – and have, at one point in time, been on the train between all the 24 hours of the day (it’s the fastest/cheapest way to get home at 4 a.m.!) – we simply describe it as eclectic.
Blue Line: The other 24/7 train line of the CTA. Full of college students and young families who do not really want to live in the suburbs, but also cannot afford to live in the city. This line primarily stays in the western half of the city except when it travels east to enter the Loop. (The Loop is what the city center is called – i.e. downtown. It’s called the “Loop” because all of the train lines meet there and loop around the downtown – except the Red Line, which runs straight through.) This line is most known for taking people to and from O’Hare, being 24/7, and, most recently, head-on, unexplainable-it-must-have-been-an-equiptment-failure train crashes. 
Green Line: This line has the worst reputation of all the colours. It runs from Oak Park to Chicago’s Southside (not the geographic Southside like Hyde Park and 95th/Dan Ryan, but the bad Southside that’s known for lots of violence). Like the Red Line, most people do not enjoy riding this train after dark and there is normally a separation between white people at the front of the train and all other races at the back of the train. Clearly this has nothing to do with segregation, but is instead fear-related (the closer one is to the conductor the safer they feel). I once walked into the very last car of the Green Line to ride from Oak Park back to the Loop and the people I was with stated, “Are you crazy?? We have to go to the front where the conductor is!” Personally, I have never had a problem on the Green Line, but then again I have never taken it south of the Loop. It is also the one line where I have heard first person accounts of being mugged. This line is as diverse as the Red Line, but the Southside aspect seems to make the general public forget that it also travels to Oak Park (aka Yuppieville). 
Yellow Line: The Skokie Swift. This line takes passengers to a from Skokie, a boring suburb most known for Orthodox Jews and a gigantic outdoor mall. It was deemed “swift” because it picked up at the Howard stop (end of the Red Line) and dropped off at the Dempster station without any stops in between. The line has since gained two more stops (whoa!), but is still known as The Skokie Swift. It is also only three to four train cars long, thus making it look like the "special train."
Orange Line: This is the Midway train. It takes passengers from Midway Airport at the southern end of Chicago, travels north to the Loop, and then heads southwest to a few of the neighbourhoods-that-are-almost-suburbs. From what I have been able to tell, people mostly take this line to transfer to another line or to go to Midway Airport. (Also, as a side note, for a train whose primary purpose is going to and from the airport, it should copy the Blue Line and be 24/7 because anyone who flies out right when Midway opens or comes in super late has to either take a taxi or bus.)
Pink Line: Chicago’s newest El line. I honestly do not know much about this line except that it takes people directly west like the Green and Blue lines, but it stops much sooner than those two colours. I like to think it’s main purpose is to take people to Pilsen, a neighbourhood of Chicago set in the industrial area that is slowly becoming an artist-haven.
Purple Line: The line that runs from the tip of Evanston to the Howard station. This line also runs “express” to the Loop during the morning and late-afternoon rush hours. This is an amazing train if you catch the express because it runs parallel to the Red Line, but skips about 14 stops. Deemed a “safe” train because it is full of Evanstonites (i.e. business people, Northwestern college students, and the generally wealthy/well-off). This train is also one of cleanest and has the best air-conditioning in the summer.
Brown Line: Also known as “The White People Mover” and the “Whitey Express.” This train travels through Chicago’s more affluent  neighbourhoods and, like the Purple Line, is typically very clean, polished, and full of less weirdos. This train is perhaps the slowest train, which is either due to all of the twist and turns it must make or the fact that most of the passengers are AARP members (or a combination of both). This train is sardine-packed during the morning and late-afternoon rush hours (re: affluent), sparse on the weekend nights, and ends at an inconvenient 1-2 a.m. 
Do’s and Don’t’s When Riding the CTA:

Do wear your headphones and sunglasses. This way people will not talk to you. If they do, you can either a) respond accordingly or b) act like you can’t hear them and are in your own little world. It is also an excellent way to eavesdrop on interesting conversations.
