Surfing on the CTA

Surfing on the CTA

I can remember the first time vividly. The blue beneath our feet looked harmless enough, light ripples in the sunlight—not a hint of warning about the turbulence to come.

When the steamy, translucent gates parted, we waded in slowly, gradually ascending the heights until we reached a point of statis. Terra firma. Level ground. The vibe was chill, relaxed, even inviting—especially for a first timer—but we stuck close together as his eyes enlarged to take in the unfamiliar sights, sounds, and ever so peculiar smells engulfing him.

I thought it would be an amazing adventure: his first bus ride. And when we boarded, his excitement about embarking on such a reviled mode of transportation amazed me. I handed him the crumpled dollar from my purse and did my best to flatten out the bill, smoothing it between my fingers to ensure it would get accepted. He fumbled a bit, hurriedly trying to stuff it into the narrow slot as the bus driver watched blankly. Finally, on the third try, he found his mojo, staring intently with delight as George Washington’s face got sucked up ever so smoothly into the machine.

"Third time’s the charm, bud!”

Beaming with a sense of accomplishment and relief, he followed anxiously on my heels to see what was next. We slowly shuffled forward—you know the move: barely lift your feet and slide several inches, right-left, right-left, following behind the person in front of you, close enough to be able to slip into an empty seat if you stumble upon it, but far enough away where no bodily contact happens. Ever.

His eyes opened wide as he scanned the strange surroundings. Seniors, tweeners, hipsters and homeless people. He was clearly fascinated by the array of colorful commuters he witnessed as we made our way to the middle of the bus. Per usual, I scanned the rows for an opening while simultaneously avoiding eye contact of any sort (a skill honed and perfected after years of taking the dank Red Line subway).


He looked up at me nervously.

"Don’t worry, honey.” I pulled him close and showed him the shiny silver pole by the center doors. “Just hang on to this and it’ll be fine,” I reassured him, intentionally leaving out the sordid images popping into my mind of the dregs of humanity, and all the grimy hands that grasped the metal lifeline throughout the day, even seconds before ours. “Bring on the Purell,” I muttered under my breath.


“It’ll be fun, I can tell!” I articulated loudly, earnestly trying to reinforce his genuine anticipation.

He wrapped both hands around the pole, and readied himself. It was a white-knuckled grip for sure—not because he was scared, but simply due to the fact that he didn’t know what to expect. I, on the other hand, had wrapped my jacket-clad arm around the pole to stabilize myself while avoiding actually touching the cootie-laden structure. (I figured this was an intermediate lesson, a trick I could teach him on ride #3 or 4, after he had successfully completed this maiden voyage.)

The doors slammed shut, and as the bus began to move, it melted my heart to see the corners of his eyes wrinkle up when he smiled—just like mine—a giant grin that radiated happiness, though he was trying to play it cool to blend in with the crusty commuters surrounding us.

For the next few stops, he was in the groove, letting go of his vice grip as he started to get the hang of the ebb and flow. He clearly found comfort knowing the trusty old pole was there if and when he needed it. A safe base. The novice was getting his bearings. My little Jedi in transit training.

Things were all well and good…until we got to Chicago and Milwaukee, where the subway and bus stops converge. By the time we had arrived, it was rush hour and the mass of bodies pushed forward when the steamy glass doors swung open. Unlike the nirvana of literally minutes before, we were packed in like sardines.

Helpless to resist the momentum, we surged forward, slowly shuffling again, only this time with bodies pressed up against our backs. He paused to look up at me with a combination of slight curiosity and sheer terror.

“Everybody move back! make way for the passengers boarding the bus!” the driver yelled sternly.

"Keep moving until you can’t go any further.”

I nudged him forward until we were firmly wedged between a few fine specimens of the CTA variety, only to find ourselves in the worst possible predicaments: caught completely adrift, with neither a pole to hang onto nor a place to lean against.

“Oooh this is not good,” I thought to myself as I put a hand on his shoulder, regretting this brilliant maternal decision to subject my kid to the gruesome tortures of mass transit.

The doors struggled shut, then the bus hurtled toward the intersection. The amoeba of people that included us poor souls with no pole morphed with the abrupt forward movement. The rough jerk sent us flying, and we both reached for the invisible bar (also known as thin air). It was futile. With nothing to stabilize, we flailed. I grabbed onto his shirt and kept him (barely) upright.

“Mommy, HELP! What am I supposed to do now? I am going to fall if I have nothing to hold onto?”

With each successive stop, he’d tense up, his entire body bracing for the impending wave to hurl him about like a piece of driftwood tossing about at sea. He’d look around, embarrassed, worried. Hating the lack of control. Dreading the possibility he’d stumble, step on a foot,  bump into man, or worst of all fall flat on his face.

I leaned in close and whispered in his ear. “Ok buddy. Listen to me. You’ve got to stay loose.”

His face contorted. The sweet adoring “I love you, mommy” face was instantly replaced by an indignant “WTF are you talking about, lady??” look. “Stay loose when I’m about to dive headfirst into this mass of scary humanity?!”

I smiled reassuringly. “I’m serious,” I said in a gentle voice. “At the next stop, just watch me carefully.”

His response: a hearty huff and eye roll (the latter another lesson he regrettably learned from the best…me).

As we approached the stop, I got into position, exaggerating my movements for dramatic effect. I planted my heels (all 4.5 inches of them) firmly on the ground, as wide as they could get in the 12-inch square block of space I had to work with. I bent my legs slightly and got ready to ride the wave.

He was intrigued now, watching me intently as I assumed the position. I cracked a big smile and winked at him.

The brakes screeched loudly as we pulled up on the next stop, and I rode it out, shifting my body weight subtly back and forth to counter the momentum. He watched in amazement as I maintained my balance, only hesitating once to grab onto his arm when the jostling got a hair too extreme.

The furrow in his brow slowly morphed into a grin of his own.

He whispered into my ear. “That was awesome!”

"I told you bud. I know what I’m talking about. Whenever you feel out of control, take a deep breath. Plant your feet on the ground. Trust yourself. Believe you can handle it. And then ride the wave.”

The grin transformed into an ear-to-ear smile. “I wanna try!”

He couldn’t wait test out the technique. As we approached the next stop, I watched his lips recounting the steps, and his body motions working in unison. He was ready.

“Look mom! No hands!” he squealed.

And that was it. On an unremarkable Wednesday, in the middle of rush hour on the CTA, I taught him an invaluable lesson about surfing…and life.

“Whenever you feel out of control, take a deep breath. Plant your feet on the ground. Trust yourself. Believe you can handle it. And then ride the wave.”

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