The Chicago Transit Authority has enabled me to easily take several trips into the city. Despite the lengthy ride from the near north side, where my grandma lives, the Milwaukee route is otherwise scenic and the bus passes through some neat areas. Like a few Polish neighborhoods and some hip, one-syllable restaurants. However, what used to pass for smug, new-found street savvy in knowing (one) bus routes quickly devolved into quiet anxiety, mostly due to the characters that choose to ride the 56 Milwaukee.
Around 8 o’clock, I boarded this very bus at Madison and State, after enjoying an iced coffee in the botanical garden area of Millennium Park. It had been crowded, but not obnoxiously so, and I lingered for a few minutes, remembering that my last trip to Michigan Avenue had involved many more layers of clothing.
Priding myself for correctly tracking down the bus, I boarded and settled toward the back of the bus near a group of girls. Since it would be a long ride, I pulled out my iPod and sort of zoned out for a few minutes until I noticed some commotion toward the front of the bus, where the crazies had assembled and evidently, had begun to mingle. Among them was a relatively vocal woman who had boarded at the same time as me. I should have expected trouble from the get-go, by the manner in which she had hustled me aside with a large duffle bag full of scarves and a long rope that looped through a dozen or so jingling keys. It hung from her neck. She also donned a long green trench coat and leather gloves. In fact, I noticed several members of the front-of-the-bus clan were also wearing gloves.
Gestures and voices escalated as the bus ride progressed. I switched off my iPod as I heard the words, “Je ne sais pas!” issue loudly from the woman’s mouth. My eyes flitted across the aisle to the recipient of this exclamation, who, elderly and wiry, sat shirtless beneath a heavy down coat. He responded in kind, “I’m just looking for love!” This is all true.
The woman diverted her attention to other riders, asking several times who among the CTA crowd had managed to catch Kung Fu Panda and its sequel while they were still playing “in the moving pictures!” She cast a wild-eyed stare in my direction as she waited for a response and I averted my gaze, so as to avoid involvement and possible conversation. When I was younger, I had always done the same thing – a response of pity and embarrassment for the behavior of these individuals. Now though, I watched from a more detached perspective, and my interest grew as a young family boarded, and the woman requested loudly, “for a headcount, please!” I was hooked. The mother struggled with a stroller and ignored the woman, while the father motioned for his young wife and child to move toward the back of the bus.
The front-of-the-bus clan grew to four as a well-dressed, presumably foreign elderly man boarded the bus near my stop. Seeing limited options – or perhaps in an ill-fated search for love – he seated himself next to the woman in question, who magnanimously welcomed him into the Kung Fu Panda discussion, wasting no time with pleasantries. He, too, was lively – perhaps composed than the other riders, but evidently willing to overlook the latent craziness of his fellow riders for the satisfaction of pleasant conversation. Meanwhile I grew listless as the crowd quieted down, and as the total commute time approached an hour. I chided myself for not bothering to look into taking the L, knowing my parents would be displeased that I had chosen to take the bus at night.
For my laziness, I paid with the simultaneous discomfort in associating with these characters but also mild enjoyment in observing the late-night crowd. Oh well. Soon enough I would be able to watch Fiddler on the Roof for the eleventh time with my grandma, and stick to her soft-food diet for the weekend – for her teeth and my figure. She had long stopped taking the bus anywhere. Her loss.