It’s a typical Chicago day–dreary, dark, and sticky hot with rain clouds (but no rain) on the horizon. And yet Ron Weslow’s happy. He looks like one of those guys who’s always happy, not to mention cheery, bright, and optimistic. That’s his lot in life, or his curse. “What a beautiful day,” he exclaims. “Sometimes I feel I’m the luckiest man in the world. Because I love Chicago, and I love the CTA.”
I stand with him on the elevated platform outside the Merchandise Mart. I have a headache; my throat’s sore, a cold is on the way. I didn’t sleep much last night; the clang of nearby jackhammers bangs at my brain, soot and dirt rub hard against my throat. I can see the train coming; according to Weslow it’s on time, but it seems like we’ve been waiting forever. I hate this godforsaken city.
“I know this sounds funny,” says Weslow, boarding the train as he talks. “But I love public transportation.” He’s a slender man in his early 30s. He wears a blue jacket, blue tie, and white shirt. Affixed to his lapel is a tiny gold pin that says it all: CTA.
“I’m a marketing coordinator for the CTA,” he explains. “We will give a tour on a regular service vehicle to any group of 30 or more; all it costs is the fare. The largest group I ever handled was 325 people from Cedar Rapids Junior High School in Iowa. We hooked up extra cars, and they toured the Ravenswood.
“I started working here August 22, 1977–lifers always remember their exact dates. I was nothing more than a flunky then, but Jim Zepp was my mentor. He was a rail instructor, the guy who teaches the operators how to use the trains. He told me, ‘Ron, the problem with you is that you have too much college education. You need some real training.’ He was right. I was green, just out of Northeastern [Illinois University], with a major in business. Jim showed me the real CTA. He was my inspiration.
“Now I know the system from top to bottom. I ride trains and buses all the time–even when I don’t have to. That’s how you learn the system. I especially like first runs. I went on the first Sunday run of the number 6 Jeffery Express. I got up at three, and was at 53rd and University at five to catch the number 27 South Deering bus to 104th and Torrence, where caught I the Jeffery that took us downtown. That was in November 30, 1986. It was pitch black. I was with a few of my friends. We rode the bus downtown, and had breakfast at the Palmer House.”
“You’re crazy,” I say.
“Maybe,” Weslow laughs. “I also make last runs. Usually, it’s just me and the driver. That’s sad. You don’t want buses to die alone. It’s no fun, not even for a bus.”
“What are you talking about?” I say. “A bus doesn’t know it’s on a last run.”
“You don’t know that. Buses have personalities, just like cities have personalities. How would you like to be a bus when its route dies? It has to have some dignity, Every time a bus route dies, a little bit of the city dies too.”
I’m almost speechless.
“But mainly I’m a train buff,” Weslow continues, “I really appreciate trains. For instance, say ‘San Francisco,’ and what do you think of?”
“Why, cable cars, of course. And when you say Chicago, you think of the el. It’s part of the city’s legacy, part of its growth. It’s why the downtown is called the Loop. You see, Chicago was built for public transportation. Seventy percent of all people who come downtown each day use public transportation–did you know that?”
“You mean they all take the train?”
“No. They use public transportation: cabs, commuter train, bus, subway, elevated. I know you don’t believe that, but it’s true. Automobiles are only about 30 percent of the solution, but they’re 100 percent of the problem.”
I laugh. “Good line.”
“It’s yours, you can use it,” Weslow offers. “You don’t even have to quote me.”
We fall silent as the train pulls past the Chicago Avenue station, winding along the curve of the track.
“You see that building over there,” says Weslow. “That used to be a dirty old factory. Now look at it. It’s painted, sandblasted, and probably converted for lofts. It’s happening all over River North, Lincoln Park, Lakeview. And you know what’s the common denominator?”
“It’s the el. Public transportation. People used to say, ‘Slums are where the el is.’ But that’s a myth. This proves that els don’t make slums. Many other factors make slums: panic peddlers, irresponsible tenants, economic conditions. But els don’t make slums. Here, look out the window, what do you see?”
I bend low to look.
“Town houses,” I respond.
