Here's a funny thing—illustrating something or other about form shaping content, I suppose. Leafing through one of the little notebooks that I always carry to snatch down the odd image or snippet of someone else's conversation, I realized that, owing only to the circumstances of their composition, about every third entry pertained somehow to being in transit.
Here, then, is some of what I know about the buses and trains (and sometimes planes) of Chicago, collected without intention over about six years.
1. An Epigraph for Life
"I got 90 pockets. Watch me. I'm gonna be like an octopus. Taking inventory of this shit. I lost my ticket. I'm gonna find it. I got my phone—at least I got my phone! I got change. I'm gonna get paid." —a passenger on the Red Line of 2012 or so
2. A Metaphor of How to Catch Success
Stand up close to the track, then scuttle sideways till you reach a door.
3. An express train gusts past the windows, a gray-scale blur like the newspaper-page montages used in certain corny movies to indicate the passing of time.
4. In the emergency-exit row of a plane, I am informed of my duties in a manner novel to me:
"And you do understand that in the event of an emergency, no one will come to assist you?"
I nod, braced and a little thrilled at my boldness in this existential moment.
5. Westbound Pink Line, evening, 2009 or so:
"The cake lady's sister just died, so she can't do our order."
6. The large, elderly person across the aisle is emitting at intervals a ghoulish sound which rationally I know to be a painful cough, but which trails every time into a demon chuckle, channeled through him from somewhere in the bowels of the earth.
Beside me sits an enormous frat-boy type, backward Cubs cap and all, who, upon splaying himself in his seat and part of mine, begins immediately eating from an enormous bag of Combos—nacho flavor, I think, from the scent. Now he proceeds to twist open and spray onto the floor a bottle of Sierra Mist. Now he is listening to something awful on an ancient off-brand Discman.
He has just placed his backpack on my foot.
He gives a flatulent cough. He is drumming on the table between gulps of pop.
Some respite: he rises. He has to stoop as he moves down the aisle, and as he lumbers away from view I think that it must be difficult, to be a person of such phenomenal natural vigor and always be made to check oneself in this way. He ought to have sailed the bounding main and slept on deck, in boundless salt air and the boundless camaraderie of his peers; but he has landed on a little train in this small century, beside me.
8. "The earth is not your home," beams the missionary woman on the bus. It is a sunny day, though. "Okay," I say, and allow her to place a thin white tract in my hand.
9. Fallacies, Part 1
I sometimes catch myself reasoning as if time worked the same as distance: if buses arrive every half hour, then I am never more than 15 minutes away from catching a bus.
10. Rain pours down the back of the train car ahead in tiger stripes. Across the aisle a woman of 50 or 60 reties her green leopard-print scarf around her head. She carries a green camouflage bag, the creature and its environment at once.
11. Between stops, the rain has become snow.
12. Fallacies, Part 2
The Red Line and the Brown Line stop beside each other and exchange a roughly equal number of passengers. A logic moves through me that says: why shouldn't everybody then just stay where they are?
13. An old couple on a loud train cannot hear what each is saying to the other, but, across from them, I can. Should I offer to translate?
14. A funny thing is happening on my way into the subway. An old man lifts his leg up onto the handrail, stretching like a ballet dancer.
15. Eternal Beauties
The flash of satin gold on the subway tunnel's wall before the train's one eye comes peeking through.
16. On a Good Night
A bus comes slowly into focus, distinguishable from other vehicles by the soft brow of light above the two wide eyes. It arrives, tilts a friendly shoulder in my direction, and I board. I take a seat behind a woman with long, still-damp black hair, which gives off a boozy scent of styling product.
17. At 10 o'clock at night, a man carrying a large ironing board with a polka-dotted cover boards the southbound Red Line.
18. An Ideal State
I stand to one side of a pillar and realize after a couple of close encounters that people approaching from the other direction must not be able to see me until the last moment. A little girl, pulled along by the hand of her father, passes and finds herself staring openly into my face as she goes by, as though I were an appealing billboard appearing through the window of her train.
19. She takes out a lighter from her coat pocket and flicks it briefly, as though checking for the time written in flame. Then she gets off the bus.
20. Good Education
On the Sedgwick platform of the Brown Line, a mother to her young child, in a tone of gentle conversation and instruction:
"And here comes the train, right on time. Now ain't that a blessing?"
21. A child to her father:
"I got a brother named Justin Bieber. My friend's got a brother named... Paris. Paris... Chicago. Paris Chicago.
"What store is that? What store is that? Can we go there in the morning—after we go to sleep?"