By Don De Grazia
After I saw on TV that urban terrorists could spread anthrax through subway tunnels, I started taking the elevated train downtown. But a couple months ago I was running late, so I risked it and switched over to the Red Line at Belmont. Something immediately seemed very strange, and then it hit me: A robot was announcing the stops!
Most people were probably used to it, but this was news to me. “I don’t like it,” I thought. I wondered what “the Rapper” would say.
I didn’t always know him as the Rapper. I just knew him–like you might have known him–as that guy on the train who says all the funny stuff. When he was the conductor, the ride ceased to be the Jackson Park or the Englewood–it became “the love train.”
I first noticed him about a dozen years ago, on my morning rides downtown to school. I’d be holding on to the silver bar, standing with a jam-packed trainful of bleary-eyed commuters. At every stop his voice would come over the mike and he’d make some happy comment.
“Welcome aboard ladies and gentlemen, we’re riding the love train. We’re now approaching the Fullerton elevated stop at a cruising speed of 35 miles per hour at an altitude of 50 feet. Welcome aboard….
“Gentlemen, if you see a lady standing, please give her your seat. And ladies, if you see a young man frowning, please give him your smile, because what the world needs now is love sweet looooooove.”
I’d always glance around at the other riders, hoping to catch somebody’s eye so we could share a chuckle, but all I ever saw were blank stares, one solid, pallid look that seemed to say: “I’m going to a job I hate, so shut the fuck up and drive the train.”
“Screw them,” I said to myself. “I understand you, love-train guy.”
I thought he was kind of cool, turning a mundane job into a fun one, discovering an obvious medium for expression that nobody had ever exploited. But, then again, this was a long time ago–I was young, and desperately trying to find my own niche in the world.
Quite a stretch of time passed where I didn’t hear the love-train guy, and now and then I’d wonder about him. Then one day I was heading home, getting on the train at the Jackson subway stop. Suddenly I realized with a jolt of excitement that I had ventured into the very car he was broadcasting from. I heard his silky smooth voice and looked up to see the back of his blue polyester uniform. I hustled inconspicuously to a single seat that positioned me directly below his mike.
He was a tall, thin, black man–an older gentleman, with a mustache, I think, and a weathered expression of supreme, genuine kindness.
At the next stop I heard a couple people yell, “It’s the love train!” Now everybody seemed to share my affection for this guy, and everybody looked up and smiled every time he said something. Most everybody, anyway–there was a black kid about my age in a purple satin LA Lakers jacket and a baseball cap cocked hard to one side. He was too much of a cool breeze to pay any attention.
“We are now traveling underneath the Chicago River,” the love-train guy said, “so ever-y-body hang on…and don’t…get…wet.”
Then he reached over and grabbed Cool Breeze’s baseball cap by the button on top, giving it a gentle yank. The kid looked up, surprised, and said, laughing, “Come on, man.” The conductor sat down and pulled out of his pocket a piece of folded-up newspaper. He gave it to the kid, who started reading it. I peered over the kid’s shoulder and saw, right in the middle of the page, a big picture of the love-train guy himself, leaning out of the window of an el car, waving. The headline said, “The Rapper makes every train ride a lively one.”
“Oh,” I thought to myself, “he’s ‘the Rapper’ now?”
I read part of the article. A CTA bureaucrat said, “‘The Rapper’ has enjoyed a great deal of acclaim as well as some official documents of merit for his exploits.”
The Rapper was quoted extensively. “I’m not doing this for all the fame and reward,” he insisted. “I’m doing this because what we need in the world today is love.”
“Kinda corny,” I thought, a little pissed that he’d become famous. I guess I liked it better when I was his only fan. It made his manner seem like a gimmick.
“Hey, man,” the Cool Breeze said, “can you make this thing an express? To Morse?”
The Rapper laughed. Morse was also my stop, so I could have laughed too and said “yeah!” or something like that, but my mood had turned sour.
“Belmont, ladies and gentleman, Belmont…Save the children.”
The Rapper looked at me and passed along the clipping. My grouchiness melted instantly. I had to admit, the Rapper really was a great guy.
“That’s Associated Press,” he said, “so that goes all over the world…El Paso, Saint Louis, all over.”
The clipping was from Des Moines.
I barely got a chance to look at it before this white guy, a few years older than me, in a Michigan sweatshirt and jean jacket said, “Why’nchya let me see that?” He acted like he knew the Rapper personally. He didn’t look entirely pleased.
“Not bad,” he said, nodding, with a hard smile. “Not bad.”
“That’s Associated Press,” the Rapper said, “so it goes all over the world…San Pedro…”
“Not bad,” the guy repeated. “I started tellin’ my friend about you and he was like ‘Yeah, yeah–I saw that guy on TV.’ He said he saw you on TV. Is that true?” There was a trace of say-it-ain’t-so disappointment in his voice.
“Oh yeah,” the Rapper said. “I’ve been on radio shows in Detroit…”
The guy asked when the Rapper got switched to afternoons. “I used to hear you in the mornings at Morse.”
We were all from Morse. We should have started an East Rogers Park chapter of the Rapper fan club.
“Here we go, ladies and gentlemen. Rogers Park. We call it the heartland of the Windy City.”
Actually, he was the only one I ever heard call it that, but the Heartland Cafe was visible from his window.
The train stopped, and me, Cool Breeze, and the guy in the denim jacket all got up to leave.
“Next stop Howard,” the Rapper said.
“Howard?” I heard someone protest.
“I’m sorry…Jarvis is the next stop, Jarvis.”
As we walked out to the platform, the Rapper yelled to Cool Breeze: “See ya later, man.”
I turned around to look, and there he was, leaning out his window and waving. Just like in the papers. All over the world.