August 26th, 2013
Chicago is a unique place. The phrase “an all American” city spouted out of the loudspeaker in the orange line coming from the airport and I wondered how Chicago could claim to be any more all-american than some of our other big cities. New York for example, comes to mind. As does another list of American cities. Chicago is just as diverse as the rest of those, and yet I feel the honest, caring, drive that is instilled in your average “All-American” person, remains a founding virtue here.
Bus patrons take it upon themselves to speak up to the bus driver to hold the bus for a man running alongside to catch up, about to miss the bus. People stand up, and give up their seats to elderly people in public transportation. I saw one man run up and stop the bus for an elderly woman and her grandson, while he himself did not get on the bus and walked the other direction. The bus driver also stopped for people running, nearly missing the bus, as if he were aware of his sacred position as a Chicago bus driver with the ability to make or break a person’s day. Upon my asking many various people for directions from the Airport, throughout the train and bus systems and on the street, everyone was more than happy to share directions around their favorite city and they seemed quite proud to do so, as if they were responsible for properly sharing with me, the outsider, the ways of their city.
“I like people here, they always give good directions,” said the strangest man I’ve yet to meet on the public transportation here. He caught my attention because I couldn’t place him. I couldn’t group him as just some punk kid, as a hipster, as a hippy, as a family man, as a homeless person, or as a businessman. This is a habit that happens so comfortably, so naturally. Our brains need to place people in some group, quickly labeling them as approachable or not. People wear certain things which cause parents to nestle their children closer up under their arms. This man was probably in his thirties. He had huge blue eyes, a matter-of-fact almost cocky way of talking, and an eerie, perfect-toothed smile. I’m usually all about “weird” people, people who see the world in a different way, who experience life different than the norm. My instincts were trying so hard to place him in the safe or unsafe category, and couldn’t. “No those aren’t Sunday clothes!” He said to a vibrant woman who came in holding a puffy black backpack with the word “Costumes” written across the front.
She placed the large pack in the luggage rack of the bus and sat down. He smiled at her. “That’s my Wednesday attire,” he said, nodding at the “costumes” bag. She smiled uncomfortably at him and tried to squeeze into her tight seat. Normally, in such open conversations with friendly people I chime in somewhere, talking to new people is exhilarating. Usually my instincts label dangerous potential conversations as such right off the bat. He seemed strange, yet kind. His cocky mannerisms and the slight tattoo peeking out from under his DC baseball cap on a bald head was throwing me off. It takes a particular kind of person to get a head tattoo, especially when the rest of his pale while skin was bare. He was full of anomalies. He had some off-brand of Dockers shorts held up with a nice leather belt. He was fit. He had his shirt tucked into the said nice shorts, cutting off above the knee, the shorts were also creased and well kept. His shoes were a pair of what looked almost like large basketball shoes, but TEVA’s and tan and dark brown with weird plastic circles all over them. He took his ball cap off, smiled, then took off his sunglasses and rubbed his hands all over his head, half scratching, half rubbing his scalp. It was covered in tattoos. One across the back had a tree silhouette standing above the word “ORGANIC” and on the side of his head facing me there was a cartoon looking fish skeleton, and it was smiling.
“Yeah, shit doesn’t mess around, right?” said the strange man to the man directly in front of him on the bus, who had given him directions. The man had glanced up at the man’s tattoos on his head. This man, looked like a teacher, or a husband, or an all around good guy, but built. He wasn’t the sort of guy you’d mess with. “It LOOKS gangster, right? He said again, with a strong emphasis on the word looks and the man nodded.
“Yeah see, this is my gangster side, when I wanna pretend I’m all badass. But its all organic shit. Theres an Indian tribal head on one side, it’s all organic,” he said.
“Did it hurt?” asked the man.
“Nah, not really. But it LOOKS like it did, right?” said the guy again, nodding his head like a car salesman, encouraging agreement to his statement. It was as if his whole point for getting these tattoos was to further the stereotype of making a statement, or to encourage false assumptions about himself based on his looks. He seemed harmless enough. As his stop neared, and the man across from him reminded him that his stop would be next, he stood up squarely and wrapped a hemp looking, handmade shoulder bag around his neck. It was full of oranges and reds, greens and blues, something that would come out of a free-trade store, with hemp shoulder straps. As he strode off the bus he told the bus driver, “and thank you so much young lady” with a smile. I never said a word, and more than once he thought about talking to me, but didn’t.
Another evening as we were heading back on the semi-late night train, I sat next to a stylish young man in tan, slim fit pants and classic leather shoes. I couldn’t resist the urge to tell him how wonderful his shoes were, and he smiled a big dorky grin when I said so. “Thanks! I just got them last week.” He was flattered that I had just noticed his new shoes.
Today I had the chance to ask someone which direction Wrigley Field was, being in the neighborhood of it but still unable to see it. Again, the man smiled with pride and showed me where it was. Granted, being Chicago I have seen my fair share of people I wouldn’t want anything to do with. Their demeanor and attitude told me right away that I probably don’t even want to look them in the eyes. But they all move on, they have better things to worry about.
There were men making out at the train stop for Wrigley Field. At that same bus line from that stop a girl with the sides of her head shaved and wearing all black hopped onto the bus. Her tight black leggings tucked down into black, raised combat boots and she wore a raccoon tail tied onto her over the shoulder bag. People from all walks of life share these buses, and don’t hesitate to sit next to each other, to chat with the people around them, to ask questions. Chicago wins the award for friendliest big city with most helpful and navigate-able public transportation. They even have people who work for the transport system in the stops to help you insert the cards properly, or help with directions, and happily doing so! People in Chicago smile at you! Walking around near the John Hancock tower, some nice man in a suit saw me looking at him and smiled at me, a hearty smile too! Perhaps for all of these reasons, along with the prominent sports and music history of Chicago, is it considered the most American of cities.