Howard line, Washington and State

Rush hour you stand on the platform and guys with a cello are singing, “Yoo-oo send me, yoo-oo send me,” so that you want to sing along, even move a bit. Harmony. You put a dollar in their box of bills.

At the end of the song no one claps, but the performers aren’t nonplussed. (This is different from being plussed.) They say, “Thanks for the standing ovation.”

Everyone laughs. The group starts up again. They know that like every captive audience, this one must be won over. They have a specific kind of coyness–for public mass flirtation. The singers hold a note when the southbound comes. When the northbound arrives they say, in a slow, nasal unison: “This train will be running express from Washington to Howard Street.” Everybody gets the joke, everybody laughs. In unison.

Most of the audience boards.

22 bus, along the park

A couple of guys are talking to everybody–yups without much city in them yet, or so much of only one part of the city that, still natty in their suits after 5 PM, they think the whole damn town belongs to them. They start singing and talking to women about drinking, telling jokes. Just about everybody on the bus is just as well-dressed: same colors, creases in the same place. Same tribe.

Possible conversation ploy: Who does your laundry?

Howard line, Jackson and State

Your students are always so amazed, their own personal discovery. It happens in the fall, freshman year. First time away from home. They say: “It’s so weird. Did you know that when you wait for the subway downtown, the blacks all go one way and the whites go the other? There’s nothing like that in New York”–or Cincinnati or San Francisco or wherever they’re from.

Howard line / 22 bus

M. the storyteller met E. on the Howard el. She was reading Newsweek and he was reading himself in the Tribune. He asked to trade. Or maybe it was vice versa.

It lasted as long as he was in town.

When he was still living in Lakeview, K. met L. on the bus. They got on at the same time in the morning. She was reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, which he’d thought about buying. They went out for a while. You assume that during their romance they sometimes took the bus together in the morning. Maybe they reenacted the opening scene: “Hello miss, I couldn’t help noticing the book you’re reading.” Or: “Excuse me, ma’am, that’s a mighty interesting book you’ve got there in your handsome little hands.” Or: “Darling, I must have you. I’ve always dreamed of meeting a woman who reads the work of Natalie Goldberg.” Oldest line in the book. Now he sees her every once in a while at the gym. He often sees the boyfriend she had after that, the one she doesn’t speak to anymore.

Howard line

This was the idea. J.’s friend the graduate student liked it. Like a cruise ship. Have everyone on the el who’s willing to talk to strangers wear something obvious–a red scarf, for example. Then you would know. Could converse with impunity. While you’re commuting. But what if the person who wanted to talk to you wasn’t the same person you wanted to talk to?

Howard line

C. tells you she doesn’t have her final paper because of what happened the night before. A strange man on the subway told the guy next to her he had to take his seat because C. was his wife. The sitting man complied. The other man started screaming at C. for no reason and grabbed her rough draft and stepped all over it. Finally someone told him to leave her alone. The conductor did nothing. C. was afraid to get off at her usual stop, scared he would follow her home. She did it anyway.

Howard line

Morning rush hour you can stand there in the car, body touching three people you don’t know, and hear two young lawyers you’ve never seen before talk about this guy, P., who was the best man at M. the storyteller’s wedding–where she married R., two boyfriends after E., the one she’d met on the el.

And here are these two young lawyers who don’t even care when you repeat P.’s full name and say, “I know him! I met him at a wedding! He has curly hair, blue eyes, maybe late 30s. It was 1982 or 1983.”

They look at you blandly. “Yeah.” Their eyes are hooded, give nothing away. They are lizards. They tell you the name of the firm he works for. They ask, “Do you know his wife?”

“No,” you say. “Tell him,” you say, “you met someone who met him at this wedding in Connecticut. He was the best man! It was his best friend. From college, I think.”

“Yeah,” they say.

They turn back to one another.

These young lawyers are not awed by coincidence.

Howard line, Chicago and State

A Sunday on the platform with B. from Fort Lauderdale, and you see this student coming toward you. She’s been waiting for the train so she can drop her paper off at your house.

Howard line, Monroe and State

You say hello to the student originally from Romania. He’s getting off the train, you’re about to walk down the stairs. He calls you from the other side of the turnstile. He has his paper. One day late.

