Waiting for the bus is just one of those frustrating things about living in a city. It’s worse tonight because it’s late, 12:30 a.m. and everything is so silent, so dead. Anyone’s footsteps behind me will be amplified in the black space that’s usually filled with hustle and bustle of Chicago’s posh Lincoln Park neighborhood: people going to and from the Landmark Century movie theater, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, the shoe and clothing stores, and all the restaurants that spill out onto the sidewalk in summer. All these places are so familiar to me in the daytime, but tonight, I feel unsettled surrounded by blazing signs but dim windows.
There’s nothing to distract you from the fact that you are waiting. Waiting for 14 more minutes until the next Number 36 Broadway bus plods up the street is an agonizingly long time to be waiting alone in the dark. I speed north until I reach a stop where there’s a pair of young women standing, each with a paper takeout bag. I feel safer here, with them. I’d been mugged once before, though I wasn’t waiting for the bus that night. But I was alone, walking home after midnight, so now, several years later, lonely streets make me jumpy. You can’t help it, your body remembers. Everyone you pass, every set of footsteps clicking on the pavement behind you sends a tremor running up your spine.
I flip through the book I have so it looks like I have something to do until the bus arrives. It’s packed and I’m stuck standing, the bar above me the only thing keeping me from stumbling onto the sticky ground. Hips and legs angle toward the aisle so they won’t touch the person sitting next to them. Still, I feel protected in this fluorescent box, not alone and moving forward, away from what was unsettling.
It smells in here. There’s not one bad smell, but all these people together, our bodies, sweat, the dirt stuck to our shoes, whatever bags we carry, discarded food wrappers. The air hangs heavier in humidity, the smells feel thick like molasses. We tolerate it though, we have to, it’s how we get home, get to bed. When the man sitting next to me leaves, I slip into his seat, and pull my book out again. I pretend to read.
We’re not supposed to make eye contact, or talk to anyone on the bus. This is the rule. Everyone breaks this rule. I’m constantly peering above my book to gawk at the city’s weirdos. There’s one man on this bus I can’t help staring at. He’s my grandfather’s age wearing a Russian cossack hat that peeks above his head and exposes his floppy ears. His eyes slowly look around while his head sways with the turbulence of the bus. Chicago roads are cracking apart and bus drivers are not always careful.
You get an odd bunch of people on the Broadway bus. Though this is probably true of any other route in Chicago that stretches ten miles across the city. The Broadway bus stretches north, through the Loop with its office building and condo skyscrapers, through the appropriately named Gold Coast, past DePaul University and this neighborhood, Lincoln Park, one of the most expensive in the city, up up through Boystown with it’s gay clubs and GAP stores, and through the rundown, ragged sections where men wearing baggy pants with holes in the knees talk to themselves on a street that’s lined with Family Dollars and retail space perpetually For Sale. And still north the bus travels, running along neighborhoods mishmashed with young professionals and immigrants and people with Link cards in their wallets.
There’s a total of 1,959 miles of bus routes in the city, with an average weekday ridership of 973,061. The Broadway bus is the city in microcosm. All ages, races, and ethnicities are on this bus. Suited professionals, students. People with disabilities. It’s what’s great about the city. I tell my suburban family that the diversity and the multiculturalism is what I love about living here, unlike the predominately white, Christian, small Midwestern towns I grew up in. But the bus isn’t a museum. The bus can present you with weird and ugly things you can’t easily ignore or escape from. The screaming drunk guy, the shriveled old man harshly muttering to himself as he walked hunched over under the weight of his ripped duffle and many plastic bags. The chatty lady with gold rimmed glasses and cropped maroon hair who, between giggles, told everyone near her that she would pray for them; the white-haired lady who refused to give up her priority seat for a wheelchair even though there were open seats all around her.
You develop defenses when uncomfortable things happen in a public, contained space. A couple ladies sassed back to the prayer-woman. Others would loudly tsk tsk, or complain to their friend about this awful person on the bus, or they’d groan or shift in their seats. Sometimes, you can only laugh. Sometimes, you’re sure this is the time you’ll throttle the person who’s barking into their phone, or clipping their nails, or popping their gum. But most of us ignore, keep our noses in a book, earbuds piping music into our brains, chatting with our friends, or staring blankly out the window, pretending, wishing we were anywhere but on this damn bus.
Once, a guy started announcing repeatedly to the whole, crowded bus that Jesus was the savior. I was sitting, he stood, and I was directly in his line of vision. His aggressive proclamations and stringy blond hair made me nervous. I have this fear that someone will rob a bus I’m on, will zip out the doors with my bag, or will stick a gun to my chest. Sometimes I imagine the gun going off and think if I wasn’t so cheap and decided to pay for a cab, I’d still be alive.
I wonder if I should get my own car. Be like all those people the bus zips past in their own glass-and-steel safety bubbles that are not so garishly lit. Then I remember how nervous I am driving, how I moved to Chicago partly because I’d be able to get anywhere I needed by bus or train. How I really hate driving. I’ve stuck myself with public transportation.
People who don’t use the bus regularly, suburbanites like my mother, don’t understand the bus’s rules. My mother is one of those chatty ladies who tries to strike up conversations with anyone on the bus or train. Mortified, I’ve tried to tell her that city people just shouldn’t do that. She didn’t listen. I told her you’re acting like one of those weirdos. Still she tries to strike up conversations. Once, she explained to a young woman the advantages of purchasing a three-day CTA pass.
I wonder sometimes if I’ll become one of those weirdos, one that’s had a tad too much to drink and her eyeballs twirl in her head, or one that mutters and gestures to herself, one that you stare at annoyingly, pityingly because she can’t seem to keep her thoughts to herself. All regular passengers on a city bus come close to turning into one of these people sometime or another. It happens when the bus stops at every block and you’re jerking forward and back like you’re on a see-saw, when the bus takes 15 minutes to change drivers, when the rear doors flutter open and clank shut on their own, the whole time the bus sits while drivers change. It’s like water-torture.
The bus driver tonight does something surprising. He stops the bus and walks to the back. We gawk at him. Bus drivers never leave the wheel. Most bus drivers, at least along Number 36, are black, but this one is white, young, wearing glasses. Jobs in Chicago can be as segregated as the city. He pats the arm of a huge man at the back and says something like “Wake up, Buddy” or “You OK, Buddy?” The man lolls his head and the driver returns to the wheel and carries us off again.
The man, his bulk contained by a gray track suit, spreads across nearly three seats. He stares sleepily ahead. The purple rings under his eyes like bruises in this sharp light. I wonder where he came from, where he’s going, does he have no where else to sleep. Or is he that tired, that far from his bed--what, work or family, drives him so far?
Before I get out at my stop, I steal a glance back to the man in the back, whose head has lolled over to a completely horizontal position. I wonder as I hop out if the bus driver will nudge him awake again, how far north is this man going? I accidentally make eye contact with one of the young woman with the takeout bag as I scurry out. Remember, you’re not supposed to let people catch you wondering about other people’s lives.
My lungs scoop in fresh, chilly air. I didn't realize I'd been holding my breath. It’s after one, and I wish the bus went right by building because I’d rather take my chances there than on the dead, dark streets. I glance behind me to make sure no one is behind me and hurry home.
About the author:
Christina Brandon lives in Chicago, where she writes about food and drink here. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in FishFood Magazine, WORK Literary Magazine and Dirty Chai." She’s also in the process of completing a memoir about the two years she taught English in China. Check out more of her work here.