Cohen: CTA a microcosm of Chicago

Marshall Cohen

One of the best aspects of being a student at Northwestern University cannot be found on campus, or even in the town of Evanston.

I am talking about Chicago.

Chicago is the third largest city in the country, and with that title comes the glamour of a large metropolitan region – the concerts, theater, trendy neighborhoods, and great food. But also with a big city comes its public transportation system. For the Windy City, that would be the Chicago Transit Authority, or the CTA.

In some ways, public buses and trains serve as a public forum. Usually, this consists of random strangers sitting or standing in close proximity while still ignoring each other’s existence. However, when socialization and interaction do occur, it almost always proves to be interesting.

Anyone on a public bus or train has one purpose – to get somewhere. This could take form of a politician doing some last minute campaigning during rush hour on the El, or a panhandler making the usual rounds. It’s a businessman headed to his high-rise office on Michigan Ave., or the college student rushing to catch the last bus before class.

I took a trip to Chicago last weekend and couldn’t have gotten there without the CTA. I spend more than 3 hours in this public forum, and here is what I saw:

  • Headed North on the Red Line, a blonde woman in her 20s stepped onto the El with a couple European men. She spent the next 15 minutes trying to explain the great American pastime of baseball to the foreigners. One of the men appeared to have some difficulty understanding how “outs” worked in the game. The group exited the train at Addison, by Wrigley Field, presumably to watch the Cubs lose 2–0 to the Cincinnati Reds.
  • Two sweaty, college-age males walked onto a Red Line train at the Addison stop – but before the game was scheduled to begin. Their faces were red and they seemed to be wearing matching athletic shorts, white t-shirts and bright, pink “Mother’s Day” caps. Based on overheard snippets of conversation, it sounded like they were kicked out the stadium when they tried to jump onto the field.
  • A man tried to get on the No. 66 bus while holding a propane tank. The bus driver, who had been using his loud, booming voice to give instructions to passengers throughout the ride, did not allow him to enter. There was a brief exchange of words, which ending with the driver saying, “even if the tank is empty, I cannot allow you to bring fuel on the bus.” After some hesitation, the man holding the propane tank walked away.
  • An elderly woman-at least 75-years-old-was riding on that same No. 66 bus heading East. After about 10 minutes, she rose slowly from her seat and carefully stepped off the bus. The bus continued driving down Chicago Avenue. When the front doors opened at the next stop, the same woman appeared. She didn’t get on, but she was standing at the stop. I have no idea how she was able to make it there faster than the bus.
  • Still on the No. 66 bus, I noticed a sign that read, “In accordance with Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Chicago Transit Authority operates its programs and activities without regard to race, color and national origin.” Presumably, this sign appears on every single CTA bus, all over Chicago. It is incredible to think that one piece of legislation has made such a profound impact on our country. It still appears on city busses, nearly 50 years after it was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

If anything, these strange stories serve a purpose beyond pure entertainment. The CTA busses and trains might not be the classiest way to get around Chicago, but they are definitely the most interesting way to travel.

Welcome aboard a microcosm of Chicago. Watch your step.

Marshall Cohen is a Medill freshman and DAILY blogger. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed at