Bus, Bus, Baby
I’ve been in Chicago for awhile now and I think I look more like a semi-permanent resident everyday! I’ve always worked super hard to look like a local wherever I am because I just want to fit in, be treated like every other human on the street, and not be constantly asked: who I am, where I’m from, why I’m there, and for how long. If I appear to be a local (or even better, a NATIVE!) people will have no reason to ask me anything. I really don’t want to give anyone a reason to roll their eyes and think to themselves, “what a tourist.” That’s how I feel when people ask me where Third Street Promenade is because it’s like, literally everyone knows and if you don’t know you’re part of the reason no one in Santa Monica can go because it’s overrun by tourists! In Chicago, I’ve tried to prepare myself for all public adventures so that I don’t need to ask for directions or help. I’m so attached to this that I’ll even get on - and STAY on - the wrong bus and ride it until the bitter end. Which isn’t a great choice. “Fake it til you make it” doesn’t work very well when “making it” is to a correct destination by way of confusing public transportation.
Mastering the trains in Chicago is super easy. Especially if you’re like me and only use the Blue Line and only use the Damen stop (even if there’s a closer stop to where you are at the moment.) All the trains are color coordinated and just go back and forth on their designated track so if you get off at the wrong stop, you can get back on the same train going the other direction at that same platform - it’s a no brainer! I feel obligated to brag about how well I’m handling the trains in Chicago because after several bad experiences in New York, I convinced myself I’d never be a train gal. And here I am! Killin’ the train game!
Buses, though, those are a different story.
My first attempt at the bus system in the city was on St. Patrick’s Day, a full blown party day that Chicago is known for. They dye the river a very unnatural green (think the 1997 classic, Flubber), there are parades, there’s a Shamrock 5k. But don’t be fooled, it’s not all cutesie and wholesome. People mostly take advantage of the all-you-can-drink green beer specials starting at 7am. By noon there are clusters of people spitting up on themselves, getting in fights with light poles and discarding their shoes… wherever. It’s a disgusting disaster and everyone who participates is a monster. A fun monster, but a MONSTER.
I was pretty nervous for my first Chicago St. Patrick’s Day. I don’t like crowds and everyone was making it sound like I’d walk out of my apartment and directly into a mosh pit. Wanting to avoid it at all costs, I floated the idea of going to a library all day to write. What could be more calm, quiet and lame than a library on St. Patrick’s Day?
“You’ll get puked on if you go to a library,” my friend told me.
“they have public bathrooms.”
So I went to Michael’s Craft Store with my friend instead. I wouldn’t have picked St. Patrick’s Day as the day to try my hand at buses but it was my friend’s idea and I knew I needed a guide for my first time. By 2pm and the streets of Chicago were eerily calm and prime for bus learnin’!
I observed my friend closely. Afterall, she’s been a Chicago resident for almost 10 years, this bus businesses must be second nature to her. Watch her, Anna, do not miss a thing. So I did. I watched her. I watched her… pull out her phone and stare at the Chicago Transit app and Google Maps until she pulled the stop request cord and we got off the bus. It was very anticlimactic but I guess nice because turns out buses are easy!
About a week later, I was invited to family friend’s house for dinner. Easily accessible by ONE bus from my house. Hell yeah. I hadn’t taken a bus since St. Patrick’s Day but if I learned anything from that day it was that any dumb dumb with an iPhone could handle it.
I checked google maps before leaving my house - all I needed to do was take the 9 bus to the last stop. Piece of cake - get on one bus and stay on it until it stops? Done.
At the bus stop I was calm, I was confident, Get on the 9. Ride it til you can’t ride it no more. I was pumping myself up. You got this. The bus approached, X9 displayed across the front.
Well, I know X stands for Express and since I’m going to the very last stop, it must just get me there *faster*.
I got on the bus.
My confidence dropped dramatically. Was I on the right bus? Was it even going the right direction? Which way is north again? What’s the seating etiquette on the bus? Share a row, don’t share a row, fill back to front? Who cares weirdo just sit down! I plopped down next to a woman, allowing only one cheek to rest on the seat so as not to invade her space.
