Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Long Tale of My West-Side Adventure

Last weekend, the El stranded me in a West Side neighborhood I had not wished to visit, at California and Lake streets. After dark. In the sleet.

My takeaway from the experience: You can meet nice people anywhere you go. Unless, perhaps, you go to the Chicago Transit Authority headquarters.

I did not have the children with me, thank goodness. Not that they would have come to any harm. The color of my skin made me stand out as clearly as a flashing blue police camera, but no one I met was anything but friendly to me. I'm sure if I'd had the kids we would have been treated even better.

But still, I read the paper enough to know that Bad Things happen in a lot of low-income neighborhoods; most often these things happen to people who live there, but a stray bullet does not discriminate between resident and passer-through.

It was one of those rides all to familiar to Chicago public transit riders. First the train stopped a little too long at a couple stations, then it stopped altogether. I had nothing to read and resorted to organizing loose numbers on my cell phone, reading the packaging copy on the Christmas gifts I'd bought my girls on Michigan Avenue, and listening to the woman next to me have a degrading little argument with her boyfriend.

After about half an hour, an extremely cranky conductor came through and announced she'd let off anyone who wanted to leave the train. The train in front of us had "equipment problems," and she couldn't say if we'd move in 10 minutes or 10 hours.

About half the people in my car followed her, including the drunk who'd been dog-howling Christmas carols for us. I heard people say they'd just take the "Madison bus."

I was torn. Madison Street goes through Oak Park, so the Madison bus sounded like a good bet. But out the window I could see vacant lots with high fences, and the backs of boxy apartment buildings that had seen better days. When we moved to Oak Park earlier this year, I knew this was a disadvantage -- between us and the city are miles of poverty and crime, and we have to go through them to get anywhere. Later, I looked up the intersection and found out I was in East Garfield Park, an area some call "up and coming." I certainly hope it is. But as one former resident told me that evening, "it still has a long way to go."

I decided to stay put. But the train did too. It was just after 5 p.m. I had to go to the bathroom, and my breasts were getting uncomfortably full. My husband had given the baby a bottle in the afternoon while I was shopping downtown with relatives from Wisconsin. Now it was getting close to the baby's bedtime and I wouldn't be there to nurse her to sleep. So far in her life, she had never gone to bed without me breastfeeding her.

About 10 minutes later, a few more people started walking through the cars toward the end of the train. This time I decided to follow. I hoped that this Madison bus would be just outside the station or that others would be heading for it. I would have called a cab, but I know that cab drivers often don't respond to calls in certain neighborhoods.

When I got out into the sleet, I found a bus stop, but it was a north/south line. The people who got off the train with me had disappeared. Now I was alone on a dark and unfamiliar street. I also had forgotten my gloves and was wearing a coat that I have to hold shut, so yeah, I was freezing.

Before I had time to decide whether this was more like "Adventures in Babysitting" or like a newspaper story I'd read where the police drop off a mentally ill college girl in the ghetto and she ends up getting gang-raped and jumping out a window, I heard a woman getting directions to Madison street. She said it was the next stoplight down, and I followed her. In fact, I stuck to her so closely that if she had stopped short I probably would have run into her.

When we got to the corner, we saw that the street sign did not say Madison. "I think it's the next one," she said. This happened twice more, and I was nervous that we'd both end up lost.

As we walked, trying to keep our feet out of the growing icy lakes at each curb, we saw a couple of buses go down Madison. The woman swore energetically, and she spoke for both of us.

When we finally got to the stop, there were a few people already waiting. Some were from the El, some were local people trying to get to work or wherever. One man had such a friendly, low-key demeanor that for some reason I smiled at him. I didn't feel like anyone was staring at me; everyone was pretty much focused on how goddamned cold they were and asking where the bus was at. I set my shopping bags -- from Marshalls -- on the icy bench. I had also wandered around Neiman Marcus that day, and I silently thanked my luck for making me unable to afford anything there. I felt conspicuous enough without a big fat, ribbon-handled, tissuey shopping bag in my hand instead of the crappy plastic bags from Marshalls.

I asked a couple of questions and found out that the bus would go all the way to Austin Street, the Chicago border. From there, I could walk home.
When the bus finally arrived, we passed what seemed like 100 fish restaurants and just as many Checks Cashed outlets. The friendly-looking man sat near me and read the paper. At one point, he asked me to help him with a word he wasn't sure he knew. But his guess was correct, and I told him so.

Then we stopped at another El stop, and there was some commotion in the front. My seat neighbor told me that some more El refugees had tried to board the bus, and had been denied because they didn't have the fare.
He began to talk about how crappily we had been treated that night. He'd gotten off the El himself, it turned out. The CTA should have given out bus vouchers. They should have sent a bus to pick us up. I agreed.

"What if someone was just visiting Chicago, and they didn't even know where they were?" he asked.

"Well, I didn't really know where I was. I just moved to Chicago last year," I told him.

He looked me up and down.

"You're a brave lady," he said. "That intersection you were at, that's kind of a rough neighborhood."

I told him I'd figured as much.

He went on to say that he'd grown up there, and that it was better now, since the projects were torn down and some condos were going up. But still.

He also told me that he lived on Addison Street now, which meant that after he got off the bus he'd have to take another bus for many, many more blocks. And I thought I was tired and cold.

There was one other white guy on the bus, and if I thought I stuck out, at least I wasn't wearing what he was wearing: A baseball cap from the River Forest Whole Foods. We both got off at Austin and walked down Madison Street together, chatting.

Whole Foods Guy said that he figured a miserable night like this was the best time to get stranded in a crime-ridden neighborhood.

"The bad guys are inside somewhere with their girlfriends, drinking," he said.

I figured that was true, since in my newspaper reporting days the police beat was always stone dead on cold nights.

Once I got home and warmed up -- and pumped, since the baby had fallen asleep without me -- the whole misadventure became one of those things that you hated at the time, but turn out to be a good memory.

I'm of course not surprised that I met nice people in the ghetto*. There are nice people everywhere, and it's the violent minority that makes a "bad" neighborhood a dangerous places to live.

If anything, I'm just surprised that something good could come out of the CTA's disgraceful treatment of its riders. When you become a CTA victim, it doesn't matter what color you are or if you spent the afternoon at Neiman Marcus or frying catfish at the corner restaurant. You're pretty much in the same boat. At least we were lucky enough to get on the boat, er, bus.

* If you live in this neighborhood and feel I've mischaracterized it, I apologize. I'm a sheltered Wisconsin girl who used to think I'd be mugged the second I stepped off the train in downtown Chicago. To me, it felt like a scary place, and not because of the color of anyone's skin.

This is cross posted to Chicago Moms Blog.


Moxie Mom said...

I am so glad everything worked out alright.

You just never know.

Bert said...

You're tough, honey. I wouldn't worry about you in the ghetto or anywhere else.