Friday, April 11, 2014

Curmudgeon is reminded that he lives in the city

The ride to work is usually uneventful. I take the CTA Blue Line from O'Hare to the Loop. Granted, the outbound trip has been more exciting, particularly on one recent occasion....

But that's the exception, not the rule.

The Blue Line is generally pretty tame. There are occasional homeless people camping out in the train cars; there probably have been more than usual this winter, given the terrible weather we had. But even the bums on the Blue Line are generally a cut above the bums on other CTA lines. A couple of weeks ago, for example, I had to change to a Red Line train to get somewhere, probably a doctor's appointment. I notice that the car that stopped right in front om me seemed rather empty and I had just begun to congratulate myself on my good fortune when I stepped into the train and into a cloud of the most terrible stench I can recall ever smelling. There were three or four recumbent forms in the car, at various locations throughout. I couldn't tell which was the prime offender. There were a few ordinary commuters, like myself, sitting in the car, stony-faced, glassy-eyed, breathing as little as possible. I made it one stop before I bailed out, gulping lung-fulls of subway platform air as if I were suddenly transported to a springtime orchard in full bloom.

So, yes, some of our bums on the Blue Line may be a tad pungent, but never, ever anything to match that.

There was a sleeping bum on the train when I got on the other morning. I took my seat across the aisle and busied myself in the morning Sun-Times. The train filled up in the usual course. As is ordinarily the case, even when the train car was full and people began standing in the aisles, no one had sat next to the sleeping man.

Here's a tip for you travelers out there: If you want to get your own seat on the train, don't bathe or shave for at least a week. Make sure your clothes are filthy and that you are carrying a plastic bag or something similar that all and sundry will assume is the sum total of all your possessions on this earth. Make the occasional random noise, preferably in a low sing-song voice, and you should be able to keep a seat entirely to yourself all through the rush hour, no matter how crowded the train may get otherwise.

The operative word in the preceding sentence, however, is "should."

The other morning, a younger man, with tattoos covering all his visible skin (his face excepted), with long, greasy black hair and wearing an orange T-shirt, boarded the train and decided that he would sit next to our sleeping bum. The newcomer took the bum's plastic bag off the seat next to the seemingly sleeping bum and put it on the floor.

That woke the bum up.

He did not wake up in a cheerful mood. Indeed, he took offense that this younger man had moved his bag and he said so. Loudly.

The bum was older than the newcomer, but I wouldn't want to guess whether he was 30 or 40 or 50. Nobody looks their best when they've been drinking for a long time, and my guess would be that he'd been drinking as often as possible for a loooooong time. Still, he was bigger than the newcomer and, by waking up like that, he did have the element of surprise working for him.

The younger man was not fazed by the sudden revival of the bum. In fact, it soon became clear that he would not likely be fazed by much short of a shotgun blast, and only then at close range. I would be guessing were I to suggest what drugs he was taking, but his drug of choice was not alcohol; of that much I can be certain.

He therefore responded to the challenge from the bum in a belligerent manner, unapologetic about moving the bag. A lively debate thereafter ensued. An increasingly loud and lively debate.

I looked up from my newspaper and watched my fellow passengers carefully sneak peeks at the two disputants. They were calculating, as I was, just how likely this argument was to end badly. I would dare say that most people, even most persons impaired by drink or drugs, would have responded to the bum's challenge by mumbling an insincere apology and getting the hell out of there. But not our tattooed gentleman. Retreat was not in his vocabulary.

As the dispute escalated ("You got no right to move a man's stuff!" "You got no right to leave your stuff on the seat so people can't sit down!" I don't want you sitting down by me!), I found I could no longer pretend to read the newspaper. My fellow passengers had put away their screens as well. One young woman, deciding it might be more prudent to go stand over at the other end of the car, offered Mr. Tattoo her seat on her way out. A lot of the passengers immediately adjacent to these two began to move out of their seats. I followed. I didn't know whether either of these two had a weapon of some sort. I did know that I did not want to be collateral damage.

The train moved from the elevated Milwaukee tracks into the subway, approaching the Division Street station. The doors opened; the disputants stood up.


I don't know who swung first. I do know that almost all the passengers surged out the doors at this point, onto the platform. I was looking for the button to alert the motorman; there's one by one set of doors in every car, but it must have been the one closer to them than it was to safety. I wasn't going there. I got off the train with everybody else. Almost everybody else. The two combatants now had more room to flail at one another.

I found a button on a column on the station platform that is supposed to summon a station agent at the same time a young lady did.

