Friday, July 23, 2010


I used to really enjoy travel (any kind of travel) for a few different reasons. I liked having the chance to see new things and experience new people. I took pleasure in the sense of betterment I felt when expanding my horizons and making new discoveries (how pretentious that sounds). But most of all, I enjoyed making up stories.

I made up stories about all kinds of things- people and their families, the fights that entrapped them and the love stories that drew them together. I would glance through car windows and spin great and detailed tales about the lives of the passengers- where they were going on their journey, where they had come from, and how they operated within the reality that I had created. I dreamed of stories that explained the land and its use and the history behind the culture and the creation of each building.

This tendency of mine grew less fanciful with age, but certainly never died completely. And so my move to Chicago was like reentering a paradise I had known as a child, for there is no better primary source material in the world than the public transportation system. I have had the chance to not only write but act in stories of every genre in this city; stories of suspense and horror and joy and love and curiosity and humor.

Sickened by pneumonia and still over an hour from home, I crumpled in my seat on the bus. I was completely outside of my comfort zone in an unfamiliar and depressed neighborhood, but my illness kept me from my usual vigilant observance. Without warning, a smell overtook me when the bus doors opened- 10 o'clock in the morning and someone was stumbling drunk already. Making his way towards me was an older black man, weaving back and forth, smiling a big, inebriated grin. "A vision in green!" he called out, and I realized he was talking about me, in my green coat. Getting down on one knee (a much more difficult feat on a bus than you can probably imagine), he pulled a jewelry box from his pocket, and opened it to reveal a huge diamond ring. (Slur while you are reading the following sentence aloud) "Will you marry me, my sweet vision in green?" I sputtered a little bit and asked him where he got the ring, completely thrown off-guard by his proposal. (Again with the slurring) "I stole it. From Tiffany's. Or maybe WalMart." I told him I was flattered by the offer, but I would have to refuse this time. He pulled himself up and sat down next to me, waving goodbye as I promptly puled the cord and got off at the next stop.

Watching the young mother struggle with her three tiny children was an experience both of humor and empathy. She wrestled her way onto the bus and then off again at the train station, all the while trying to keep her infant warm, her toddler from screaming, and her preschooler from running away. She had the first two situations under control, but the preschool child had a mind of his own and a devious smile to match. Pointing across the 4 lane highway to a semi truck, he took off running. Away from the mother, away from the station, away from safety. And so when she screamed and I stepped in his way and scooped him up, I like to think a collective sigh of relief was felt in the 47th Red Line Station. I held him in my arms and carried him to his waiting family, his mother now in tears. She cried and thanked me, and the little boy looked into my face and said with the seriousness of a wizened adult, "Hey there. Why did you do that?" I laughed and made friends quickly, and spent the rest of my journey playing games with a very entertaining and feisty child.

It was a really cold day in January, and the snow was just crisp enough to still look pretty. I was exhausted after a long day at school, and looking forward to my warm apartment. Just 6 more stops and a bus. Just 5 more stops and a bus. Just 4 more stops an a bus. And then I noticed the man looking at me. I shifted my glance away, but he struck up a conversation. Trying to be polite, I answered his question quickly and buried myself in a newspaper, but he persisted. Growing more and more nervous, I finally decided to jump off a stop early and just catch the next train. Moving with as much swiftness as is possible in a winter coat and with three bags, I jumped off the train, looking just in time to see him get off with me. I quickly hopped back on, trying to leave him behind... but he did as well, this time looking angry, having realized what I had tried to do. Reaching my stop, I was relieved to see that my bus was waiting, and boarded quickly. And he was right behind me. He wasn't talking anymore, just watching and waiting. And a sense of foreboding came over me, and I panicked. I worried about where I should get off the bus- certainly not somewhere else in the neighborhood, but the wisdom of getting off at my corner was also being called into question. I thought of calling someone to come and meet me on the bus so that we could get off together, but quickly realized no one was home. I looked up then, right as a young man got on. For whatever reason his heart heard the beating of mine and he walked confidently right up to my seat, beckoning with his eyes, silently asking for me to trust him. With a quick nod he sprung into action. "HELLO, dear! How was your day?" He sat down next to me and his giant presence and strong body erased the fear and I responded in kind. We got off together a few stops before mine, he walked me around the block, and right to my doorstep. With a wave and a goodbye, he was gone, and I was safely home.

