Marisa Knudsen is an MBA student at DePaul and an analyst for a nonprofit book publisher in Chicago. She completed her undergraduate work at Northern Illinois in 2008 and and enjoys reading, writing, and traveling as time and funds permit.
What the El?
Back in March I went on a little South American adventure and the excitement began before I even got to the airport. My boyfriend Dan and I took the El from the South Loop to O’Hare, which is usually an unpleasant but not altogether too frightening experience. Because we were on a tight schedule and fate enjoys inducing heart palpitations in me, this particular ride did not go as smoothly as anticipated.
The aroma of urine was even more pungent than usual when we boarded the train. I sat down next to a gentleman who I belatedly realized was the primary source of that aroma. I also noticed he had his pants around his ankles. I diverted eye contact and concentrated on not breathing in through my mouth. After a couple minutes of minding my own business, I was grabbed on the shoulder by Dusty, as we’ll call him. I spun around sharply and glared into his glazed eyes, hissing, “Don’t. Touch. Me.”
Dan found a spot for us a couple seats away. Here we were able to breathe (a little) easier, while still enjoying a panoramic view of Dusty’s doings, which would be a great name for a band.
From my new vantage point, I was able to sneak furtive glances and discover that not only were Dusty’s boxers and jeans around his ankles, but his drawers were covered in bloody hand prints. Like, clear-as-day, no-question-about-it, hand prints. Bloody hand prints. I really hoped he would get off the train soon, but I don’t think he even realized he was on a train.
More passengers boarded. Some casually sat down next to Dusty, but just as casually sidled away after a minute or two.
Every three or four minutes Dusty would scream, to no one in particular, “Leave me the f*&# alone!” or “Don’t touch me!” Right, because we were all dying for a feel.
At one point he stood up and everyone felt a collective lurch in their hearts at the possibility that this was his stop. But it wasn’t; he just stood there. His back was to us and Dan postulated that he was taking a whiz, which smelled like a good possibility.
He sat back down and alternated between lolling his head around in slow, maniacal circles and gripping his head in hands. Another random outburst and everyone looked up. Or down, or away – anywhere but at the source of our discomfort, afraid to catch his attention. What if he had a gun? He was in no shape to use one, but what if he had a knife? He could swing it around a few times and do some real damage.
The train ground to a halt. The doors opened but a minute passed and we were still at the stop. Behind us, the door to the conductor’s office opened and the operator stepped out, walkie-talkie in hand.
He stopped in front of Dusty and said, “I’ve called the police, man. You gotta get off this train.”
Dusty looked at the operator with a confused expression. What? Can’t a guy take off his pants and scream at strangers on a train anymore?
“Now,” the operator insisted. Dusty put his head in his hands again. Dusty was having a bad day.
“If you don’t get off right now, you’re going to be arrested.”
This was a blatant exaggeration because we sat there for fifteen minutes waiting for the police to show up.
“Wow,” I commented to the operator. “Are the police always this slow to respond?”
He just laughed.
Tired of waiting for the police to finish up their donuts or huff up the stairs to our stopped train, the operator radioed for a CTA officer to assist.
The CTA officer arrived and tried to reason with Dusty, who smoked or snorted or drank reason away a long time ago. I tried to mentally project some well-meaning advice to the CTA officer’s brain: Tell him there’s a bag of coke under that bench over there. Dust off that baton – it’s not doing anyone any good attached to your belt like that. Don’t you people have Tazers?
My mental projections were not working. The CTA officer continued to ask Dusty questions that went right over his head: What’s your name? Why don’t you want to get off the train? Don’t you know the police are coming?
The officer finally realized he was searching for fly turds in a pepper jar and grabbed Dusty by the arm. Dusty looked properly affronted, but sloppily trudged along beside the officer… and off the train.
I started to clap, but no one else followed, so I was left feeling inappropriate and awkward but what else is new?
Surprisingly, this is not my most shocking El story. I’ll save that for a later time. Or maybe I’ll share it with the Waltzing Mechanics, who take stories like mine and turn them into theatrical productions. Their “El Stories: Brown Line run” just ended on Saturday but call them up at 773.59.WALTZ if you want to see your own personal El story on the stage. Tell them Marisa sent you. Wait, actually, don’t. They have no idea who I am.