“Right,” says Weslow. “They’re building town houses, almost under the el. And they’re asking hundreds of thousands of dollars for them. And you know what? People are buying them.”
“Some people are nuts,” I tell him.
“What?” asks Weslow.
“You gotta be nuts to buy dumps like those. They look like they’re made with plywood; they’re so cheap, tacky, and ugly.”
“But they make sense,” says Weslow. “People want simplicity; they want convenience. Step outside your house, and you’re at the station. Hop aboard the train, and you’re on your way to work. It’s what busy people want. Why waste your time sitting in a car, waiting in traffic?”
“They’re still nuts,” I mutter, though Weslow ignores me.
“I love debunking myths about public transportation. I’ll give you another example. A guy rapes someone on the train. So what do the papers call him? The ‘subway rapist.’
“OK, say that guy rapes somebody in a car. Is he the ‘Ford rapist’? Of course not. Do you see my point? I’m not condoning rape. I’m saying that the headline creates this myth about crime on the subways. It makes people afraid to ride the subways. But that’s crazy. ‘Cause it’s only a myth based on headlines.
“So, I ask people on my tours: ‘OK, how, much of the crime in Chicago is committed on the subway?’ They say, ‘Oh, I don’t know: 10 percent, 15 percent, 50 percent?’
“Then I tell them: ‘Try 1 percent.’ They’re stunned. They can’t believe it. They say, ‘You’re kidding.’ I say, ‘Nope, I’m not. It’s safer to ride the train than it is to walk.’ But you don’t see people stop walking, do you?
“Oh, the myths of the CTA, On my tours, I ask people: ‘Go ahead, tell me: what it is that you don’t like about the CTA.’ They say: ‘All the drivers are rude.’ I say, ‘Is that so. All of them?’ ‘Well,’ they say, ‘maybe not all of them, But most of them.’ I say, ‘I see, so we’re down from all to most.’ Then the people laugh. See, if you really want to know what’s going on, it’s this: people have one or two bad experiences, and they translate that into the entire system.”
“Now, wait a minute,” I interrupt. “I read a Mike Royko column about this one driver, and what happened is that this lady got her arm stuck in the door of his bus. Only the driver took off with the lady stuck in the door . . .”
“Yes, I read about it,” says Weslow.
“Hold it,” I say, “let me finish. So the lady was yelling at the driver, ‘Stop the bus!’ But he wouldn’t. He kept right on driving, only the lady had to run alongside the bus for at least a block ’cause her arm was stuck in the door.”
“Well, I can’t explain everything,” says Weslow. “Occasionally, things happen that are bizarre. But you know, I’ve seen stories in the papers that are incomplete. Remember, there always two sides to every story.”
“Two sides?” I gasp. “The poor lady’s arm was stuck in the door!”
“Well, I don’t know about that one. But when reporters try to give simplistic explanations, it usually comes out wrong. I tell you what I don’t see in the papers. We’ve bettered our safety record every year since 1963. Did you see that?”
“Of course not. Mike Royko didn’t write about that. But he writes about the poor lady who got her arm stuck in the door. And I can understand that. I don’t condone that driver. But you have to realize that we have about 12,500 employees, and with 12,500 employees, you’re bound to have some problems.”
By now, the train has rumbled by Armitage and Fullerton, up to Belmont, Paulina, Addison, and past Irving Park; we’re now well into a greener stretch, where there are more trees and grass. It’s Lincoln Square, says Weslow, a neighborhood whose real estate is so hot that it was featured recently in a Chicago Magazine cover story.
“See that house over there?” he says, pointing to a two-flat that’s practically a blur. “That’s where I live. And I love it. I call this area ‘the other side of the CTA.’ It’s away from the hustle and bustle. It’s like a little country town. In the summer, I like to sit in my backyard and watch the el go by. It’s so pleasant, it really is.
The train slides to a stop at Lawrence–the end of the Ravenswood line. And Weslow leads the way through the station and out onto the street, at the intersection of Lawrence and Kimball.
Cars honk; a bus spews fumes; newspapers and trash from an overturned garbage can blow in the breeze. Across the street three weary old ladies, shoulders hunched, stand beside a red bench, waiting for the bus.
