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Strangers in the Night

Voyage of the Ravenswood Emergency Shuttle Bus

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"May I have your attention please," the loudspeaker said after we'd been sitting on the motionless Ravenswood train at Belmont for a number of minutes. "Because trains are not moving, there will be a Ravenswood shuttle bus making regular Ravenswood stops to the end of the line."

Amid groans, people began slowly and grumpily leaving the train--and the one ahead of us--and moved in a body down the stairs. Some were asking the conductors what was wrong. "We're not getting a signal from downtown," said one. We didn't know if that meant juice or a go-ahead. "This train is out of service," the loudspeaker went on, half ignored. "Go downstairs, and the buses will be coming for you shortly." The instructions were a little vague.

Downstairs some people exited through the Exit turnstiles and disappeared into the street. Others flowed through the No Entry doors into the ticket-agent area, where a number of people were already in disconnected conversations with the ticket guy. The ticket guy was, as often happens, not up on what was going on upstairs. "So go out there and catch a bus," he was saying. "The Belmont bus stops across the street."

"What about the Ravenswood shuttle bus?" I asked.

"There is no more Ravenswood running tonight."

"Upstairs they said there'd be a bus."

"Look, where are you trying to get to?" Ticket guys always say that.

"Damen," one guy said. Meaning the stop at Damen Avenue just north of Wilson.

"So catch the Belmont bus to Damen." Meaning the street.

He handed out transfers--punched NSM, not E for emergency, which you usually get when something breaks down--and we straggled out into the drizzly November night to wait for the Belmont bus, or whatever.

It was nippy out there. Hamburger smells were from Muskies. The Belmont bus doesn't run that often after 10 o'clock, I thought. But some of the people standing there had little experience with this. One saw a yellow Robinson school bus and said, "There's the shuttle." Another wanted to walk home. "Where do you live?" I asked.

"By Addison."

"What's the cross street?"

"Cornelia."

Right. "I mean, the big cross street."

"I don't know."

After a lot of conversations like this a bus loomed up in the east. Oddly, its destination sign was dim--like underlining on an old PC screen--so we couldn't tell what it said till it was at the corner. As it opened its doors, another bus pulled up behind; its destination sign was blank, all white.

Not sure what to do, most of us boarded the first bus, now identified as a No. 77 Belmont. "Is that the Ravenswood shuttle behind you?" I asked, foolishly.

"This is a regular Belmont bus." The driver was scraggly looking and irritable.

"I mean, what about the bus behind you?"

"I don't know nothing about the bus behind me. Are you coming or getting off?"

We sat down. Just then a breathless man in a sweater and open trenchcoat ran up to the door and yelled to the driver, "That guy is on that bus, and he's coming." People shifted uneasily. Shortly after that another man in a trenchcoat appeared, this one with a walkie-talkie. He must've said something, because the scraggly driver told him belligerently, "This is my last run."

"Ravenswood shuttle?" we asked the walkie-talkie guy.

"Behind us. It's about to leave."

We hurried. Seated on the shuttle, we watched the two trenchcoat guys reappear.

Here too there was some confusion. A third figure, in CTA blues and also with a walkie-talkie--a supervisor, probably--was speaking with the driver. "I want you to make Howard-line stops," he said. Maybe it wasn't running either. At this, a handful of people already seated groaned and de-bused. The Ravenswood plan was quickly reinstated before the rest of us could follow. The trenchcoats got off. We never found out if one of them was "that guy."

Now the supervisor was trying to tell the driver what to do. She'd been hurriedly scraped up somewhere for the special run. Both of them were clearly from the bus side of things and had only a murky notion of where the Ravenswood stops were.

"OK, uh, just go up here to Lincoln," the supervisor ventured, writing "Lincoln" on the back of a grimy manila envelope. "Then, uh ..."

"Why can't he just follow the regular route?" people grumbled. "Because it doesn't run over streets," I explained, feeling unpopular. I was sitting up front.