Two days later, you see him again, on the platform this time, both of you waiting for the train. You tell him his paper’s in your box. Waiting for pickup. He gets it the next day, turns in the rewrite on time, in class.

Ravenswood line

You like looking at women who look like you, your coloring. Is this so strange? This one has dark wavy hair and a skirt and blouse. Nice clothes, not too tailored, not too boring. Neat. At least not a suit-hose-socks-and-athletic-shoes combo. She’s carrying new-looking shopping bags. You try to imagine what’s in them. Is she going to go to Crate & Barrel at 8:30 AM to try to return something?

That afternoon, you’re at the historic house where you give tours and she walks into the bookstore attached to the house. K. the linguist is working at the bookstore and asks if you two know each other. The woman remembers meeting you, months before. “I saw you on the el this morning,” you say. You find out that in the Crate & Barrel bags were clothes for K. to take. The dark-haired Ravenswood woman lost a lot of weight and has been giving her old clothes to K. to give to a shelter for battered women near her house.

Such satisfaction to know. Like having the answer to a riddle walk smack into your life.

Ravenswood line

B. the rosy-cheeked student says sometimes he just knows things. Like the time he saw this guy get on at the Merchandise Mart and just knew that he had a manuscript inside his briefcase and had just come from a meeting where it was discussed. And he engaged the man in conversation and found it was true. Did he tell the man? “No. I didn’t want to freak him out.”

El vs. bus, part one

On the train you often don’t ever see the conductor, so if knowing what the authority figure in charge looks like is a priority, then you are headed for anxiety. On the bus you always know who’s driving. On some lines, the drivers know the riders, especially the older women, who walk up slowly, as if on the plank of a ship, sit up close, vigilant. In dreams of community, there are bus drivers like this, who know you, who place you. They are like familiar bartenders or waitresses who smile when they see you and ask, “The usual, babe?”

8 bus

The driver will stop for you at Halsted and Roscoe and give you a free ride a few blocks to Diversey, where he turns, because you thought this was a bus that went all the way to Fullerton.

If it’s cold and nighttime, and you are carrying a bicycle helmet, and the bus is nearly empty, he will ask you the obvious: “Where’s your bike?” And you’ll say, “About 2600 north,” and he’ll talk about his bike, and his family, so you’ll think: a family man, not trying to pick me up, just being friendly, taking me to my own means of transportation, so that I’ll be closer to being able to pedal home on my own power, how nice that everything in the city all fits together.

El vs. bus, part two

While the el gives the illusion of directness, not varying, the bus gives the illusion of freedom; anything is possible because there is no track to get off of, only open road, the apotheosis of middle-class (economic) freedom: let’s take a road trip, go places–all is wide open.

29 bus

On State Street downtown, you decide at the last minute that this northbound bus is as good as any. You tap on the doors just after they close. The driver opens them for you. You ask for a transfer. She frowns: “I don’t know if I’ll give you a transfer.” Can’t read this stranger’s face. She waits. Her mouth turns to a laugh.

“Oh,” you say, “I forgot in your contract you can give them at your discretion.”

“Where does it say that?” she asks. “I haven’t read it yet. Have you?”

“In the fine print,” you say.

This guy in a seat at the front looks at you and says to the driver: “Doesn’t she look like a high-powered lawyer?”

You’re wearing a striped Indian cotton skirt and blouse and a black vest, sandals, backpack. You think they probably don’t dress this way even at the People’s Law Office.

He, on the other hand, could fit the part: early 30s, maybe, short-cropped reddish beard, dark suit. You get the transfer. Of course. Just playing with you.

But the bus itself betrays you, turns east on Grand, toward Navy Pier. You pull the cord to get off, say good-bye. It’s only polite.

Howard line

You can’t hear on the subway, but it’s easy to forget this if you usually travel alone. But then if you sit next to a friend you end up shouting things like, “He has a pea brain. I feel like biting him.” Looking around furtively, though you know the pea-brain takes another line in another direction.

Even when you’re not underground, you find yourself embarrassed when on a crowded night el train, a friend–acquaintance, really–says in a regular voice: “I’ll spend two whole days thinking I should be back with her, and then a few days thinking the opposite, is it like that with you, too?”

