A ride on big city subways and busses can be an eye-opening experience. I love public transit because of the variety of people that ride. Sometimes I’ll look at a person and try to figure them out. A few of my favorites are below:
The cellist: Standing near the door is a well-dressed young man in his early thirties holding his cello case. This isn’t some high school kid; it is a person who is old enough to have a wife, two kids, and a mortgage payment. So why is he carrying a cello? How can anyone make a living playing a cello? Doesn’t he have a real job? Oh yeah, we’re in Chicago. They have a symphony here with full-time musicians that actually draw a paycheck!
The mixed-race couple: On the side facing seat of a north-bound red line train is a forty-something Caucasian man in a suit. His Japanese wife is holding his arm as their heads bob with the rhythm of the train. They look like professionals; perhaps he’s some kind of bond trader. Maybe she is a high ranking manager at some firm downtown. There is a good-sized ring on her finger; they’ve been with each other for many years and look comfortable together. I wonder how they met.
The Plasterer: At 6:30 p.m. I’m on a south bound orange line train as we approach the Pulaski station. This is a working-class neighborhood where people labor hard and long to make ends meet. A young man in his early twenties sits across from me with plaster all over his pants and shirt. He looks dog tired. He probably makes $10 an hour. But the fatigue of the body has not permeated his spirit as he grins and holds the hand of the young woman sitting next to him. They speak excitedly in an eastern-European language, perhaps Polish. I can’t understand a word they’re saying, but they are so happy. I think they’re heading home together where he will shed those dirty pants, take a shower and they will prepare a romantic dinner. Who says money buys happiness.
The Beggar. He’s fifty years old, shabbily dressed and walks up and down the isle of the carriage asking for loose change. It’s a job for him, despite the fact that it is illegal to beg on the subway. Most politely ignore him. When he reaches the next station he leaves our car and enters the next one. Not all beggars are so obvious. Some are charming and clever enough to engage you in a conversation, but eventually they ask for money. If you ask them if they are hungry they say “yes”. If you offer to take them off the subway and buy them a hamburger they refuse. They’re not after food, they’re after cash; it’s a living, with many beggars making upwards to $200 a day. After all, if you’re standing on a subway platform and 50,000 people walk by with 1% of them giving you a quarter, that’s $125 for a day’s work.
The Young Professional: He’s 23 years old and is heading north from the loop on the brown line train to the Diversey station, where he rents a two bedroom flat just two blocks away. With a degree in finance from Notre Dame and a year of work under his belt at the Chicago Board Options Exchange, he’s getting his feet wet in the professional world. Considering a part time MBA program, he has a bright future ahead of him. There’s no girlfriend yet, but the weekend bar scene leaves him plenty of opportunities to interact. Sometimes he is lonely in the evenings and hates to admit that he misses life in the small town of Cresco, Iowa, where he had a happy childhood.
The High Schooler: With his backpack beside him, he rides the bus up Western Avenue (at 26 miles, the world’s longest street) on the way to eleventh grade at Lane Tech. Not every high school kid in America rides 10 miles on a city bus every day, but despite the forty minute ride, he’s one of the lucky ones to attend one of Chicago’s best public high schools. As the bus weaves in and out of the stops, the red digital sign spells out the stops; 36th, Cermak, Harrison, Chicago, Armitage. Finally he disembarks at Addison, stepping onto the campus the biggest high school you’ve ever laid eyes on. It looks like an entire college campus and offers a wide variety of courses with some of the nation’s finest teachers. Too bad all kids can’t get this quality in Chicago’s public education system.