Around 25 people huddled under the overhang of the Blue Line station at Kimball and Belmont on a rainy, sticky Saturday afternoon, waiting for the 77 bus. A short white woman loaded down with plastic shopping bags shoved her way into the crowd and asked two Hispanic men how long they'd been waiting.
"Only 5 minutes," one of them said.
"It'll be another 20 then," she said.
He snorted and translated the exchange into Spanish for his friend. They laughed, then went back to staring at the street.
An elderly woman rocked back and forth on her cane, mumbling. The bus arrived 15 minutes later, tailed closely by another 77.
Last summer a group of community activists got tired of hearing such stories, got tired of reading polls like the one in the June 20 Sun-Times, which showed that 93 percent of Chicagoans who responded were dissatisfied with the Chicago Transit Authority's performance. So they formed the Campaign for Better Transit and began logging how regularly buses ran and polling riders in different neighborhoods. They even set up a Web site (bettertransit.com), and two weeks ago they held the first annual Transit Riders' Congress at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Circle Center, hoping to get riders excited about protesting and possibly changing the CTA.
Piles of cheap pastries and vats of coffee awaited the approximately 150 people who straggled in between 8:30 and 9 AM. As if they were still at the bus stop, they started commiserating with strangers the minute they walked in the door. Some apologized to the people working the registration table, joking that the CTA had made them late. (I'd been held up for a good 15 minutes because the Red Line train stalled.) They were of all generations, ethnicities, and levels of dishevelment, which attracted stares from the scrubbed university candidates who were being shown around the campus.
The Reverend Calvin Morris, a charismatic United Methodist minister, loomed over the auditorium's podium to begin the congress with a nondenominational prayer. "We give you thanks for giving us meaning and purpose in life," he boomed. "You have created us for the good in life."
Then he moved on to Mayor Daley, and people began to nod their heads and shout "Yeah!" "This is a mayor who says he is making this a world-class city," he said. "But if we're going to have a world-class city we need to have a world-class transit system. And we're not there yet!"
The crowd began to cheer. A chubby blond woman seated near the back, who'd emitted a little whoop at Morris's every other word, got to her feet and clapped.
Morris said Chicago's transit system responds primarily to the needs of "the rich and the wellborn. I don't have anything against the rich and the wellborn, but that which is available to them ought to be available to all of us!"
The entire crowd gave him a standing ovation.
"Fight!" he shouted. "Be ugly!"
A couple more speeches followed, and then people moved into one of three facilitated workshops, where they were supposed to make suggestions on how to improve the CTA. They were encouraged to think "unity" and "positivity."
Vanessa Beasley ran the workshop on "neighborhood organization." She told the group that no matter how angry they were with the system, they should try to come up with positive ideas about how the problems could be solved. But she started by encouraging the participants to stand up and yell out their grievances about service in their area. "Represent! Represent!" she said, waving her arms and nodding as she jotted their complaints in a notebook. One man said his biggest beef with the CTA was that it underserved people of color. Beasley cut him off. "The north side, where all these rich white people are," she said, "they are as pissed as we are!"
Many other attendees couldn't stop griping either. Charley Yale, a blocky Rogers Park resident in an Amalgamated Transit Union cap, said he goes to every CTA board meeting to complain, to no avail. "They're evil savages," he said. "They got the power. They are the most evil people you've ever seen in your life." He added that he believes it's his duty to keep an eye on the board for the good of the community. "My wife thinks I'm crazy."
"I've been taking the bus since I was a shorty," said a large woman sporting a floppy fishing hat, "and the bus service has deteriorated every year. Bus drivers don't know how to get from point A to point B!"
A bearded man with a puff of gray hair went from one workshop to the next repeating his claim that the CTA's downtown service during rush hour eats up more than its fair share of sales taxes. "Once rush hour is paid for, the off-hours are a free ride," he insisted. "If downtown wants a rush hour, they can pay for it themselves!" The participants in the policy-reform workshop--mostly gearheads quietly fantasizing about natural gas-powered buses--were already annoyed by the high-decibel complaints of Beasley's group, and they just nodded at the guy and went back to their conversation.
William Dorsey, a bus driver and executive board director for Amalgamated Transit Union local 241, was handing out big yellow "RIDER-DRIVER UNITY" buttons. People kept complaining about drivers, but he said that what people perceive as random malice on the part of drivers is in fact the result of CTA management policies. Riders, he complained, "take it out on the driver rather than on the people who decide things--like why one bus line runs 7 minutes apart and another runs 20 minutes apart. If you take it upon yourself to try to do something to make things better you'll be written up for it." He said the bus unions have been encouraging riders to side with drivers for about 20 years. "We're all working people. We need each other. We have our differences, but we need to work them out and try to go after the real problem--the CTA management and Mayor Daley." Later he snapped photos of the participants, saying he wanted to show other drivers how much support there was for transit improvement.
Not all of the complaints were about bus or train service. When David Smathers, who sits on the board of the Rogers Park Community Action Network and helped organize the event, heard that someone had seen a poster for the congress on a Red Line train he raised an eyebrow. "That's interesting," he said, "because it was supposed to run on the Blue Line and then on the Brown Line. There was this whole fiasco where it didn't show up for several weeks when it was supposed to. It was supposed to show up on the fourth but didn't till a couple weeks later." He didn't look particularly surprised.