And you start to answer, then you wave your hands, brushing your protoconfession aside, because–maybe it’s just that you’re on the el, maybe not–you don’t want to inject this damage from the past into this conversation that’s moving, moving forward.

Bus / Ravenswood line

On the bus you can’t write–except in big loopy scrawls. It’s harder to read, too. Lines wriggle, jolt. But you can look out the windows and remind yourself why you came to the city anyway.

Same with the Ravenswood, the view part. You met K. the linguist’s aunt waiting for it. She talked to you because you were holding the Louis Sullivan biography. She said she always took the Ravenswood so she could look at buildings. You didn’t know she was K.’s aunt until you saw her at a party a month later.

B. the rosy-cheeked student, late to class one hot spring morning, says: “It was such a pretty day I had to take the Ravenswood instead of Howard.”

Howard line, Belmont

The prematurely gray-haired ticket-taker guy seems to know you. You think so by the little flicker in his eye when you say hello or hand him the money.

The newsstand guy always says “Good morning,” even though you hardly ever buy a paper from him. Sometimes he burns incense. He looks East Indian, wife, son with him. Sometimes he talks into a powder blue phone. In your maudlin moments you think you are spreading such joy to him with your regular “Good mornings,” then you think he probably thinks he’s adding a smidgen of warmth to your miserable, solitary life by his regular “Good mornings”; he probably takes joy in thinking how he’s making you feel you aren’t just some faceless commuter in an endless gray stream of commuters.

Howard line

You are more likely to run into colleagues and exes on the el than the bus. Colleagues are also more likely to run into your exes on the el. Like M. the poet, who came into the office that morning, maybe two days after you and N. had broken up, and, oblivious to it, said, “Oh, guess who I saw on the el.” They’d had a light guy-to-guy conversation about leagues and pennants.

R. also ran into N. once on the el. They probably talked about torture (political).

You never run into a current lover on the el or the bus. Or N., either. You’ve crossed paths twice on North Broadway and twice in Rogers Park. (The worst was when he just got up and left the counter at the Japanese restaurant. The next worst was when you saw him with his girlfriend at the Heartland Cafe and you threw a crumpled-up napkin on their table just to be funny, and missed, and so they saw you just standing behind their table, looking embarrassed. The napkin landed somewhere behind the partition in the smoking section, probably in the middle of some smoker’s stir-fried tofu.)

J. ran into your other ex, B., on North Clark, or so she thought. He was wearing a jogging suit, like the one he’d worn in your dream. She looked and looked, walked on and then glanced back, not sure if he was indeed B. You’ve never run into him. Yet. Though you keep seeing men everywhere with similar bald spots. His could have spread by now. The el, the bus, the cafes, bike paths, restaurants, sidewalks, theaters, cars, stores, lobbies in this town are all filled with balding men.


Occasionally they will lie to you about the schedule when you call the free number, but they are always pleasant and the men at least joke with you. Things like: “Yeah, I guess I could tell you when the next bus leaves. What’s it worth to you?”

And you think: If I were a foreigner, if my English were weak, I wouldn’t know what he was talking about. I would be lost.

Howard line / Evanston line / 212 Pace bus

Just think, for $1.50 you can go from Belmont and Sheffield to the corner of Waukegan and Willow in Techny in less than two hours. By car in the same time you could go there and back and partly there again. But you don’t have your own car anymore so sometimes you rent one for $15.85 (including tax) and take the streets, not the Edens because you don’t like taking $15.85 cars on the freeway, and sometimes you go too far and end up almost in Glencoe or west of Glenview, among anonymous fields and low buildings.

If you take the bus from Davis Street in Evanston, you have to walk 0.8 miles from Waukegan and Willow to the Divine Word Mission, where you meet your therapist, who takes you to the belfry, which she rents, and you can look out and see cornfields and almost feel you’re in the country. Afterward, downstairs, you can put a quarter in Max the upright stuffed Russian bear, and he will move his head up and down and tell the history of the town and the mission, and you can buy postcards to show your friends: this is where I go on Wednesdays. You can walk next door to the Techny post office and buy stamps, usually without having to wait in line.