And then I realized that not everyone had left the train besides the two guys fighting.

There's a Cook County Deputy Sheriff that gets on the train at my stop; I've seen him around for years. He's assigned to the Daley Center. Going on 10 years ago now, he used to be the courtroom deputy in a room that I was in every week without fail. Naturally, we've struck up a nodding acquaintance. I've never learned his name; he doesn't know mine either. I say, "Hey, how ya doin'?" and he says, "Hey, counsel."

He's not a young guy, and he's not tall or particularly muscular. If anything, he's a little pear-shaped. There is, or has been, a deputy on the 22nd floor at the Daley Center who has as many tattoos as the guy on the train, and this particular deputy has massive muscles. He's also a little mean, I think. (Steroids? Who knows?) When he shushes you in the hallway, you get the distinct impression he'd prefer that you didn't shush as requested so he could wail on you. Maybe even use his service revolver on you. Either as a club or according to manufacturer's directions depending on how much lip you wanted to give. But scary muscular deputy wasn't there. Deputy Howyadoin was. I don't want to guess how old he is. I'd say he's my age, but I'm terrible at guessing ages. Anyone from 40 to 70 seems to be my age these days. I'm pretty sure he's not 70, or even 60. But he's no kid.

Still, he was trained to intervene and he did. He waded in between the two of them, grabbing Tattoo Man from behind and pushing him away from the bum, all the while telling the bum to back off.

I'm still on the platform at this point. I know this because I remember seeing the CTA station agent running up, a slender young man armed only with a walkie-talkie, stopping right next to me. Oh, good, I thought, that'll be a big help. He was talking into the radio. "...two men fighting... African-American and Hispanic males... there's a Cook County Deputy Sheriff trying to break it up...."

I marveled a little at that. Chicago police and Cook County Sheriff's deputies may travel in uniform, but they generally wear baseball jerseys over them. So, unless you already know, you really can't tell. The young man on the walkie-talkie was more perceptive than I at first thought. Still, I wished he was two or three rather burly cops, in uniform, with billy clubs. But, alas.

Deputy Howyadoin seemed to be having some success in getting the two separated. He got Tattoo Man to sit down, a couple of rows away. The bum, meanwhile, was still on his feet, rockin' and ready for more, and making no secret of his desire in this regard. A couple of younger African-American men tried -- very gingerly -- to walk the bum back from the situation, but it didn't look or feel resolved.

I got back on the train. I had no idea of what I was going to do, or how. It's just -- well, I know this guy, sort of, and if things reignited, I felt I should try to do something.

It happened quickly. Tattoo Man was back on his feet facing the bum, barking at him. The bum had never left his feet and he was barking right back. The deputy was trying to move Tattoo Man back again; the Good Samaritans were trying to move back the bum.

Now, again, the way it works in all the best movies is that the two combatants, or one of them at least, lets himself get pushed away, barking all the while so it doesn't look like he's backing down, but allowing himself to be maneuvered to a safe distance. Bob Hope used to do this to great comic effect. But that wasn't happening here. Both guys were being pushed, but both were resisting. And, just like that --


The bum got off a good one almost right away, pushing Tattoo Man into a window -- and breaking it (it's safety glass, so it did not shatter but merely spidered, but still, these guys were not playing) and I was still ineffectually trying to figure out what I could or should do that might help and -- suddenly -- it was all over.

The bum took off.

Maybe honor had somehow been satisfied when he nearly pushed the punk Tattoo Man through the window. Maybe the bum thought that, now that there was significant property damage, he did not want to face the police. Maybe he'd been doing a silent countdown in his head right along, calculating the time he had before the police might arrive. Whatever, he suddenly departed for greener pastures. Deputy Howyadoin got Tattoo Man (who to all appearances was entirely uninjured despite the collision with the window) to sit down again. The passengers got back on the train and we resumed our trip to the Loop.

Now it was Tattoo Man who had a seat to himself. And the seat in front of him and behind him, too. No one wanted to set him off again.

Tattoo Man decided to get off at Clark and Lake. I thought he might barrel through the people in front of him when the doors opened. I think they thought so too; they moved with some alacrity just as soon as the doors parted.

Deputy Howyadoin and I got off at Washington, at the Daley Center. I made it a point to engage him a little in conversation as we trudged with the rest of the commuting hoard down the platform. "Heck of a morning," I offered lamely. "Not the best way to start the day," he acknowledged. "Thank you," I said. I probably said some other stuff, too, and so did he. But "thank you" was the important bit, I think.

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