"You wouldn't happen to have," I asked the matron sitting next to me on the rush-hour el, "a 32-inch shoelace?"
It was the latest offensive in my campaign to get people on the el to talk to me. To communicate. To relate.
It didn't work. She became very interested in the scenery outside her window, which was a speeding wall of rundown brick tenements. The people in those tenements, I thought, must be jiggling like Jello in a refrigerator.
"Pretty bricks," I said, trying to maintain a conversation. I had asked her about shoelaces because I figured I needed something to catch her interest. I figured I'd have to break the routine.
But routine and custom are deeply embedded in those who ride CTA.
Custom dictates, for example, that you can't sit next to someone if there is an empty seat in the car. If you sit down next to someone when you could have taken an empty seat, that someone will wonder why. It will make him uneasy.So, to be on the safe side, he won't talk to you. He has a wife at home who is completely dependent on him, and you never know what might happen to you on the el if you start talking to someone you don't know, especially if he sat down next to you when he could have taken an empty seat.
The whole thing is complicated by the fact that CTA has absolutely no suggestions on how to make friends on the el, no information on how to initiate even the simplest acts of social intercourse. The CTA, I've concluded, does not care whether or not you have a good time on their trains.
Next time, I decided, I'd have to find some common ground to base a conversation on.
"Sure is crowded," I said to the man I was squished up against. Even more people were squeezing through the doors.
"Yeah?" he said, once he realized I was talking to him.
"Sure is hot in here, too."
"These trains area always getting stuck," I said. The train was stopped between two stations.
"Yeah," he said. The train started up with one of those quick jolts.
"It sure is noisy," I said. We were screeching around a bend.
I yelled, "Don't you get tired of CTA?"
He looked at his watch. "Eight-fifteen," he said.
The mundane "ain't it awful" approach didn't seem to work. It was then that I realized that I would have to be original, that I would have to startle my fellow el-er's curiosity. For a while I tried one-liners that I hoped would break the ice.
"Hey look! There's a huge gorilla climbing the Hancock building!"
"Hey, did you hear? There's a bomb on the train!"
"Want to hear a good joke? Know what the elephant said to the cocktail waitress?"
"Good God, I thought I just saw Bilan—I did! Right under neath that guy by the door there! I didn't know the Mayor took the el! Hey Mike, c'mere, I got a friend I want you to meet!"
Then I thought I'd have to be a little more subtle.
He wore polished wingtips and a conservative suit. His Wall Street Journal protected him from the reality of his fellow el-riders. Actually, his demeanor said, I am riding on the Chicago and North Western. I got on at Highland Park.
My opening gambit: "I find the Wall Street Journal to be a very interesting paper."
No response. He's got two kids home in Skokie who will need his support when they enter college.
"I read it every day, myself." Still nothing. I'm going to have to make a special effort with this guy.
"I find it helps me very much in my work." (Pause).
"In fact, the week after I first subscribed sales went up 17-1/2 percent."
That got him. To hell with his kids. They never open their books anyway. He lowered his paper, signifying that I was important enough to join him on the Chicago and North Western. He but a cigar in his mouth' on the C&NW you can smoke. He didn't light it. On the el you can't.
"What line of business are you in?" he asked confidentially. I turned to look out the window if I hadn't said a word to him.
He had to find out how I increased sales 17-1/2 percent. "Excuse me," he said, embarrassed to break custom, "but what line of business did you say you were in?"
I'm an oxymoron."
"Oh," he nodded appreciatively. "For who?"
"I used to work for AC&P and later for KLB and for a long time for POK Inc., but they're not organized at all, I wouldn't try for them, if I were you."
"Thanks for the advice."
I struggled for something to say. "I run my own firm now. That's the way to do it," I added confidentially. "Only the boss can wear blue jeans to work."
"Yeah. I mean, yes." He looked dismally at his suit.
"We produce dental floss."
"I don't know how you're fixed for liquids," I said, "but if I were you I'd put everything in floss. It's the coming thing."
"What company do you own?"
That question completely derailed his Chicago and North Western—he didn't own his bungalow in Skokie, much less a company. I felt sorry when he got flustered and had to leave at the next stop, and I decided that I'd shy away from business topics as a way to meet people on the el.
She was about 55 and heavily laden with make-up. She was reading True Confessions and I sat down next to her.
"Is it in there?" I asked. She ignored me. She's got two daughters who, although completely grown and married, still depend on her for motherly advice.
"I heard it ruined her career." She took a cautious, sidelong glance at me.
"Her husband wants a divorce, it's such a scandal." She's drooling now. Her daughters, who never call her anyway, can go to hell.
"Who?" she begged. I looked out the window. Wild-eyed, she poked me in the ribs. "Who?"
"Farrah! What happened to Farrah?"
"Didn't you hear?" She shook her head in breathless excitement. I tried to think up a good one. "Farrah," I said, "is loosing her hair.
"Oh," she moaned, disappointed. "That was in last week's National Enquirer." And she resumed staring out the window.
My last attempt at making a friend on the el sort of backfired, and I'm no so sure I want to try again. The fellow took the aisle seat and popped a large lunch bag onto his lap.
"Nice scenery," I said.
"Hem-uh." He was trying to talk and eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at the same time.
"I prefer it to the subway. I guess I just like the view."
He unwrapped a Mounds bar.
"I can see a McDonald's from here," I said.
"A McDonald's? he exclaimed, "I love their Big Macs."
"So do I."
"And their quarter pounders and French fries."
"And their milkshakes?"
"Love their milkshakes. And their fishburgers."
"Say," I said. "You're the first person I've ever met on the el."
"Great! Want to be friends?" He was about to throw his arms around me when all of a sudden a though hit me—why does this guy really want to talk to me?
he rambled on about cheeseburgers and hot apple pies and I realized that he sat down next to me when there had still been empty seats available. I felt uneasy.
"Sunday morning," he continued, "you can get bacon and eggs or pancakes, and orange juice."
Now, although I do not have a family, I do have friends who often call me in time of need.
"Listen pal," he said. "How about getting a bite to eat?"
I couldn't take a chance. I cooly declined his offer and then I looked out the window until he got off.