Don’t talk loudly on your phone, talk loudly to your friend, or listen to loud music. This will cause other passengers to wish bad things upon your person, possibly accost you, and maybe even smack you in the face with their yoga mat (I may or may not have “accidentally” hit a man in the face with my yoga mat when he was yelling into his phone to his “bitches” who didn’t realize what a “fucking fine ass motherfucker” they were dealing with. Everyone on the train glared at him -it was clear we were minutes away from tossing him onto the electrified tracks - and sometimes you’ve just gotta hit these people with a yoga mat. Namaste, asshole.)
Do bring a book. It’s going to be a long ride. (My every day 45 minute to an hour commute on the El has caused me to become a reading fiend! I have gone through six books in two months. I haven't done that since entering Summer Reading Programs in grade school.)
Don’t freak out when you smell smoke. CTA trains catch on fire more often then you’d expect and the conductor has a nifty little spray bottle for leaning out the window and extinguishing these. Or you’ll have a fun adventure of being ushered off the tracks by the fire department.
Do brace yourself when the train starts to move and starts to stop. You do not want to be that person who topples over onto everyone else and then acts surprise that the movement of the train would cause them to do that. It’s embarrassing. 
Don’t be the jackass who takes up two to three seats to take a nap. There’s a special place in Hell for those people.
Do wash your hands after riding the CTA. There are some disgusting people on that train and possibly the source of the next worldwide pandemic. Disgusting acts witnessed on the train include but are not limited to: puking, peeing, snot wiped on the poles, spitting (everywhere), and the discarding of food. For a comparison of just how unsanitary the CTA is: I will (and have) walked barefoot on the streets of Chicago, London, and Aberdeen, Scotland. I will NEVER go barefoot on the CTA. Also, a friend contracted pinkeye from the CTA and I often get large welts from some sort of bug who has clearly learned that the El is the Country Buffet of succulent morsels. 
Don’t step onto a train before the other passengers have disembarked. There is a special place in Hell for these people, too.
Do expect the CTA to run swiftly and smoothly whenever you are not in a hurry and to stop frequently due to track maintenance, fires, hooligans, and because the conductor just feels like it whenever you are crunched for time.
Don’t play the Which Ball is the Cup Under? game. There are people who make their livelihood from these games and you will not win. Ever. The answer is: there is no ball. However, if you say that, then somehow the ball will magically appear. The real game you’re playing is: You Lose and the Ball Man Wins. 
And finally...
Do appreciate the CTA. Sure, it smells funny, people will preach to you, hit on you, pester you for money, and even try to sell you things, but all CTA riders should appreciate that the CTA even exists. No matter where you are in Chicago you are always at the most a two-block walk from a train or bus stop and, even with the recent increase in transit fares, Chicago has the cheapest public transportation system in the U.S. You can also travel several miles without having to do anything except get on and off a train or bus. Months ago I was driving in the car with my boyfriend and as he drove I immediately pulled out my iPhone to start playing a game. Bernardo* (I can't remember if I have ever given my boyfriend an alias on this blog so for now he will be dubbed Bernardo until I can remember what his original alias was) commented, "We can't talk? You immediately have to pull out your cellphone?" It was then that I realized how accustomed I had grown to the everyday equation: traveling = sitting and staring at your phone or reading a book. While this habit is a bit rude when riding in a car with another person, what a lucky way to pass time on your commute! Instead of sitting in traffic and having to pay attention to the other cars around you, CTA riders can mentally checkout and leave the hard-work to the train drivers.
In summary, the CTA is like a family: you've got your weirdos, your snobs, the smart ones, the high school dropouts, the hippies, the embarrassments, the ones you actually like and are friends with, and the crazy uncle who everyone is a bit leery around and generally tries to avoid, but in the end you've got to love them because they are always there (although they may not be terribly punctual) and, honestly, what other family do you have?

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