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Fare Hearing

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The reverend is wearing a gas mask. He holds his protest sign high for the cameras. He wants to be seen on television.

He's a self-ordained minister. We also have here a self-proclaimed prince and a God-anointed presidential candidate and defender of American democracy. They've come to have their say! They don't want to have to pay an extra dime!

Is it a full moon? No, even worse. It's a public hearing on the CTA's "proposed" fare hike.

The bearded CTA official who will preside over the hearing introduces himself as superintendent of something or other. He introduces the black man beside him, who is an assistant deputy superintendent of something or other. He's flanked by a man in a wheelchair and a woman in a sensible wool business suit--a display of the melting pot that is the CTA hierarchy.

The bearded man looks nervous, as if he'd suddenly awakened and found himself on a CTA bus surrounded by the Felliniesque mob that now faces him. There's nothing between him and them. No police or anything. There's no cord to pull to get off at the next stop. Perhaps he fears this will be the greatest test yet of his professional stoicism.

He welcomes us and explains that this is a fare "adjustment" hearing. He pauses, perhaps hoping the crowd had mistaken this for a Golden Nugget or one of their other hangouts. No one leaves. He swallows hard and continues. "The purpose of this hearing is to get your comments."

He explains the ground rules and yields the floor to his female colleague. She has a chart comparing CTA fare hikes with the rate of inflation. Guess what. Inflation outpaces fare hikes!

The reverend is first. He wears a faded T-shirt and jeans. He was at last night's hearing and made the late news saying, "The CTA stinks!" He's expanding on that theme today. He holds up his sign. "I think this sums it up." It says: THE CTA STINKS.

Since the CTA spends so lavishly on itself that administrative costs are going up, up, up, he says, "A good slogan for today would be 'Up, up, and away with the CTA!'"

He's a street minister, he says, here on behalf of the poor and disabled and all the people of the streets. "Let's not say up, up, and away with the CTA. Let's say 'We're not gonna take it!'" He lifts his mask, spells his name clearly for the camera, and sits down.

He gets a good hand. Next up is an old black man with white hair. He announces he's running for president because God told him to. "I don't cause no trouble," he says, "but I'm here because I'm a protester." He's a protester because "we gotta save America. God has picked one man to save America and that man is me." He holds up an old campaign sign. It says: God has picked this man to run for president. He has only one vote. His own. But that's all he needs.

"I gotta save America. And if this fare increase goes down, America goes down the next day."

He, too, gets a good hand as the bearded man scans his list for the next speaker. "Mr. Said."

"It's pronounced Sy-eed!"

"I'm sorry. Mr. Sy-eed."

"Prince Sy-eed! I'm a prince, sir!" says a black man with a stern expression and hair like a doo-wop singer.

Prince Said has been watching too many Perry Mason reruns. "I have in my hand a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times, dated November 5, 1987. I'll mark it exhibit A." He quotes from an article and from a subsection of a law he says proves this hearing violates the Open Meetings Act. He quotes from another document to show the fare hike is not "Proposed" but already written in stone. He marks them exhibits B and C and presents them to the bearded man, who stiffens slightly in his chair as Prince Said approaches.

"Let the record reflect," Prince Said says to the court reporter, "that I am presenting this gentleman with the aforementioned exhibits."

Prince Said has gone way past his time limit. An impatient, hefty blond woman tells him to get on with it. She's anxious for her chance to testify that the CTA is "Planned by dummies and run by dummies." I expect Prince Said to order her beheaded, but he presses on. "In light of the evidence I have presented you, sir, do you persist in calling this a 'proposed' fare increase?"

"I do."

"With all due respect to your intelligence, don't insult mine." Prince Said vows to return to all the hearings until he gets satisfaction.

The crowd cheers.

The bearded man retains his impartial demeanor. But he can't hide the alarmed expression in his eyes: they're saying, "This is precisely why I never ride the CTA."

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