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This past winter, my boyfriend and I decided to take a trip to Chicago, Illinois. It was kind of a last minute idea, having come up with the idea to go on a vacation during break only a month prior. Having never gone on a trip without my parents before, I was a bit hesitant. Also being a broke college student–who thinks spending $3 on food too much but has no qualms about dropping $15 on a shirt–I was a bit hesitant about the whole financial aspect. However, we both agreed to it and began planning. We would spend four days in the city, going to the typical tourist destinations like the Willis Tower, aquarium, and various museums. While these places were fun, and I was an especially big fan of the city life at night, one of the things that stands out in my mind from the trip the most is probably the “L”.
For those who don’t know about the L, which included me until I was actually sitting on the thing, it is a massive transportation system in Chicago. “L” is short for “elevated”, and it’s kind of like an above-ground tram that takes you to various parts of the city and the suburbs surrounding it. It’s used by many people in lieu of cars because let’s be real, there is nothing more frustrating than city traffic. Like a bag of dropped Skittles, the lines are all named after different colors of the rainbow–rather than giving them logical names like “hey, this line goes north to south!”
Anyway, so in a flurry of confusion and people trying to catch their trams, we finally managed to get our passes for the famed Chicago tram about two hours after trying to figure out how the system worked. We were lucky enough that our hotel, a dingy hole-in-the-wall kind of place, was fairly close to one of the Skittle stations. Walking to the station was fine. However, waiting at the station in the -5 degree Chicago weather was not as fun. It was the kind of weather where not even two thick jackets could keep you warm. The fact that there was a constant wind blowing off from the river did not help any, It bit at our fingertips and uncovered faces, making every extra minute spent waiting unbearable. Luckily, there were heating lamps placed in small kiosks to provide some respite from the chill though, and large groups of us would all huddle under these lights. Fluffy grey pigeons hopped about on the loading platform. They dug around for any bits of food that people might have dropped whilst pooping on practically anything in sight. They’re considered city vermin, but I still think they’re pretty cute. I would occasionally slip them bits of food here and there despite the fact that this is against the law, apparently. It’s not the pigeons’ fault that they’re smarter than other birds when it comes to scavenging for food!
Anywhere from five to twenty minutes later, a tram would finally arrive to take us to our destination. Like sheep, people would herd in and out of the sliding steel doors, rushing to find the best seats. Each cart had around thirty seats facing across from each other, with a couple lone ones towards the back. They weren’t the comfiest things to sit in, and probably dirtier than I’d like to think about, but they were better than standing space. Depending on the time of day, the tram car would either be filled to the brim or barely occupied. For this reason, I much preferred riding at night when it was less crowded.
My boyfriend and I sat there, waiting patiently until the metal tube would take off again, whizzing and whirring to its next destination as the gears gradually began to pick up speed again. A female voice would come on the intercom, announcing the next destination on a recording that sounded at least ten years old. This recording would repeat every few minutes, grating on my nerves every time, until I could almost recite it from memory by the third day. As for the appearance of the transport itself, it’s pretty much what you would expect. Advertisements of all kinds littered the upper panels, illuminated by the strips of lights on the ceiling. The glass windows were small, but if you were lucky enough to get a window seat you could see the city below zoom past like something out of a dream. Skyscrapers and cars alike blurred together in one long stream of lights, bright against the smog-filled night sky.
The most interesting thing by far about the L was the wide assortment of people you could find on it. The cool thing about big cities like that is that you can see people from every walk of life: low class, high class, businessmen, beggars, white, black, christian, muslim. It’s not hard to get lost in such large crowds and blend in as if you had been a citizen to those streets for your whole life. Typically people on the L would choose to keep to themselves, preferring to look down at their phones rather than talking to the strangers next to them. And to be honest, I don’t blame them; we came across some characters.
On one of our trips, there was a man who thought it would be a good idea to bring on an oversized boombox blaring rap music. He attempted to breakdance in the busy aisles. It did not end well.
On another trip, a religious, squat white guy giving an unwanted sermon to anyone who would listen–or rather was forced to lister. There was no escape, and he knew it. He probably made it his day job to just shove himself into a car and preach the nasally, high-pitched gospel.
On another trip there was a black man performing magic tricks with a deck of red and white trading cards for the people sitting behind him. I say magic tricks, but they were more like scam tricks. He would ask the unsuspecting denizens behind him if they could guess where a card went in a deck. He would let them win the first time of course, luring them into a false sense of security, before putting money on the line. And they would say yes and he would be shuffling the cards in an elegant display as long fingers slid back and forth, shuffling the cards every which way. And of course, the gamblers would never win. While the trick was obviously rigged, it was still cool to watch. I’ve been interested in magic tricks ever since I was little, so I took joy in trying to figure out how the man did it.
The time that hit me the most, I think, was when a man with a long brown beard shuffled onboard. To be honest, he looked like the stereotypical idea of a homeless man. He was wearing a drab coat that was torn in various places, allowing the lining to poke through the holes. It wasn’t the appearance of his coat that caught me off guard though; it was when I saw movement in it. A small black nose popped out of the top before quickly being shushed back down. It was a dog. Animals weren’t allowed on the tram unless they were either service dogs or kept in a small crate. Knowing this, my mind started to race, trying to piece together the life story of this man. I made a story where his partner kicked him out of their house with only the shirt on his back and his dog. I made a story where no matter the harsh circumstances that life thrusted at them, at least they had each other. I made a story where the man made sure that the dog always ate before him, that it never went hungry as long as he could help it. You know, like an inspirational story that you would hear on the news. Or, for all I know, the man just could have had a bad sense of fashion and didn’t know how to follow rules. That’s the neat thing about strangers: trying to guess their past experiences, what made them who they are. And until you actually speak to them yourself, nothing is really stopping you from creating their imaginary three-part epic. They say not to judge a book by its cover, but I think it can be pretty insightful at times; my judgements typically aren’t that off.
For four days we would ride that tram at least four times a day, whether it was to get back to our hotel or to get to our next sight-seeing destination. The clicking sound of our Nintendo 3DS’ drowned into the reverb of the tram as we furiously mashed its grey and black buttons. What better way to spend twenty minutes than with simulated video game violence? When we took our last stop at the train station for our ride home, it was bittersweet. On one hand, I definitely wasn’t going to miss the crowds, the smell of body odor and sweat as thirty some-odd people all crammed into one tight space. I wasn’t going to miss the random preachers or the breakdancers or the obvious drug addicts. And I definitely wasn’t going to miss the Chicago winter. But at the same time, I was going to miss the regularity of it all. That was twenty minutes each time that I could just sit down and observe, both the people and the city. I feel the L gave me more of a taste of Chicago than the actual buildings did. The cramped aisles of the tram were far more personal than any sidelong glances on the street were. It gave me time to talk to me boyfriend, to learn the stories of people from all over the country. It was an experience I’ll never forget, to say the least.
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