Monday, April 28, 2008

Anatomy of a Bad Commute

Today has been surprisingly cold and rainy. But because it's spring and I ended up carrying my jacket every evening last week, I decided to forgo another layer this morning.

A co-worker who saw me today commented on it. "Yeah, it's chilly," I replied, "but all I have to do is wait for the bus. I'll be fine."

Thus does many a lesson learned begin, with foolish words and the expectation that just because things were fine last time, and the time before, and the time before that one, too, they will be fine this time as well.

By this evening what had once been a bit chilly and kind of wet had become really cold and pretty rainy. But all I had to do was wait for the bus, right? And it's usually not that long -- less than 15 minutes most days.

To understand what happened next you need to know a few things about the CTA, which is in charge of all the buses and trains in the area.

CTA stands for Chicago Transit Authority, but locals swear it actually means "Can't Transport Anything." I also have a friend who observes that "the CTA is surprised by rush hour twice a day."

It's true that the CTA can be inexplicable, especially during rush hours. For example, where I catch the bus going home from downtown I see several bus routes go by. The 151 travels to parts of town that are nearer and nicer than mine, and it's not unusual to see two or three of them coming up the street together, like a group of Lincoln Park Trixies making for the ladies' room. The 3 goes up and down Michigan Avenue exclusively, and I've noticed those girls prefer to travel in packs, too.

The buses that head further north, like mine, are less frequent and often crowded by the time they arrive. Making matters worse, my bus, the 147, either goes all the way north or ends its route 16 blocks south of my home (and is therefore of little use to me). It may just be my imagination, but lately it seems that the buses stopping short seem to outnumber mine by about two-to-one.

This evening I was lucky, however. A good 147 showed up within a few minutes, and I was even able to get a seat on it.

It was at this point that my troubles (and about a hundred other peoples' as well) began. The bus stalled on Michigan Avenue. Once, then twice, and finally three times, still picking up people and packing them in the whole way. By the time it shuddered its last and finally died, we were at the far north end of Michigan Avenue. The 147 gets on Lake Shore Drive at this point, and doesn't stop again until Foster Avenue some 50 blocks north.

This couldn't have happened at a worse point in the route, or on a worse day. Because the next 147 would be just as crowded as this one, and that might take 10-15 minutes. The one after that would be just as bad. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I guess the driver said something (I was wearing headphones) because everyone started standing up and heading for the exit door and swearing either under or above their breath. A lot of people just got off and stood at the bus stop just directly outside, as if an empty 147 was going to magically appear and whisk them off to the city's far north side. But I've lived in Chicago over 20 years and I knew better.

I headed back down the bus route, figuring that the further south I went the better my chances of finding another, uncrowded bus.

This went on for several blocks, and all I saw were the 151s and 3s, a parade of twins and triplets, all of them half-full.

Then I saw a 147. My bus. Even though I could see it was full, I was sure I could squeeze on. But apparently the driver didn't think so, because he didn't even bother to slow down for me, the guy without a proper jacket who was waving his arms in all the wind and rain.

Annoyed but undaunted, I walked further south and finally found another 147. There were even two seats left on it, and I commended myself for taking the initiative and not waiting with all the suckers further north. The seat I chose had a damp newspaper in it and, thinking that some slob had used it to cover his or her head and just left it there, I gruffly tossed it aside and sat down.

After a few seconds I felt the seat of my pants get wet.

Given the weather, it was only semi-rational to think that I could be sitting in a puddle of stranger-pee. But it was the first thing that popped into my head. Fortunately, it turned out to be water, leaking from a spot just above the seat and, now, onto the top of my head.

I got up, and I'm sure the people who saw me toss aside the newspaper earlier took some pleasure out of Mr. Big City Guy getting what he deserved, and I suppose they were justified. If the shoe had been on the other foot I certainly would have smirked and thought, "asshole."

I found a spot to stand and spent most of the trip there, which passed without further incident.

Strangely enough, even as long as this post has become, it doesn't seem that bad now. There's a lot that could have made things worse. The bus could have broken down on Lake Shore Drive, leaving us to fend for ourselves in the middle of an eight-lane wilderness. The batteries on my mp3 player could have died. I could have really sat in pee.

One interesting thing to add: The guy standing in front of me on the bus had gigantic pupils -- his eyes were almost entirely black. I figured he'd either just been to the ophthalmologist or was completely tripping his brains out.

That would have made things a whole lot worse, too.

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