You walk back to Waukegan and Willow to wait for the bus, and now that you have a Walkman, it’s not too bad. You can still hear WBEZ. It’s only bad when it’s about five degrees with a wind or when men pull over and offer you rides. Insistently. You never see anyone else walking that 0.8-mile stretch.

You feel like a doctor, taking Wednesdays off, and then you stop at the Evanston library or Northwestern and usually run into people you know. They think Evanston is awfully far away from your home.

For you it’s midway, your entry point into civilization.

Howard line

He’s in radio. Has lived in Chicago seven months or so. Says when he carries tapes in his shoulder bag he never sets the case down on the floor of the train because he’s afraid the magnetic power of the third rail will reach up and zap them blank. He seems to enjoy this fear. Keeps him alert. Reminds him where he is.

212 bus

You can get on or off at any intersection along the way. This is the way of the suburban lines. And the stop-requested pulls always work. But there are never Streetfare Journals to read, only ads to work in the hardware store.

You can leave your poncho on the bus and get off at Davis Street and realize it a few seconds later and go back on and get it. The man sitting in your seat will hand it to you.

Howard line, Monroe and State

On the train you cannot get a free ride. You even have to pay to change your mind: If you walk in and pay your $1.25 and five minutes later decide you don’t want to take the train after all, you won’t get the $1.25 back. Not even a transfer, even if you said “Good morning” to the ticket taker or made an unforgettable comment. Except maybe sometimes. Depending.

Evanston Express

You tap him on the shoulder. Haven’t seen him in a year or two. Tell him you are looking for a new job. He says to call. You think it’s a sign, that a month from now, you’ll say, “If I hadn’t run into him on the el, this never would have happened.” But you don’t send him the resume. You stay where you are.

Howard line

On the el you can fall in love–like that.

With a profile–something about it, as beautiful as architecture or sculpture. Nice round forehead, perfectly balanced chin. Your reaction is visceral. Like wanting to touch terra-cotta. I must sweep back your straight, straw-colored, poufy-but-not-too hair.

He is talking to two women, laughing. You think one of them was the one who introduced the Palestinian speaker that time back when you were still seeing N. Was that 1988? She was Jewish, you were pretty sure, but didn’t say so and talked about Central America and called Israel “Palestine.” Made your skin crawl. The way she said it, something cold and condemning, ungiving. You don’t remember much that the speaker said except he came across well–an Intellectual, a Man of Sense. Could you now say to her, “Oh, I’ve seen you around, don’t you do solidarity work around El Salvador and Palestine?” Palestine! Palestine! Can you yell “Palestine!” in a semicrowded el car?

He turns, full face, just before Belmont. Not like sculpture at all. At all.

Call Guinness: the world’s shortest self-contained love affair.

36 bus

On the bus you see parts of the city you haven’t seen before because of the angle. On the near-north, on second and third stories: a spa, school of dance, a globe in a window, plants balanced on a row of books, a guy looking over his balcony in front of a sun umbrella, pink shirt, smiling.

Crayon drawings of brown-and- white rabbits in the window of the Cathedral School. It’s just past Easter.

A huge sign advertising a lawyer.

The couple behind you says things like: “‘Hire me–I’m a hardass.'” “He must be advertising for criminals.” “Who else would hire him?”

The city wants to present itself as if from a bus on a sunny Sunday, glass filtering out the smells, showing only what you can see above street level.

Howard line

You were standing on a platform with L., the summer she lived with the Board of Trade runners and knew all the bartenders in town. Sex was on her mind. Two trains arrived from opposite directions at the same time. She said: “Simultaneous. It’s really rare.” You still think of that. Always. Have stolen her joke. A pretty obvious one anyway.

In transit

You tell your students to write in their journals as much as they can. You have them write down conversations they overhear. Most of them do, but some are self-conscious about it. One of them is berated by a couple whose argument he transcribed. On his birthday yet. Not M. She’s undaunted. Unsinkable. This is what she tells the class: She always writes in her journal on the train. One time she saw that the man next to her was reading her every word. So she wrote: “When the man next to me finishes this sentence he will drop dead.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.