Being raised in the Chicago area means that we had excellent public transportation. I didn’t appreciate how extraordinary our public transportation was until I moved out of the area. My mother was never huge on mass transit, but my dad was for as long as I can remember.
Until age eight, we lived near the Chicago & Northwestern Train (C&NW) but not within walking distance. My mom would bundle us into the car to drop dad off at the train station. My dad was an engineer. I remember him boarding the train, in his suit, with a briefcase in hand. I thought he walked to the front of the train, to the engine, then drove the train to Chicago. Imagine my disappointment when I was told my dad was a chemical engineer, not an engineer who runs a train!
A Chicago & Northwestern train on the west line.
The few times my mom used the train were for shopping trips to downtown Chicago. It was always a treat to take the train into the city.
I’ve always felt if you want to get to know a city, take its public transportation. Take the trains, buses, and subways long enough, and you will see everything, or pretty close to it!
Eventually, I spent two years in college in downtown Chicago, taking the C&NW. Fortunately, I always had apartments within walking distance of the train stations.
One of the best cars to catch on the C&NW North Line was the smoker’s car at 4:10 P.M. out of Chicago. It was a riot! Many of that car’s regulars were traders for the Chicago Board of Trade. Their work day was over, and many had purchased double martinis in to-go cups from one of the bars in the C&NW Station.
Image from Unsplash.com
A lot of these guys would play cards on the train. The lower-level seats sat two people, and the back could be flipped over so you could face the people in the seat behind you. The conductor would store square boards that the guys would place on their knees to act as impromptu tables. The card games could get really rowdy. There was a lot of laughing, swearing, and trash-talking (what good is a card game without a bit of trash-talk?). The general camaraderie in the smoking car was a party on wheels. If you want peace and quick, pick another car.
Image from Unsplash.com
I changed schools, going to Northeastern Illinois University on Chicago’s northwest side for a while. Getting to Northeastern from my apartment required a train ride, transferring to the elevated train (the L), then catching a bus. The L went through a dangerous part of Chicago, Cabrini Green. Cabrini Green is gone now. It was a Chicago Housing Authority public house project. By the ’70s, this area’s crime rate was out of control. A Chicago gang ran the place. It was said that the police would enter the area only when required. I don’t know if that is fact or fiction, but it was not a safe area for anyone, day or night.
Cabrini Green Homes, view SE from W. Division St. and N. Cleveland St., Chicago, 1988. Photo from the Library of Congress.
My good friend Nancy taught me how to dress and behave on the L. The main thing was to not call attention to yourself. I would wear oversized overalls, stick my long hair in a stocking hat, and wear an oversized men’s jacket. I also keep one of my grandmother’s extra-long hat pin hidden in the jacket. It was the only form of defense I thought I would have the courage to use if needed.
Whenever anyone got on the L, you never stared at them, no matter how weird they might appear, but you would give them brief eye contact and a “look.” The message you were sending was twofold. 1) I see you. 2) I could go crazy at any moment, so you should leave me alone. It always worked!
Photo from Old Navy.
Most people mind their own business on the buses, sometimes too much. I had someone pickpocket my backpack. I got on the bus, set my backpack on the front bench, grabbed my transfer out of my wallet, which was in my backpack, turned to show the bus diver, and in 30 seconds or less that process took, the woman on the bench grabbed my wallet. I know; I was naïve.
I got to the back of the bus and began arranging my stuff when I realized my wallet was missing. I pulled the emergency stop cord, thinking I had dropped the wallet at the last bus stop, and ran back to the bus stop.
The next day the bus driver told me what had happened. Another woman on the bus saw it happen but decided to say nothing until after the thief was off the bus. The ironic part is the spot where we made the emergency stop was in front of the police station! If only the witness spoke up.
The Chicago North Western main terminal, 1980, by Mark Llanuza.
It may not sound like it, but I miss public transportation. It was lively and revealing. Gone is the Chicago & Northwestern Train in name; it’s now called Metra. Gone are the smoker cars. There are no longer bars in the Chicago terminal.
The original depression-era C&NW main train terminal has been replaced with a sparkling glass and chrome terminal. I have to admit, I miss the darker, older, at times, dirtier terminal.
Metra Train in the Chicago terminal, 2022. Available for purchase, upon request.
The Chicago Board of Trade is still around but no longer employs many floor traders, as the trading is now online.
Cabrini Green was torn down in the 90s. I hope the people who lived there towards the end of the apartment complex’s lifespan found themselves in better, safer living conditions.
Also gone are the days when all it took were some overalls, a stocking hat, and a man’s jacket that could make me appear like a male!