“Albany Park,” says Weslow, speaking slowly, with reverence. “Once a Jewish point-of-entry community, now it’s Korean. Isn’t that amazing? From one generation to the next: hardworking immigrants.”
“Yeah, the Koreans are working hard to save enough money so they can move to Skokie,” I sneer. “Just like the Jews, they want to move as far away as they can from the city.”
“Maybe so,” says Weslow. “But their kids will return. Those Korean kids will come back because they will get tired of the cookie-cutter conformity of the suburbs.”
Weslow smiles, triumphant, and leads us back to the station.
“Oh no,” he gasps as we board the train for downtown. In the aisle are discarded Tribunes, candy wrappers, and a few empty cigarette packs. Weslow immediately begins collecting the trash.
“No way,” he exclaims. “Not on my Ravenswood.” I exchange embarrassed looks of amazement with other passengers.
“There, that’s better,” he says. “I can’t stand trash on a train. It’s bad enough that people have these myths and perceptions about the CTA; we shouldn’t make it worse.
“Perceptions are important. I play another game with people on my tours. I ask them to tell me all the good things about driving. And they say, ‘Well, the privacy, the convenience. It’s cheap.’
“I say: ‘It’s cheap, is it? What about the billions and billions we have to pay for road repairs? What about your fear of getting ripped off at the auto repair shop? What about the tickets, the towing, the breakdowns?’
“Then I ask them what’s good about the CTA. And you know, they think about it, and it comes to them: ‘I study on the train; I can read on the train. Once I bumped into an old friend on a train–a guy I hadn’t seen in years.’ These are things we usually take for granted.
“You know what really kills public transportation? It’s our fixation over privacy. That’s what really hurts public transportation. Everybody’s got to have his own little space. You see commuters, sitting in their gas-guzzlers, stuck in traffic on the Kennedy, while the O’Hare line zips by. It’s crazy.”
“I’m sorry, sir, I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation.”
Weslow turns to face a chubby, bearded man in blue jeans and a black leather jacket.
“I don’t mean to butt in on your conversation, but I have to tell you about your CTA,” the man says. “It’s not that great. I mean, it stinks. My bus at Roscoe and Clark is late every single day.”
“Every day?” asks Weslow, winking at me.
“Every day,” the man replies. “And you know what’s worse. When it’s 32 degrees below zero, and six buses go by. I swear to God, they go right by. And you know why? Because some driver is eating lunch.”
“Well, sir, I assure you, there should be a different explanation,” Weslow says. “You see, if a bus is late, it could be that a passenger is sick. Or the driver is sick. Or there’s been a mechanical breakdown. It could be a lot of things . . .”
“No, I’m telling you it’s ’cause the driver was eating a sandwich,” the man interrupts. “I saw it. I investigated it. He was eating a sandwich.”
“Well, surely that can’t be the case if the bus is late every day,” says Weslow.
“You know what I think,” calls out another passenger, a lanky, well-dressed man. “The problem with the CTA is that you never stand up to the unions. You let them push you around. Ten thousand unionists should not lord over three million people. I read in the paper that they’re the highest-paid transit workers in the country. But if you stood tight, they’d be crushed.”
One or two passengers smile self-consciously, a few others look up from their reading, apparently annoyed by the commotion. The bearded man nods in agreement; Weslow starts to mutter a reply, just as the train pulls into our stop at Randolph Street.
“You should have told that yuppie to go to hell,” I exclaim. “Why should drivers take a pay cut? They do hard work.”
Weslow looks startled. If truth be told, he says, in times of budget tightness, he believes all CTA employees–himself included–should take a pay cut.
“Our primary responsibility is not to employ people, or even–” he says, dropping his voice, “–to give tours. Our primary purpose is to provide the best transportation service possible, to get people where they have to go. And when times are hard, we have to make adjustments.”
“What are you, Mother Teresa?” I blurt. “That’s not the way the world works. I say the bus drivers take a pay cut when Lee Iacocca takes one.”
“Lee Iacocca–what’s he got to do with it?”
