I used to ride the bus a lot. I preferred it to the train because I got to see more of Chicago on the ground level. I took my time. Granted, this was back when I had time to kill, usually when I was in college or shortly afterward working various part-time jobs. I was so fascinated by my bus experiences that the first full-length play I wrote was about a CTA bus driver. Well, it was actually about transitioning from one phase in your life to another, but a bulk of the action takes place on a bus.
I always felt like the bus was a great unifier, bringing together people from all walks of life who happen to live in the same city. We ride together, in transition not from one stop to the next, from one part of our lives to another.
I don’t take the bus much anymore and when I do I usually have my headphones in (there are just so many podcasts to listen to), but about ten or so years ago I’d take the bus with my ears open. Apparently, that was noticeable because strangers talked to me all the time whether on the bus or at the stop. Here are some of my adventures in bus riding:
I was waiting for a Damen bus going north. A middle-aged couple was standing there, giggling like they were teenagers. It was adorable to see them so happy with each other. Smiling, hugging, laughing. Now I know they were probably high, but I was a really naive 20-year-old when it came to drugs, so I just genuinely thought they were happy. I actually wondered if they were in a cult.
One of them looked at me and said, “We’re together.”
“She’s cute, isn’t she?” the man asked me.
Now that I looked at both of them a little harder, they kind of looked the same. They were a heterosexual couple with cherubic faces. They both had wide smiles, small eyes, and they appeared to be the same height. I briefly wondered if this bus stop version of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum were siblings.
“In a past life, she was a model,” he told me.
“It’s true!” she said.
“That’s very cool,” I told them because what else can you tell a person who confidently lets you know about their past life?
The bus came shortly after that. I told my roommate Caitlin about this when I got home. “The most interesting things happen to you,” she said.
“It’s not that interesting,” I told her. “I think it’s just that crazy people like talking to me.”
Caitlin and I had misread an ad in a local paper that said David Sedaris would be doing a book-signing at a bookshop at UIC. College freshman navigating the city on our own for the first time, we took the bus all the way down. When we got to the bookstore, it was actually closed. There were no special events. There was no David Sedaris.
I re-read the paper and saw that it was actually for the day before. We both had the wrong date. Damnit.
For some reason, we were not immediately sure how to get home and we were both super hungry. We decided to walk for a bit in search of food or a brown line back to our university.
We walked down a street that very suddenly felt abandoned. There were warehouses — warehouses — in downtown Chicago. To this day I don’t know what street this was and I know this city like the back of my brittle Midwestern hand.
Suddenly a man began following us. He didn’t look unsettling. He looked kind of like a normal man in his twenties but with very intense eyes that a wordsmith might label “crazy eyes”. Then he started calling after us.
“Hey! Hey! Can I walk with you?” He asked.
We kept walking. He kept trying to talk to us. Finally, I snapped and said, “leave us alone”. He smiled. Shit. That’s what he wanted. Any engagement whatsoever. I stepped right into his scary trap.
“Oh, are you two lesbians? That’s making me hot.”
Okay, so it got worse. This road felt so so so long. We were going by storage units that ran the length of the street. Storage units that felt so desolate and hidden that the threat of our disappearance inside one of those felt very real.
“I killed 25 people yesterday,” he said, making that threat feel really fucking real.
Caitlin and I glanced at each other. At this point, I didn’t know what to do. Ignore him and make him angrier? Engage with him and hope he doesn’t try to kill us on this somehow empty street in downtown Chicago??
“That’s not right,” I said. I could feel Caitlin’s eyes begging me to shut up.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “I suffer from schizophrenia.”
We softened, but we didn’t stop walking. I 100% believe he was mentally ill and I felt bad that he was reaching out to two strangers on a summer evening. We told him we were sorry to hear that because we didn’t really know what else to say. He told us it was okay. He seemed less intimidating then, friendly even.
“Hey, you girls want to hang out? I just have to get something real quick.”
“No, we’re in a hurry,” Caitlin said.
He stopped by the storage unit door. “I have to get something in here. Just come with me real quick and we can hang out.” The storage unit nightmare finally presented itself.
We were so close to the cross street ahead of us. It looked busier, more full of people and cars. We could flag someone down if this guy came after us. And then we saw it. A beacon of hope. A saving grace. A bus!
