Thursday, March 16, 2006

Off Track

You have to hand it to the city’s traffic and weather personalities (hey, show me your meteorology degree and I’ll be happy to call you a bona fide Weather Man). They work hard for their money. It’s not everyone who can gesture vaguely in front of a green screen or announce for the umpteenth time that “traffic is building on all the major expressways.” The latter being the Windy City equivalent of Hawaii’s 80 degrees and sunny.

(Oh, the bitter pill they all must have swallowed when Mike Barz graduated to Good Morning America’s weather spot from the WGN sports—sports—desk.)

So I don’t really blame them for over-hyping every 30 percent chance of showers, every gaper’s delay. We all know by now that the Storm of the Century usually translates into flurries. As I await today’s much ballyhooed 4-8 inches of snow—north of Interstate-88, as if flakes will refuse to cross the median—I’m fully confident that were I to vow to make snow angels buck naked in the back yard, I will not have to fulfill that pledge.

No, what really annoys me is Ken and Barbie’s habit of encouraging citizens of our fair city to “take public transportation” in the face of actual or imagined traffic and weather emergencies. As if this would be a jolly fine way to avoid an aggravating commute.

Um, have they met the Chicago Transit Authority?

If they had, these Talking Heads would know that any condition less than optimal is precisely when the CTA is most likely to fail. Rain, snow or construction—buses will grind to the same halt as your car. Anyone else remember those 45-minute waits for Red Line trains following the Blizzard of ’99? I mean, CTA can’t even grasp the concept of running more trains to accommodate Cubs games. (Truly, I think there should be separate trains, or minimally cars, for Cubs fans, particularly first-time riders. Rush hour commuters coming off another wretched work day are not amused by your frivolity, drunkenness or inability to master the art of maintaining an upright stance when the conductor slams on the brakes.)

Regular commuters all have their horror stories, which vary by degree much like Homeland Security's color-coded Terror Alerts.

Green--Low: Minor common annoyances such as people who think their fare also covers a seat for their backpack, and riders who begin moving toward the doors a full two stops before they actually intend on exiting.

Blue--Guarded: Shoe-horning oneself onto a bus or train with no air conditioning. Face firmly planted in another rider’s over-ripe armpit. (A corollary: Never, and I do mean never, believe the “another train is immediately following” message. Oh really—show me the headlights.)

Yellow--Elevated: Fellow passengers missing the majority of their mental faculties. The crazy woman who shouts passages from her Bible; the crazy man who claims to be blind and begs for money in a robotic monotone; the woman who, upon exiting the train, moons you while pulling her underwear out from between her cheeks.

Orange--High: Foul odors and noxious fumes. Despite successive fare hikes, CTA remains relatively affordable as Porta Potties go. If it happens to be winter, you can try stuffing your nose in your scarf, but this will not provide adequate defense. The true pro can exit one rail car and enter another in a single stop.

Red--Severe: Here’s where we find the most valiant of our transit warriors, survivors of the truly hideous commute. My personal best:

Picture a nondescript evening on the Red Line.
6:00 p.m.: I debark at Belmont for a haircut appointment at Milios.
6:30 p.m: I return to the platform, where I catch a Brown Line to Kimball. I should be home in 20 minutes.
6:30:15 p.m.: The train stops, just feet outside the station. Not unusual, as this marks a junction of three different lines.
6:30:30 p.m.: Rail power is cut. Kill the lights and air conditioning. The car is not particularly full, but does include a pack of teenagers (which, on its own, rates an Orange). Passengers exchange querying looks. I pull out my book.
7:00 p.m.: The pre-recorded message informs us “We are experiencing delays.”
7:15 p.m.: The conductor appears. He silently begins to unlock and open the windows. I do not take this as a good sign.
7:15:01 p.m.: I call my husband from my cell. I ask him to check local news for any reports that might explain why we’re stuck. He turns up nothing and flips back to the Cubs game. He stays on the line to offer play by play.
7:40 p.m.: We’re informed of a house fire along the tracks. Rail power has been cut for the safety of the firefighters. It starts to rain in the open windows.
7:40:00:01 p.m.: I fight off claustrophobia and panic attack. We are never going to get off this train!
7:40:00:05 p.m.: I consider crying.
7:40:00:10 p.m.: I wonder what would happen if I pound on the doors and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
7:40:00:15 p.m.: I start to question why the CTA would let our train leave the station seconds before cutting the power.
7:40:00:20 p.m.: I begin composing vitriolic messages to CTA Chief Frank Kruesi.
8:10 p.m.: The conductor speaks! We will be moving shortly.
8:40 p.m.: The train lurches forward.

The next morning, Chuck Betzold pops into my office. He thinks he has a whopper of a CTA tale. He was on the platform at Belmont, waiting for a Brown Line, when service was cut. He had to call his son for a ride home. Oh, silly Chuck.

His is a bubble begging to be burst, and I pull out my pin-prick of a horror story.

So I ask of you, Mr. Winter Storm Warning, and you, Ms. Bottleneck on the Eisenhower, is this what you had in mind?


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