“Plenty. Bus drivers work harder than he does, and Chrysler paid Iacocca $20 million last year–after we taxpayers bailed that company out.”
“Well, first of all, Iacocca didn’t make $20 million in straight salary . . .”
“That’s not the point. The cities are falling apart because we spend money on other things. And yet we put all the blame on people like bus drivers and teachers. Instead of spending money on the highways to the suburbs, we should give the teachers and bus drivers a raise. If the bastards in the suburbs don’t like it, they can raise their own taxes.”
Weslow starts to reply, but changes the subject.
“We’re heading for the second phase of the tour,” he says. “The west side.”
I nod. It’s Weslow’s idea (God bless him) that the west side is not an abandoned shell of what it once was. Instead, he says, it’s coming back. Not big and brassy, like the north side, but slowly, in its own unpretentious way.
“I’m not gonna say it’s Lincoln Park,” says Weslow, boarding the Lake Street elevated train at Clark. “It’s pretty much a diamond in the rough. You have to think of it as a spark; you can’t light a fire without a spark.”
The train is hot. The air conditioning isn’t working. There’s a little trash on the floor; Weslow refrains from collecting it. A handful of riders sit quietly, some reading, some staring out the window.
“Note that we waited only five minutes,” says Weslow. He says train passengers shouldn’t have to wait more than ten minutes–five minutes during rush hour.
“That’s important. We’re going to be transferring on and off a lot of buses. Watch and see how long we have to wait.”
I nod again. The train pulls west across the Chicago River, past Halsted, Racine, Ashland. It’s moving slowly, so slowly I can see very clearly the details of scenes outside the window.
“We’re driving slow because this line is due for some renovation, probably in the fall,” Weslow explains. “Driving slow reduces the amount of vibration on the girders and track. We’re going 15 miles per hour, usually it’s 55 miles per hour. It’s sort of a shame; I love the straightaway. It’s the longest stretch without a station in the city–no, check that, the stretch from Roosevelt to 35th Street on the north-south line, that may be one of the longest.”
As he talks, I continue to look out the window. There are empty weed-filled lots, crumbling tenements, abandoned cars, piles of tires . . .
“You don’t get a good impression of the west side from here,” Weslow is saying.
“People who ride this line think it’s forsaken.”
An old man sitting on a stoop, his head down; some kids playing fast pitch in a schoolyard, an old stray dog . . .
“There are some positive things you can’t see from a train; that’s why I want to get on the bus.”
A clump of men and women, standing on a stoop, talking, laughing, Garfield Park . . .
“It takes people with vision to turn a neighborhood around. Look, the Garfield Park conservatory is still maintained. It’s beautiful. There are a lot of flowers along Madison Avenue. How people maintain flowers is an indication of an area. If you have untrampled flowers that means something.”
At the Pulaski stop, he says it’s time to get off.
We amble down the stairs to the street, hop the Pulaski bus, and disembark a few blocks south at Washington Boulevard, a long and windy tree-lined street.
“Washington is serviced by the 131, a bus with a special story,” he says. “The CTA almost cut the 131 in ’81 because it seemed unnecessary; it’s only a block from the Madison bus. But residents protested. It turns out that in the old days, this bus was the elite line. It cost ten cents a ride; it had leather seats. The Madison streetcar, that’s the line the factory workers rode. It only cost seven cents a ride, and had seats made out of rattan material–you know, like a broom weave. People could rip their clothes on it because it had sharp edges. The old distinction remains. Even today the 131 is cleaner and quieter than the Madison bus. It reflects positively on the neighborhood, which is why the residents fought to keep it. It only runs on weekdays, of course, about every half hour. But that’s better than nothing!”
He stops before a massive row of graystone town houses. They’re immaculate, freshly scrubbed with new windows, manicured lawns, flowers, no graffiti at all. On the stoop of one building sits an old black man, wiping sweat from his head with a bandanna.
“That’s a beautiful building you got there,” I tell him.
“Management company’s up the road,” he says.
“Is it private?”
“Nope, it’s run by a church group.”
