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TODAY

Friday, September 21

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Detour

The ugly, vulgar and nearly violent mess at Ogilvie Center on the Third of July, after the fireworks, led to me realize and reflect upon several things.

The main realization was that being penned in with one hundred drunken boy-men from the suburbs who felt fully licensed to ill presented a greater threat to public (and my personal) safety than most any situation that I've encountered on Earth. And I mean the whole planet, around which I've extensively traveled.

Allow me to set the scene. After leaving the White Sox/Orioles game, my girlfriend and I, along with several friends, headed for the El. Most of us live around St. Charles and we'd taken the Elburn line into the city. Two members of our party who were going to stay in Chicago overnight suggested that we take the Green Line to Harlem, bypass the downtown crowds, and then continue toward home on Metra.

On the other hand, they said, there might be express trains running that would bypass Harlem, which might mean we'd have a longer wait. So we decided to take the Red Line and catch the Metra downtown. It would be a ten-block walk to Ogilvie once we got off the El, but at least the weather was nice, right?

Ten minutes later, four of us emerged at Monroe and Jackson, where we found ourselves in the surge of people who were moving away from the lake and into a steady downpour.

07092007_citytrain.jpg

We arrived at Madison and Canal shortly before 11pm. Confronted with a five-person-wide, 20-meter-long line to the women's restroom, and the indication that the 11:10 train was boarding, my girlfriend and her companions decided to head to the platform. There, we found throngs of people in something like lines headed toward the tracks. No one seemed to be moving, and it wasn't clear what was going on beyond the platform doors.

We decided to bail on the 11 o'clock. Two of the women went to queue up for the restroom, while the other pair of us searched for something decent to eat at the magazine and snack shop that faces the escalators. It was here, as I reflected upon things later, that I noticed the first sign of discord: the snack shop staff was fielding several people's travel questions. "How do I get to Aurora?" "Where's such and such station and how do I get there?" The shop manager was taking these questions, relayed from an employee outside, while he kept an eye on his merchandise and ran a register. Why were people asking questions here, instead of talking to a Metra employee?

The station was packed, people were wet and tired, and they wanted to go home. A lot of them did not know how to achieve that last part, but I don't think that there were many (any?) Metra staff on hand to offer assistance on what must certainly be one of the busiest nights of the year for mass transit.

My girlfriend's friends had never taken a train into the city before that day, and they were grateful that we were going back home with them. But what happened over the next hour and a half led one of them to say: "If you ever have plans to go do something downtown, don't call us."

We merged with all of the other people who were spilling out of the doors for the Elburn trains. The density and arrangement of people on the platform was stupid. Once one was through the doors, there were no lines, no updates, no directions and no apparent or practical way to offer such by the station staff (who, at that point, only seemed to be comprised of late-night security and railroad technicians). People were pressed into each other with no easy way to turn or shift in any direction, with more people coming onto the platform from behind. The heat in the space, of course, was rising — and with it, tempers.

It was well past the hour at that point, but the 11:10 train on track two still had not departed. There was another train sitting at track three, set to leave at 11:30. I forget where the track-one train was headed, but when the train on track two pulled out, the mass of people by the first and second tracks began to push toward track three. And this was when the ugliness began.

A guy on the PA had been calling for a someone from Union Pacific and Metra's "commuter control" to come to the platform during the crush. Someone from security climbed on top of a control box at track three and began to shout at everyone to... well, I have no idea. With the din of the hundreds of people in those close quarters, the ongoing PA calls, and the idling engines, whatever directions he gave were only audible to people 10 feet in front of him.

Meanwhile, a guy with a bent plastic lightsaber led a stream of his friends from the mass of bodies to our left and through the bodies in front of us and to our right. He'd alternately wave his little sword to guide his people forward or signal to some friend, while also encouraging folks to turn up the chorus of put-downs and harassment toward the station staff... as if that would cause them to relent and let all those overheated and overpacked people charge onto a train.

When nothing changed and no one got any closer to the train, many of the boy-men in the crowd started chanting "Bullshit, bullshit!" just like they would at basketball game. Nothing changed. And so they began to boo.

It got hotter. People got louder. The guy with the megaphone (who I could hear at that point, since we'd edged a bit closer) was commanding everyone — hundreds of people spread over the two or three track platforms — to stop pushing, to get into two lines, and to have their tickets out and their bags open for inspection.

