If it were not for the occasional grey at his temples he’d easily be mistaken for one of the Hardy Boys. His boyish face and boyish frame – remnants of an earlier age, are still present, such that I’m convinced that he has freckles despite the fact that he doesn’t.
The look on his face is difficult to read. At times he appears timid. Or deep in thought. Perhaps he’s confused. He looks up at the train map every now and then and his forehead contracts deepening the creases that are already there. He watches commuters board at each stop and when he does this he lowers his face but looks up with his eyes. Now he appears as innocent as he was when his his mother caught him sneaking gum drops when he had been explicitly told to wait.
It could be that he is new to the city. People that are new to the city have different mannerisms when they ride the trains than do people who have lived here awhile. It’s the glancing up at the map, and the attention at the stops. New people to the city watch others board the trains not because they think a friend might get on but because they’re studying how the crowd functions. It’s a subtle difference. As for the map – eventually they learn to feel their way along the Red Line based upon the sounds and the sway of the cars.
While his mannerisms appear to be that of someone new to the city, his style of dress does not. His brown suede shoes have salt stains. Nicely cut navy-blue cotton slacks fit him perfectly as does the black quilted winter jacket that is tapered near the waist. The collar and placket of his wool sweater is visible because his jacket is half unzipped. His charcoal hair has a slight sheen and is parted precisely on the left. The cut is borderline hipster but is kept far above his eye brows.
He pulls a book from his brown canvas bag. On it’s pages are charts and graphs. Statistics. The subject congruent with his appearance. Mostly the book is a prop because he doesn’t spend time focusing on the pages. When he thumbs through the pages I notice the ring he’s wearing. It’s the same matt-finish tungsten ring that I’m wearing. I think he’ll notice mine when it catches the light – that he’ll see that it’s the same as his and this will cause him to look up at my face but that doesn’t happen.
I loose track of his actions by the next stop not because he has left but because the train fills and those that are standing block my view. Maybe now, with no clear cut view of anything, he’ll begin studying the pages of his book.
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He boarded the train a couple stops after I had.
The nearest open seat was between two commuters and in it he squeezed. Those on either side adjusted themselves accordingly. He was glossy eyed and unshaven. He wasn’t a commuter on his way to work though it appeared as if this may have been a fairly common routine. A green ball cap covered all but the fly-away gray curls that sprung forth around it’s circumference.
In his hand he carried two things. Carol O’Connell’s book Shell Game and a beer wrapped in the plastic bag. Shouldn’t it be wrapped in paper?
Click. Schuup. Tick. Then he raised the can to his mouth as foam encircled the opening and took the first sip. His hands shook as he placed it between his legs, securing it as he opened his book to a dog-eared page. From his pocket retrieved his reading glasses.
With the exception of the beer and his shaking hands, his actions were completely normal for this hour of the morning.
I changed trains at Belmont and boarded a Purple Line Express that was now making local stops through Old Town. At Sheffield serval more passengers boarded, including two women who, at first glance, fit the Lincoln Park Trixie look to a T. Yoga pants, t-back sports tops, running shoes with florescent soles, one with pink and the other with lime green, and each with an expensive bag over her shoulder.
Both women had their hair pulled back into pony tails, both wore large dark sunglasses, and both were carrying their Starbucks cups and somehow avoided smudging their sparkling lip gloss.
The two women were classic Lincoln Park Trixie, except for one thing – they were pushing fifty. It was their somewhat thick ankles that first caused me to give them a second look. They did not have bony hips nor did they have petite waists. I was standing close enough to them to see behind their sunglasses and it was apparent that they had had their eyes done.
Though the train was somewhat crowded, the two woman pranced playfully in place as they talked to one another. A little too made up and a bit larger than the others, their movements reminded me of full-sized poodles on short leashes who had just run into each other again this morning at the entrance to the dog park.
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Two years ago I sold my car. I haven’t driven since and I haven’t given it a second thought.
The convenience of not having a car – and indeed it is a convenience to avoid paying for gas, parking, insurance, maintenance, etc…. is in direct proportion to population density and the frequency in service of public transit. These two situations are related.
While Chicago’s population density is on average 11,864 per square mile, my neighborhood is at 33,000 per square mile. Because of this density, transit routes are more profitable. With three L stops, express bus service as well as local service, getting to and from is a snap with 24/7 train service and 18/7 bus service.
When the need arrises for a taxi, the rides are short and inexpensive. Overall, transit connects both airports, and the Amtrak station. Regional trains connects Chicago to Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan. I can visit friends in Milwaukee or take a trip to the beaches of Michigan.
With this density comes a level of profit for the providers of goods and services. Four full-sized grocery stores serve the area. Two Walgreen’s and two CVS’, each no more than a half mile apart. Scores of restaurants and bars are here as well as a new library. Two Target stores are three miles apart, each in an adjoining neighborhood. For the most part, everything is within walking distance and there are days when I don’t need public transit at all.
Within the city limits owning a car is discouraged through covert measures. Due to the scarcity of available land, parking is a premium and priced as such. Cars in the city require a permit. Gasoline is highly taxed. Residential buildings do not require a 1:1 ratio for parking – it would be too costly, regardless and pre-war buildings have no parking. Toll roads act as a barrier, and now city streets are being narrowed for the sake of moving the population more efficiently through the addition of bike lanes and BRT (bus rapid transit) lanes.
These circumstances combined create an environment where life without a car is quite convenient. And that is precisely why I made the decision to live here, car-free and stress free. It’s not complicated, but I did have to leave Ohio in order to live this way.
