Still riding the “L”

Taking the “L” home on a Sunday morning, I watched a woman give $10 to a man who was begging. The man noticed another $10 bill in her wallet and asked whether he could have it. She handed it over.

Having just come from church, I remembered Mother Teresa’s famous statement about seeing Jesus in every human. This “L” rider is a better Christian than I am, I thought. When the man moved away, I complimented her on her kindness. “I don’t need it,” she said. “He was lucky. I don’t usually carry cash.”

Chances are, a lot of us wouldn’t miss $20, but we don’t hand it over so readily. I am skeptical about how it will be spent, so instead I contribute to the Greater Chicago Food Depository and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

It wasn’t just the woman’s nonchalance about being generous that impressed me. It was also that such kindness happened on public transportation. 

Anyone who has been riding the “L” lately knows how unpleasant it has become since COVID. Smoking, sleeping across several seats, and blaring loud music are common. It seems that more often than not, someone is asking for money. Young men strut from car to car. I’ve observed people ranting and waving their arms — one did so in my face when he and I were the only passengers in a car.

“You’re brave to ride the Red Line,” a woman told me. I don’t feel so brave when young people in a group are being rowdy, as was the case when I took the Red Line home from Steppenwolf Theatre at 10:30 the other night. I often feel uncomfortable and even afraid on the “L” or a bus these days, especially after dark. 

Fear is warranted; so far this year violent crime on CTA trains is reportedly up 24 percent from the same period last year. But I don’t want to give in to fear of people who are stereotyped as threatening. To put it another way, public transportation is the only place in my life where I’m in the minority, and to avoid it feels racist. 

I am not excusing bad behavior and hope I’m not being reckless. Some of these “L” riders might be up to no good. But the homeless and/or mentally ill are likely harmless. The man who accepted $20 from my fellow passenger was gentle and grateful. 

If I were consistent, I would stop painting the entire West and South Sides as dangerous and find out which neighborhoods are safe. Despite living here for 32 years and giving tours as a Chicago Greeter for the last 15, I still don’t know most of the city because I rarely venture into vast swaths of it. But I’m not Mother Teresa. 

Not abandoning the “L” is as much of a risk as I can handle right now. The CTA recently announced that it would beef up security, especially on the most-traveled Red and Blue Lines. Regardless of whether there’s improvement, I’ll be riding not only because I need transportation but also because it seems like the right thing to do.


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  • I take the Blue Line, sometimes during the day, I have to change
    cars just to avoid pushy people asking for money, smoking pot, really smelly people. It is not an enjoyable ride for sure. I've just about stopped taking it after dark. I feel for the CTA employees, not all these homeless are harmless. We all know a lot of full time workers do not want to Commute on any Public Transit, another problem our City
    Gov't needs to address. Hopefully soon.

  • In reply to schultz:

    Thanks for writing, Sue. I'm trying to give the homeless the benefit of the doubt, at least until that's proven foolish.

  • I prefer the bus system because of a factor you didn't mention: train stations. I enjoy train travel in general, but I find too many CTA train stations are a mess, whether from dirt, overuse, or other factors. From that to difficulties with messy or closed-off elevators and escalators and not knowing where (or what) the staircases are, I prefer the buses.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    I ride the buses, too, and agree that they are more pleasant. Depends on how quickly I want to get somewhere.

  • Yes, I agree the buses seem to be a little bit better.
    And don't forget your masks.

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