I studied the others, noting when they requested a stop, which exit they used. I shall learn their ways and I shall mimic them later. I was regaining my confidence and following the bus route on my Google Maps; all was going as planned and I’d be reaching my stop shortly!
A woman got on the bus and walked straight to the back. The bus made one turn and then stopped.
“This is your stop!” the bus driver yelled. I assumed the woman who just gotten on had asked the driver to let her know when it was her stop. I looked out the window and waited.
The bus didn’t start moving again.
“Excuse me, where are you going?” The driver yelled.
“Montrose” the woman yelled back from the back of the bus.
“You have to get on that bus right there” she said pointing out to the line of buses stopped in front of us.
The woman walked all the way from the back of the bus, and stared at me as she got off. I wonder why that woman looked at me like that. Oh well. I interlaced my fingers on my lap, crossed my ankles and looked out the window. I was ready to get on the road again. I really was getting pretty hungry for dinner.
“Ma’am! (more stern) What stop are you looking for?” the driver yelled again.
Man, what is going on and I looked back to see who was causing such a delay.
There was no one else on the bus.
I was the only one.
I was the Ma’am. And I was causing the delay.
“Where are you going?” the driver yelled again.
“Oh.” I cleared my throat and stumbled to the front of the bus, “sorry I didn’t realize you were talking to me.” which is especially funny because I was the only person she *could* be talking to.
“Broadway” I said.
“You have to get on that bus right there,” she pointed and gave me more instructions as I got off the bus but she was wasting her breath, I was obviously going to call a Lyft after that embarrassment.
Months after the X9 bus embarrassment, I had to make a trip to Bensenville, a suburb of Chicago that would take an hour and a half and require both a train and a bus. By this time, I’d become much more comfortable with buses. Not comfortable enough to listen to music instead of the robotic voice that announces the upcoming stops, not even comfortable enough to not follow along with Google maps on my phone - but comfortable enough.
I took the train all the way out to the O’Hare airport and waited for the 223 bus which, when it arrived, looked more like an airport shuttle than a commuter bus. It really felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. Was I actually on a shuttle to take construction workers to their build sites? Possibly building something worth taking a train out here for?
This ride was not going to be like all the other bus rides I’d gotten comfortable enough with. There was no robotic voice announcing the upcoming stops. There was no electronic scroll at the front of the bus displaying the upcoming stops. But there didn’t appear to even be street signs, the bus barely stopped at intersections. As far as I could tell, there was no basis for requesting a stop. Was it based on mile markers? Coordinates? Landmarks? Individual need/convenience? Oh, I parked my bike in that wooded area over there so this will be my stop today, thank you. *pulls the cord*
What was happening?
I couldn’t even ease my concern with my back up plan of calling a Lyft. There was no way to be certain that service existed so far away from… a place that labels the streets? I had to set aside my need to appear like I know what I’m doing and asked the man sitting next to me for help.
“Hi, excuse me. Does this bus go to Tower and Mark?”
I had so many more follow up questions but didn’t want to ask them all at once. So I took my time between each question. Ya know, playing the “cool seatmate” role very well.
“where are you getting off?”
He answered a combination of streets I didn’t know / maybe didn’t exist.
"is that before or after Tower and Mark?”
"can you tell me when to get off the bus?”
The man then proceeded to tell me, after every stop, that Tower and Mark was the next stop. Which was… not helpful. Was I being hazed?
I knew my destination was next to a Dunkin Donuts so thanks to my stellar investigative skills, I successfully got off at Tower and Mark! (You likely won’t qualify spotting a Dunkin Donuts as a stellar investigative skill until you’ve seen how many goddamn Dunkin Donuts are in the outskirts of Chicago.)
It's possible, guaranteed almost, that this Tower and Mark experience would shake my (already shaky) confidence with public transportation. And it did. Of course I still take buses and trains because if I didn’t I would never get anywhere, BUT I will only take ONE. If my route involves a transfer, I’m out. A train and a bus? No. A train and a walk to another train? No.
I’ve put my foot down on this rule and have mastered the Line as a result. The “Line” is Lyft’s carpool service that groups strangers traveling the same direction in one car. It’s only slightly cheaper, takes way longer and you sit in silence while pretending there isn’t a person sitting right next to you - it’s JUST LIKE THE TRAIN.