“Run!!!” Caitlin said and we both sprinted for the bus. We waved our arms frantically as the bus slowed to a stop. The man called after us, but we never looked back to see what he was doing.
I had never been happier to see a bus in my life. It didn’t matter where it was going.
I was on a Foster Avenue bus going east toward the lake. The bus was full, but comfortably quiet until a strong smell suddenly overcame all of us. There were shrieks and gasps and that smell. A passenger had vomited.
The bus driver pulled over and evacuated the bus. He called in some kind of code for “someone totally blew chunks on my bus” and another bus arrived to take us all down Foster Avenue without any biohazards.
We all got on the new bus — including the man who vomited.
“Hell no!” the bus driver said as he nearly forcibly pushed the man back. “You barfed on the bus, bro. You don’t get to come back on.”
He made the sick man leave and we pulled away while he stood embarrassed and wobbly on the sidewalk. I learned a valuable lesson that day: barfing on the bus will be punishable by bus law.
I was on the Kimball bus going south, heading back home to my apartment. It was one of the most crowded buses I’ve ever been on. You couldn’t move let alone breathe easily. Worse yet, it was summer. Everyone was bumping up against each other’s sweaty pits, slipping around off wet arms like steaming bumper cars.
Suddenly, I felt someone squeeze my ass.
I jerked around and saw a very sweet-looking old man sitting there. He looked like a grandpa in aa 1950s sitcom with small glasses and a hat. Who still wears hats? Sweet old men, that’s who. He grinned. He looked harmless, but I was fairly certain he had just grabbed me on the bus. Hadn’t he?
He then raised his eyebrows cartoonishly and said, “nice butt!” Okay, so yeah, it was him. Sweetness can be deceiving. Sweetness can still be a pervert with no boundaries. Then he tried to grab me again. There was nowhere for me to go. I squeezed away from him and everyone looked at me like a nuisance who was tumbling into their personal space. Everything felt even more claustrophobic than before and the man was still watching me.
I got off at the next stop and walked home.
I was on the Milwaukee bus to work one morning. It was 9 AM on a weekday. There were only about two of us on the bus when a man comes on wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket. A real Fonzie type. He sits down and immediately begins blasting “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. No headphones. Just boomboxing it for the entire bus. When the song ended, he got off the bus. He just wanted to have fun, too.
I was waiting for a Montrose bus near Kimball when a woman dressed in a black shawl with fringe approached me. It was summer, but she had on several layers. She didn’t look homeless. She actually looked like Gypsy women I saw in southern Spain, standing outside of monuments in Seville with rosemary to sell. She looked at me a few times. I smiled once. That was her invitation.
“I’m a psychic,” she said. “Would you like your palm read?”
“I don’t have any money,” I said.
“It’s okay. I can tell you need it. You went through heartbreak?” My broken heart jumped. How did she know??? My first “real” boyfriend had broken up with me a week before this encounter and I felt like I had been gutted. Sure, we were barely together, and, sure, he was a dick to me — but I was nineteen and truly heartbroken for the very first time.
“His name starts with an A,” she said. How. Did. She. Know!
I loved that she used the present tense. Breakups can feel like deaths, especially when you don’t run in the same circles, so that person just disappears. They vanish almost as if they were never there which is what feels so criminal about a breakup. How dare they be allowed to become a ghost? I found myself walking around in his neighborhood very stalkingly grasping at anything I thought could bring us together again, hoping either to run into each other or just retrace the steps we walked hand-in-hand so that I wouldn’t forget them. I didn’t want him to be gone from my life yet. I desperately wanted him to be present.
She asked to see my hand.
“I don’t have money,” I repeated.
“I will do it quickly for free,” she said. She took my hand and looked at it. She didn’t do any kind of “traditional” palm read where she tells me how long the lines are and how that correlates to a fate that I cannot escape from. Instead, she said, “A is not your soulmate. You will be very loved in your life, but not by him. In a few years, you won’t remember him at all.”
She was right. A few years later, he was a blip. And now? I don’t think about him at all.
I got on the bus and she didn’t. She stayed sitting on the bench. I wonder where she came from and where she was going.