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I reach into my back pocket. Remove my wallet. Touch it against the sensor. I continue moving forward leading slightly with the left hip, pushing against the turnstile. It rubs against my thigh as it descends. My right arm arcs forward, up, and back around in a fluid motion that ends with my wallet being pushed down into my back right pocket. I am in.
It is choreography that no longer requires thought and this finely tuned sequence lasts no more than six seconds and occurs within a distance of ten feet.
I had nearly completed my descent along the first flight of stairs when he caught my attention and despite it being rush hour he and I were the only two people on the landing, if only for a few seconds. He was on his way up from the opposite platform.
Our eyes met briefly and then he looked away. They were dark and hovered in orbit under a heavy brow, accentuated only because of his slightly sunken face. Color had vanished in this moment. In it’s place, grayscale. His face neither pink, beige, brown, or olive but just a shade of gray, like everything else about him.
His oversized shirt, unbuttoned, exposed his dirty t-shirt and a leather belt which held up tattered trousers. In his right hand he carried a tarnished tin pail stuffed with rags and implements with wooden handles that protruded out as though they were stalks from a dead vegetable garden. His hands, tanned like leather, were soiled too.
My mind took rapid snapshots and compared them to pictures I had seen before, but from where? An old newspaper clipping or the cover of paperback by Studs Terkel on the shelf of a used bookstore – either one a possibility. It was if he was an apparition from an account of Chicago’s past.
A moment later he was behind me and living color returned as he headed up to the street and as I moved walked down another flight of stairs, holding on to the red-painted railing, towards the northbound platform.
My one minute repertoire had been interrupted.
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Before the train stopped at the platform he was visible. At a distance he looked like a dandy – slicked back hair and a full-sized umbrella firmly planted at his side as though it were a gentleman’s cane. His posture was precise as he waited for the doors to open.
When he sat he placed the curled handle of his umbrella over the partition next to his seat and on his lap he placed an old canvas gym bag, beige with brown leather trim. It was the kind of bag that you’d have seen being carried in New York in the late 1990s. It looked as if he had carried it around since then or if had been inherited from the estate of a favorite uncle. It had sentimental value or he wouldn’t have carried it.
His navy-blue blazer was not purchased at the same time as his dark grey slacks. From a distance they appeared to be the same color but they were not and even the worst sales clerk would not have let this go unnoticed.
The pin stripped shirt did not have french cuffs. His oxford shoes were buffed but where not of fine leather nor did they have leather soles. Roman numerals marched around the face of his watch though its face was larger than it should have been and thus, not even a knock-off from Canal Street but something even less expensive.
From his bag he extracted a Blackberry – the final clue that this man was trying to appear impressive and knowledgeable. He scrolled through a list of messages. He was putting on a show of some sort, not for anyone on the train, but for the people he was about to see at his destination.
If he worked at a desk he’d only be seen from the waist up and under these conditions he’d appear almost perfect. Respectable. Staid, even. Though even with a desk job you have to stand to greet people. If he worked behind a counter his non-matching slacks might go unnoticed simply because of the added distance.
He didn’t work at a start-up company because guys at start-ups wear jeans. He wasn’t in high-tech because guys in tech don’t wear navy blue blazers. He wasn’t in finance, as the men in finance here wear only the finest suits. He may have been in commodities, which would explain the canvas bag bursting at the seams, but he looked a bit old for a commodities trader and commodities traders don’t have to impress the public.
This man’s job was to impress people who were slightly below his social rank and to inspire their confidence. He dressed like the kind of man who would try to sell you an over-priced mattress pad for the sake of a slight bump in his commission check. The look on his face said that this was his last chance.
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The robin-egg blue dress was either vintage and in excellent condition or it was a reproduction. It appeared to be tailored precisely to her body though she needed the bit of stretch that the synthetic crepe fabric offered. Silver buttons sewn to false pockets in front, along the cuffs of the sleeves, and on to the epaulets on each shoulder. They were metal and more like large rivets than buttons.
Cherry red lips against her very white skin were the only punctuation on an otherwise muted palette. Her hair was platinum blonde and cut into a bob though sharply angled up from the nape of her neck which needed a trim because it exposed her hair’s chestnut origins and thus this was her only imperfection. I imagined her eyes to be pale grey but they were hidden behind classic Buddy Holly styled sunglasses.
She carried a pristine cordovan leather attache. Her baby-doll shoes were propped up on heel that had architectural significance. The leather on each was scuff free. By far, this was the best looking woman ever seen on an in-bound train during the morning rush.
It could have been easy to view her as a caricature of the female persona of this city; the post-war arrival from the farm who’d come to Chicago a few years earlier to earn a living, enjoy the frivolity of being anonymous in a place for the first time in her life, and spending her money any way she wanted. One could determine, however, that this woman was raised in the city. If not this one, then certainly another of equal proportions.
The seat she choose was adjacent to mine and her decision gave me a choice of something to look at besides the usual brick buildings that had been adjacent to the L tracks for the past seven decades.
Once seated with her attache in her lap she continued with deliberate motions – the kind of motions that someone might perform while laying out a picnic. She opened the attache and pulled out a stack of periodicals, of which the majority were graphic novels. With the stack now placed atop her attache, she leafed through a couple of them before choosing the one that she would read.
This woman, the one I was watching today, would have been precisely the customer that yesterday’s woman in the orange wedged-heeled shoes would have talked to for hours had she entered the fictional comic book store housed in a dark store front with wood floors.
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