On the long ride back from the northernmost stop on the Red Line, I sat next to my dear friend C~ and talked quietly about the people around us. It was around 4 o'clock in the afternoon. We laughed about the teenage girls in front of us, and made up a story about the old couple on the car. There was one woman, around our age, sitting alone in a seat across the aisle. She was quietly looking out the window and seemed to be completely at peace. A man straggles onto the train and sits down in the empty seat beside her, mutters "It's been a long night..." and promptly passes out. He is dressed quite nicely with a sharp haircut and once-pressed trousers, and appears to be suffering from a hangover of epic proportions. As the train barrels onward, he shifts from side to side, moaning and muttering and snoring, and finally passes out on the woman's shoulder. She has a look of sheer annoyance on her face, but unsure of what to do, she just sits completely still. The man continues to shift around, but maintains constant contact with her body for support. The rest of the train stares and laughs quietly, unsure of how to help the woman and unsure even if we wanted to end the scene. Finally, her stop approaches and she stirs. The man sits up and realizes what has happened. "I'm so sorry! Oh my gosh! It's been a really long night." She slides by him, steps off the train, and he falls right back to sleep leaning on the window.

It is early morning as I wait for the bus in the chilly air, and as the ever dependable 15 pulls to the stop, I am jarred by the noise I hear. Penetrating even the music coming from my i-Pod, I look to see two men arguing. I quickly pass them and settle into my normal seat by the backdoor of the bus, shutting my music off and watching the situation progress. The argument seemed to get more and more heated, and I couldn't make out what was being said or even discussed, and in a fraction of a second everything changed. One man leaped across the aisle at the other man, pinning him against the window. I jumped and gasped, but the men either didn't hear me or didn't acknowledge it, because they continued to struggle. I looked for signs that others were going to do something, that the uncomfortable white girl wouldn't have to act... and then the pinned man stopped moving. There were hands wrapped around his neck, squeezing with intensity, and I thought of a lifetime. My lifetime, the one that stretched ahead of me, in which I witnessed a violent attack, a murder, and did nothing about it. I flew past the men to the front of the bus, and the driver promptly stopped and called the police, and others then acted. They separated the men and kept them contained and stepped in front of me to block me from view. As in one beautiful choreographed act, I was protected by the citizens of Bus Route 15 that morning, and only then did I begin to tremble. I was crying by the time I gave a statement to the police, and still relatively jittery when I arrived at school, but I was safe. I thought no one had noticed.

Reading text messages is one of my favorite things to do (a terrible habit) and you would not believe the personal lives that people communicate through text. Every once in a while I feel a sense of guilt and remorse, but am bolstered by the fact that everyone does it. Someone I know (ahem...) was once wedged in a seat between a young Hispanic gentlemen and a young Black man. She sent a text to her friend, saying "I am sitting between a hot Hispanic guy and a beautiful black guy. My ethnic attraction has never been more confused." Not twenty seconds later, the black man says "Thank you!" She is mortified, but they end up going out for drinks and Brailon really is a very nice man in addition to being beautiful. Another time, I had the opportunity to read a text message for my friend D~ on a crowded bus. I began just to show him I could do it, but quickly became uncomfortable regarding the message content. With some amount of amazement and aghast surprise, I told D~ what was on the text message and we tried to clear the image from our minds on the walk home from the stop. It was considerably more awkward when I sent him a text later that week, letting him know that I was sitting next to our friend on a bus. And the situation grew even more hysterical when she clearly read MY text message about HER, including the little pet name we had assigned her. The moral of the story: Don't read text messages on the bus. Or do.

These are just a few stories from the past year of riding the CTA. Something happens everyday to laugh at, cry about, or simply shake one's head in wonder. I wonder how much of this amusement will continue on the public transit system in Bucharest. Humanity has a unique ability to communicate without words at all, and I have great hope that my ignorance of the Romanian language is not a barrier in storytelling.

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