Monday, July 16, 2012

Down In The Tube Station At Midnight (No, The CTA, Actually...)

The distant echo -
Of faraway voices boarding faraway trains
To take them home to
The ones that they love and who love them forever
The glazed, dirty steps - repeat my own and reflect my thoughts
Cold and uninviting, partially naked
Except for toffee wrapers and this morning's papers

--The Jam, "Down In The Tube Station At Midnight"

On June 24, the Chicago Tribune kicked off a series about crime on the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). As you might guess, the results show a mixed picture: overall, CTA-related batteries, robberies and thefts declined the first 5 1/2 months of this year by 22. 31 and 14 percent, respectively, versus the same period in 2011. Police noted that the number of CTA-related crimes remains small (5,800), in the scheme of things (522 million rides). That's one picture.

Here's another snapshot: from 2009-11, police logged 10,759 complaints of crime on CTA trains and platforms, and 5,347 complaints at CTA buses or bus stops. Thefts remain the leading crimes on buses and trains, which rose by 42 percent during this two-year period, the Tribune reported. Police logged 2,000 such complaints last year.

Robberies increased by 69 percent, from 500 (2009) to more than 800 last year, and batteries also rose by 15 percent at bus stops, and 1 percent on trains. The newspaper based its findings on months of examining CTA ridership records and the city's crime database, which doesn't break out such incidents separately.

The Tribune analysis showed riders at greatest risk from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., with 2 a.m. being the peak hour of danger -- because it coincides with a time when the fewest officers are on patrol. No surprises there, right?

Behind me
Whispers in the shadows - gruff blazing voices
Hating, waiting
"Hey boy" they shout - "have you got any money?"
And I said - "I've a little money and a take away curry,
I'm on my way home to my wife.
She'll be lining up the cutlery,
You know she's expecting me
Polishing the glasses and pulling out the cork"
And I'm down in the tube station at midnight

My only encounter with CTA-related crime occurred about 15 years ago.

Friday night passed like any other: I went to a friend's flat, off North Winthrop, to jam out some song ideas with him, play his electric guitar -- I didn't own one at the time, just a kid's acoustic guitar that I'd rescued from my basement -- and shoot the shit, which we did in gleeful abundance.

I was living off my freelance writing, so I didn't have to worry about a schedule, or trying to please some asshole boss; that would come later. I had all day (and all of the night) to do whatever I pleased, which was fine by me.

Around 2 a.m., we called it a night, and I hurried to the platform, which ran (more or less) behind my friend's apartment complex. I didn't have too many profound thoughts, other than how much later I might stay up, once I finally made it home.

The minute I entered the car, I smelled trouble.

(Above photo, from The Reckoner Archives: a tut-tutting from London Underground Limited, urging people not to give money to buskers...which nobody seemed to obey, as I recall!)

I first felt a fist, and then a kick
I could now smell their breath
They smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs
And too many right wing meetings
My life swam around me
It took a look and drowned me in its own existence
The smell of brown leather
It blended in with the weather

Don't ask why my brain started pinging like crazy: run like hell, man, this guy sitting across from you is bad news! If you live any length of time in an urban area, you get to the point where you develop a sixth sense for trouble. That's my only explanation.

In these situations, you'd normally sit down, try not to make eye contact with anyone, and grab something to read, listen to your favorite tunes on a Walkman, do anything -- in some way, shape or form -- that suggested you'd much rather mind your own business.

However, my attempts to read a magazine met resistance: the guy kept staring in my direction, flashing an unreasoning, take-no-prisoners look. After some forced attempts at small talk, he said: "You don't feel safe with me, do you?"

My brain started pinging again, just a little bit louder.

The last thing that I saw
As I lay there on the floor
Was "Jesus Saves" painted by an atheist nutter
And a British Rail poster read "Have an Awayday - a cheap holiday -
Do it today!"