Presently the supervisor left, having jotted some more notes--but nothing like a route--on the envelope. He took the envelope with him.

There were about 20 people on the bus. "Should I find out what stops people are going to?" I asked the driver.

"No," she said.

The shuttle lurched forward, then right. People were muttering. A couple blocks farther north, the driver turned onto Clark Street. "I'm just going to head up Clark," she announced, with the air of one who's solved a problem. The mutters erupted into shouting. Images of just how wrong that was filled us. We pictured Clark Street running inexorably up into Evanston and away from our homes and dinners.

"TAKE CLARK TO IRVING PARK ROAD," we yelled to the driver. And soon, "There it is up ahead."

"Now what?" she asked as the road grew near.

"GO LEFT." She made the turn, and the el tracks appeared in the distance. We were heading west.

"Where do you want to get off?" she asked the Irving Park passenger, who had come up front.

"At the stop."

"Well, you have to tell me where that is."

"See the tracks?" we were saying, but she seemed dubious. She stopped though.

Montrose was the next stop, so we said to go north again. No, she said, "They told me just to head straight west on Irving Park." Meaning, I think, the walkie-talkie guy.

"No they didn't," I shouted.

The bus went into motion again, pointed west. With people yelling "GO NORTH" and "Turn right at the next big street," we came to an intersection: Irving, Damen, and Lincoln.

"Great! Take Damen," we yelled.

But Lincoln was like a beacon to her, a word that had been waiting since that briefing so many unpleasant minutes ago. "I'm taking Lincoln," she announced.

"NO! Not Lincoln! Take Damen! You can't take Lincoln!"

"Why not?"

"Because it doesn't go anywhere near the next two Ravenswood el stops."

Grudgingly she turned north on Damen--"Tell me where you want me to stop"--and grudgingly discharged a confused passenger at Montrose a half block from the station. Several more got off at the Damen station at Wilson. "Now what?" she said.

Meanwhile, a schism had developed among the remaining passengers: What street should we take for the rest of the stops? The Ravenswood track turns west just before the Damen stop and runs another mile and a half to the end of the line at Kimball. The tracks are about halfway between Lawrence Avenue and Wilson, which we were now heading west on.

"Go to Lawrence," said one guy.

"No, Lawrence is really out of my way," complained somebody from south of the tracks.

"Why not just take Wilson? We're on it now."

"Why not just follow the el?" said someone still unclear on the concept.

"Because it runs down a back alley and there's no bridge over the river," I said.

So it went back and forth. Each street had its backers. One dazed passenger didn't like either option; she wanted to go to the Western Avenue station, nowhere else. We couldn't get her to explain which way she planned to go from there. Maybe she lived there.

Weirdly, this prompted some peacemaker to propose a solution. Or maybe he just wanted to end up closer to Lawrence. "In a few blocks, we'll hit Lincoln," he said. "If we just turn there, it'll take us right to the station--you know how Lincoln Avenue makes that little triangular loop at Lincoln Square." She could get off where she usually did.

Everyone quickly agreed to this. It looked like the goodwill could hold for four more stops.

Lincoln arrived. Since my apartment was about as close now as it would be from any stop I said, "Why don't I jump off here?" The doors swung open and I hopped off. Standing on the corner, I pulled on my wool hat and saluted my fellow adventurers. They waved as the bus turned in front of me onto Lincoln. It was just a block to the Western station, I thought, and then a straight shot west to the end of the line. The bus rolled away.

I stood for a moment in the residential silence, looking at the quiet, wet night. It was after 11. Then, feeling like I'd done my bit, I set off for home. Two blocks to Western, then a short one to my house.

At Western I had to wait for the light.

I was standing there when I saw the bus--headed south on Western.

I waved and shouted "Wrong way!" but no one seemed to see me. The Ravenswood emergency shuttle--with its handful of passengers looking stonily out of the windows--sailed through the intersection and on down Western, across Montrose Avenue and into the night.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Schulz.

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