Beneath all of the heads and torsos in front me, I could see that there were people getting through, but it was only at a ridiculous little bottleneck at the far right of this mob. The bag check was meant to keep people from taking alcohol on the train, but I really think that they ought to have A) let that slide because of the enormity of the crowd and the limited number of trains or B) do the bag checks on the outisde of the platform when people were still in something like an orderly procession.

All of this was met with increasing amounts of ridicule and frustration, less and less cooperation, and more than a few people bellowing for everyone to surge ahead and overwhelm the three security people at the track. Thankfully, that never happened. As the security guy angrily shouted back, there were children in the crowd. Right in front us, for example, a Latino woman had her three- or four-year-old daughter, exhausted and hair twisted around her face from the heat, draped over her shoulder while her husband tried to stay by their side with the stroller. A mob push would've been disastrous.

What would have been just as disastrous — and was more of a concern at the time — was the chance that a fight would erupt. With the cutting and pushing, the building anger and the stifling heat, you could feel the potential for violence building. Where it was going to come from, what would we do? Which direction would we aim for, what would I do if someone knocked into my girlfriend? What if I lost it and got drawn into some fight? It was a spiral of tension, and the whole scene was becoming more worrisome by the minute.

Two guys off to the right were glaring at each other as their friends held them back and tried to block their eye contact with one another. Some girls were letting out fake screams of terror back toward the doors. Other guys were still talking about rushing the line, and my girlfriend was looking at me with red, teary, tired eyes. "I'm afraid something's going to happen," she said.

All I could say was "I know," and just keep an eye on what was going on in front us — which culminated in the sight of the train heading out. People toward the front of the platform desperately thrust their tickets into the air in a way that reminded me of people trying to flee a war or disaster. Some kid next me cracked about how, if this was what happens for the Fourth of July, what hope would their be if there was a real crisis?

The departure board for track three indicated that the next train would depart (late) at 11:30. My girlfriend turned to me and said she wanted to get out of there and go to her sister's place in the city. I wanted to stay put, since we'd gotten closer to the actual boarding lines. Then, suddenly, the board went blank and the next train's info popped up on track two. Instantly, people began draining to the left, and we were in the middle of a whole new mass.

More people cut in from behind and separated us. One of the women in the group started to get frantic, saying she could not be around these people, there's some guy breathing on her, and she had to get out. This one kid started a beef with a guy who was threatening to "bring out his badge." Then one of the kid's friends shouted that a woman was about to throw up, and all of these bodies started to collide and scatter behind me.

The woman who was with the guy with "the badge" was shuddering in his arms, hands to her face, which was flushed red, and people around her were waving their hands and flicking water to cool her off. She was sobbing and, as my girlfriend mentioned later, pregnant. Her companion got her out of there, after which time the other friends of the beefing kid told him that that guy had a knife, so he needed to stop starting shit with people.

That's when I agreed to get off the platform. It was about a quarter to midnight. My girlfriend's friends wanted to stay to take the train, so she gave them our tickets (since no one had come around to sell them on their inbound trip) and we left.

07092007_trains.jpg

I'd been so focused on what was going on ahead of us that I hadn't seen that the crowd had thinned behind us. There were three or four railroad cops standing by the doors, conferring with each other about what to do (and nothing else). I asked one of them if he knew when the CTA stopped running. After a full two seconds of staring blankly — as if he was overwhelmed and hadn't heard me say anything — he looked up at me and said he had no idea.

As we exited to Madison, my girlfriend asked about staying at Ogilvie until we got a call back from her sister (which never came). For that reason, we headed back to the platform, which almost seemed empty compared to the people compactor it had been just 20 minutes earlier. We bought new tickets and got into the shortest line, bypassing a group of people who were bickering with each other so much they didn't see that the line was open behind them.

Unfortunately, once we were on the train, the energy and aggression didn't reduce. In one respect, people were relaxed and chatty because they were on their way home. But a lot of them seemed to be going home for more of the same, talking about about how torn up they were going to get, how they had parties to get to, etc. Some guy at the rear of the kept shouting "Back off of me, man! Get away from me, dude!" in this menacing tone, then he'd start laughing a little maniacally, and then warn off somebody again. Some other kid in the upper deck was starting a beef with someone below, and when the three security guys walked into the midst of things to settle it down, people started crowing "Throw him off the fucking train! Yeah! It's gonna be a fight!"

Thus spoke the youth on the eve of the celebration of national independence. Perhaps declarations of civility and self-restraint will be the cause for celebration in the future.

 

About the Author(s)

Damon Taylor is a writer, photographer, teacher and world traveler currently living in Aurora.

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