An unsanctimonious ending to my first ride on the Chicago L

on Tuesday, March 26, 2019

My family planned a visit to the city to visit my brother at DePaul University on a sticky, hot day. We met him at his dorm and then walked through the Student Center building. It was a Friday afternoon and it was teeming with vendors. I had brought a few dollars and purchased a couple of handwoven bracelets. I tied them on as soon as I had them. I was a teenager and dressed up a little, knowing that I’d be visiting my big brother at college. We’d only been living in Joliet, Ill., for a short time, so my visits to the city were in the single digits. DePaul is nestled in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, which is quiet, posh, and somewhat residential. Rows of brick homes with well established ivy creeping up the sides line the streets. We were going to eat dinner at a barbecue restaurant called Bub City on Clark Street.

As we left DePaul’s campus and headed toward Chicago Transit Authority’s L platform at Fullerton, the heady smell of urine crept into my nostrils. To this day I associate the smell of pee with the streets of Chicago. You could blindfold me, put me in a car, drive around for hours, drop me in the middle of Chicago, and I’d know by my sense of smell alone. I still love the city, its beauty and its blemishes. Every big city has a distinguishing aroma. For Boston, it’s fish. Milwaukee? It was once yeast (the factory closed in 2005). San Francisco is kind of a blend of seafood, urine, and musky sea lions. Name a big city, and you’ll know it when you smell it.

My brother led the way with my parents and me in tow. As we boarded the Brown Line train, my dad urged me into a seat as he stood nearby. My mom and brother were a bit farther back in the car. I gathered my hair in my hands and laid it over my right shoulder. I didn’t like my hair touching the seats of buses, so I felt the same way about this new experience, my first time on the L. The seat was hard, unforgiving, and still warm from its previous occupant. The smell of sweat and shoes was thick. Once the doors slid shut, the L train took off, swaying, swerving, swinging, and swooping. It was like a rollercoaster. It went under, over, and through. I was captivated and momentarily transported to where it was just me and the train.

And then my shoulder bumped into the woman to my left. She turned toward me, scowled, and then resumed her blank stare out the window across the aisle. I drew my shoulders up closer to my ears to keep from bumping her again and looked around. The scratched windows afforded an obstructed view of downtown. So then I looked up and took in all the advertisements for Metra, local restaurants, and live theater shows that lined the top sides of the railcar, just above the windows. Once I couldn’t read them anymore, I moved on to people-watching. Having spent years in suburbia, I loved to people-watch in the city. It’s an art form. Diversity abounds in Chicago, racially, financially, fashionwise.

I was seated along the windows, which were to my back. Two people over from me to my right was a 30- or 40-something-year-old man sitting right by the exit in the end seat and next to a pole. He was boisterous, enjoying his ability to engage those around him. He wore a white button-down shirt with his sleeves rolled up and khakis. His loosened tie indicated he was done with work and seemingly very happy it was Friday night. He might’ve already indulged in an after-work beverage or maybe he was en route to do so. Our train began to slow, and I felt a sense of disappointment. Whereas most people around me were likely grateful for its on-time performance, I didn’t want my first L ride to end. The hustle and bustle, the whooshing of the doors, the entry and exit of people was thoroughly entertaining.

My dad glanced over to me, giving me a nonverbal head nod, telling me it was time for us to disembark. I rose from my seat and took a few steps toward my dad who was holding on to a bar above his head. As our train continued to slow and screech, I held onto the pole next to the jovial man. In one swift motion and before I could do anything to prepare for it, the train jolted. I thought it was going to come to a stop but it didn’t and inertia took over. My grasp of the pole was inadequate. My loose hold had me twisting backward, and my feet swiveled as they were not far enough apart to stake me to the floor of the car. I landed in the obnoxious gentleman’s lap. I was mortified. Before I was even able to fight the movement of the train and crowd of people surrounding me in order to leap away from this stranger, my dad reached out with one of those spontaneous, Inspector Gadget-like, one-armed parental movements and snatched me out of the guy’s lap. The man had a big smile on his face and said, “Well, let us get introduced first!” My dad gave him an acrimonious look and yanked me around the pole and out the door. The door shut behind me and any remaining embarrassment got whisked away down the tracks. I only made that mistake once. I now make sure I am either seated or have my legs a sufficient width apart to become one with the train and its movements. People say that a steam engine is a living, breathing machine. I’d say the subway lives and breathes, too, even on the L, snaking through Chicago, on a hot Friday afternoon.

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