My destination (Howard Street) was fast approaching: just three or four more stops, and I'd be rid of this guy...or so I imagined.

Now came the crooked pitch. "Give me your money," he said harshly, "or if you don't...I'll have to ask them."

He jerked his head toward the nearby car, to suggest that the enforcers -- the muscle -- were waiting nearby on the outcome. I sneaked a glance that way, but couldn't really tell if anybody was lurking around.

After the longest minutes of my life, we finally reached Howard Street station, as my predatory companion even swiped at my bag ("Here, let me take that for you"), only to have me foil him by jerking it away at the last second. His expression hardened further.

As soon as the train stopped, I jumped, swinging from the metal pole that held my seat in place, practically shoving the doors apart as they slid open, and ran, ran, ran like hell before my inquisitor could get up to follow.

I still heard his voice, loud and clear: "YOU'RE A DEAD MAN! YOU'RE A DEAD MAN! NOW YOU'RE DEAD!"

I just flew down the stairs, my elbows extended at 45-degree angles. I became made a human battering ram as I pushed people aside, nearly knocking someone over here and there, skipping those never-ending stairs three and four steps at a time, like we did in grade school...anything to gain those precious few seconds of head start that I'd need.

Once I'd cleared those stairs, I dashed across the station lot, more or less empty of life -- this being 2:30 a.m.-plus, on the North Side -- then huffed and puffed to freedom, on Touhy Avenue.

When I'd caught my breath, I finally dared to turn around and look, but nobody was behind me.

That made sense: why waste time chasing me, when my tormentor could ride the CTA till hell froze over, looking for his next catch of the night?

I glanced back on my life
And thought about my wife
'cause they took the keys and she'll think it's me

I finally stumbled home, which lay three blocks away, this time trotting at a jogger's pace...just in case somebody else entertained any similar ideas.

I felt good about how I'd reacted, though; my pants pocket contained $100, everything that we had in the world...that would somehow have to last until my next writing check arrived.

I never reported the incident, which isn't unusual, according to the Tribune article: CTA-related crime arrests have fallen from 53 percent (2001), to more than 40 percent (2009), 38 percent (2010), and 35 percent (2011).

Police made arrests on just 29 percent of all battery complaints last year; 15 percent of thefts; and 4 percent of robberies. In fairness, police noted that those figures don't reflect arrests they could have made later.

According to the cops, the motivation for many incidents is straightforward: robbers want the cellphones, iPhones, iPads and other cyber-spoils of our increasingly hard-wired civilization, which they can hock for easy cash.

Many of these gadgets were just a gleam in somebody's eye during my Chicago heyday, but such niceties would have been lost on my potential assailant: in a society with income gaps not seen since the 1920s, where being "on the make" far outpaces the other ideals that we claim to espouse, we should hardly feel surprised when some CTA train bandit takes that famed phrase ("life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness")just a wee bit too literally for comfort.

(Above, from The Reckoner Archive: A street preacher works the crowd outside Camden Town tube station.)

And I'm down in the tube station at midnight
The wine will be flat and the curry's gone cold
I'm down in the tube station at midnight
Don't want to go down in a tube station at midnight

I rode a CTA train just once more, during a bitterly cold January, to a job interview with an Evanston newspaper that didn't pan out.

During our last couple years in Chicago, my wife and I resigned ourselves to shelling out money for cab fares. We felt more in control of our situation, and we enjoyed being around the drivers, who always seemed to know how to tell a good story.

My favorite drivers tended to be the older black guys in their 40s, 50s and above -- "because they've seen it all," as my wife agreed.

About a month after the incident, I recounted all the grisly details for one such driver, working up an almighty rant as I did so: "Why do I feel like everybody's trying to kill me around here? What the hell's going on with this place, anyway?"

The driver smiled, glided to a stop at the light, and turned around to inform me: "Oh, man, don't feel too did the right thing."

Even now, I can't help but laugh when I remember that line. --The Reckoner

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