Monday, March 13, 2006

Strangers on the Train

Because I used to work in marketing, I’ve seen demographic breakdowns of Chicago’s population by ZIP code—race, gender, age, income, education level. As often as you hear that the city is racially segregated, there’s nothing like a printout of ZIPs with 98 percent white residents or 98 percent black to hammer home the point.

I don’t know how much companies pay for this sort of research—all you really need to do is ride the “L.”

Take the Red Line south to 95th. Count the white people on board after the Chinatown stop. If you need more than 10 fingers, there must be a Sox game—witness the mass exodus at 35th Street. On my own line, the Brown, it’s elbow to elbow during evening rush until Southport or Paulina, where we lose most of the yuppies. The last of the gentrifiers usually debark at Rockwell, which is where I bid farewell to the three people left in my car, almost always Latino.

On Friday (March 10), an estimated 100,000 immigrants held a rally in the Loop to protest proposed federal legislation that would crack down on those who employ or help illegal immigrants (read “Mexicans”). Workers and students walked off the job and out of the classroom to join the throng. The Chicago Tribune quoted one attendee: “Most people don’t realize how much work we do, but it’s part of their daily lives. We are putting up all the buildings and cooking all the food.” And, I might add, doing all of the landscaping along the city’s premier tourist attraction, Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile.

I didn’t know about the rally when I boarded the Brown Line on Friday at about 4 p.m., heading north. The train was packed when it pulled into Armitage, unusual for that time of day. I squeezed into the car and hung onto the pole near the door, doing my best to protect a set of newly purchased wine glasses from the crush.

The car was filled with Latinos. Subdued, but chatty. Adults, high schoolers, men, women, small children. Suddenly I was the minority.

It wasn’t so much unsettling as weird. And I thought about what it must be like to have this experience every single day.

How does it feel to stand out in the proverbial crowd? To be noticeably different, to be singled out. How does it feel to wonder if judgments are being made about you based solely on your appearance? How does it feel to be constantly on edge, watchful, on guard?

I stepped off the train at Western (Rockwell has been completely razed). My life as a minority had lasted all of 20 minutes. Were it my permanent status, I would have to say, not a lot of fun.

The next day, a Saturday, I took the train to Lakeview to hang out with my friend Aleks. We spent the afternoon walking along the lakefront, basking in the kind of warmth that lulls people into believing March is actually spring.

Again, I boarded the Brown Line north to home at about 4 p.m. Again, the train was a sardine can on electrified tracks. Cars were jammed with twentysomething white kids returning from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, all of them having apparently bar-hopped the entire return trip. And again, I found myself a minority, the rare sober individual among the intoxicated, my clothing conspicuously devoid of shamrocks in a sea of kelly green Jameson t-shirts. The revelers’ obnoxiously garrulous conversations seemed to congeal into a single word, “Dude.” I plowed through the group blocking the door and looked for a safe position, away from the swaying girls in their Mardi Gras beads and plastic leis. I felt watchful, on guard, on edge, alert for potential vomiters or otherwise rude behavior.

The group was gone by Addison, where the taverns and pubs give way to a higher proportion of housing and adults over the age of 25. I exchanged eye rolls and “phews” with the couple sitting across from me.

I ponder these two commutes and which made me feel more uneasy. I have to go with the drunks. I’ve observed this crowd before, usually clustered around Wrigley Field. Peeing in alleys. Throwing up on the sidewalk. Fighting.

Then I think about the Latinos, struggling to gain a toe-hold in this country. I see them with their families, picnicking in the park every Sunday during the summer, setting up nets and playing volleyball with their soccer equipment.

And I question whether we’re talking about deporting the right people.


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