I turn to Weslow. “These church groups are amazing; they work their hearts out squeezing a few bucks from the feds to redo a building, while the rest of the city falls apart. Where are those private developers you read about in the papers? They never spend their own money building housing for the poor.”
Weslow frowns. “Government cant do it all.” He points across the street to a large vocational school. Over the entrance, carved in stone, is the inscription: “Educate that you may be free.”
“You can’t change a neighborhood with only rehabbed buildings,” Weslow says. “People are the key. People can learn skills at schools like that, and then go out to the jobs. And that’s where the CTA comes in. Thirty-three percent of households in Chicago don’t have cars. The CTA has to get these people to the jobs, particularly in the suburbs. You should listen to the calls that come in to the RTA travel information center. People want to go from 119th and Halsted to places like Elk Grove and Bensenville. You have people on the south side who want to go to Burger King in Buffalo Grove. The demand for public transportation isn’t falling; it’s changing. We have to keep up; we have to track the patterns; we have to adapt.”
That said, we board the 131 and travel west to Austin, where we catch the 91 bus. We ride it south to the Congress-O’Hare line at the Eisenhower Expressway, where we catch the train heading east to Pulaski; there we catch the 53 Pulaski bus south to 26th Street. At every jog, during each leg, Weslow points out every flower bed, every construction site, virtually every unmolested, freestanding piece of property.
At the corner of 26th Street and Pulaski he buys me an ice cream bar from a street vendor–an old Mexican guy: proof, Weslow says, that the old-fashioned roll-up-your-sleeves spirit of enterprise (which made this country great) is not dead. Through Little Village we stroll, Weslow extolling the virtues of Mexican-Americans, the city’s newest immigrants. We catch the 60 Blue Island bus east on 26th Street to Damen, then the 50 Damen bus north to 18th Street, where, while walking through Pilsen, Weslow asks me whether I knew how many restaurants operate in the vicinity.
“I don’t have the exact number,” he says. “But it’s a lot; 18th Street was featured in the Tribune as a hot spot for visitors looking for restaurants and shops.”
I can’t take it anymore. “So the Tribune wrote an article about a restaurant in Pilsen. Big deal. Pilsen is still falling apart. So a few yuppies are moving into the West Loop, you haven’t eliminated any poverty. So, they cleared out Skid Row? What’s that do for Humboldt Park, Garfield Park, Logan Square, Albany Park? The city’s still a dirt heap.”
“I don’t understand,” he says. “Don’t you like Chicago?”
“What difference does that make? I’m a freak for liking Chicago. Most people hate Chicago. Can you blame them? Look at this place. It’s a mess. Look at the trash; can’t people pick up their own litter? Look at that graffiti, what kind of madmen scrawl on buildings? A lot of people have to live in Chicago; they have no choice. But only fools would want to live here. OK, you and I, we like these old buildings, great. But most people want a ranch house in Skokie. If Skokie’s too crowded, build it in Buffalo Grove or McHenry County or wherever, I don’t know, just not in Chicago.”
I stop. Weslow is smiling. My face is red. A few pedestrians stare as they pass. Weslow must think I’m crazy. I think I’m crazy.
“Listen, Ron,” I tell him. “Ignore me. I’m a lunatic. I don’t mean anything.”
“I know,” he says.
“Let’s continue the tour,” I say.
We board the 9 Ashland bus, ride it north to Jackson, walk through the Jackson Boulevard Historic District (where Ron points out more renovations), and then hop the Congress-O’Hare train east to the Jackson station, where I have to catch the subway north to Belmont.
I feel awful. Who am I to carry on as I did. Maybe I’m wrong and he’s right. Maybe the city is coming back. Maybe the poor are becoming rich. What difference does it make anyway? If this guy has faith, who am I to say otherwise? I mean, he could be the last true believer in the city, and I had to try and burst his balloon. Besides, his job is to see to it that the CTA gets me where I want to go. They did just that today, and on time to boot.
“I enjoyed your tour,” I say. “Sorry about my outburst.”
“That’s OK,” he says, as the door is closing. “If you want to see more, call me again. Remember, we’re here to serve.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.