I ordered breakfast at Mitchell's one afternoon, and when it came it was still in the frying pan. "Here you go," the waitress said, setting the pan down in front of me as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And I actually mumbled thanks and picked up my knife and fork.
But I couldn't do it. I tried, but I just couldn't bring food to mouth. As a kid, I'd been taught not to eat straight out of the pan, and not to drink milk out of the container with the refrigerator door open. "Do you think cool air grows on trees?" adults had shouted into my innocent pink ears.
I felt like a kid again as I raised my hand for the waitress. "Look, I'm sorry," I began, and before I could say another word, she grabbed the pan by its handle.
"On a plate?"
"That would be great," I said.
"I know right where you're coming from, hon," she said, and I felt like I was in a Bob Greene column.
My breakfast was back within seconds, on a nice big plate, just like God intended. It was great: corned beef hash, eggs over, potatoes, Greek toast ... what more could anyone want? I finished every morsel and sat back content, stuffed to the gills, fat as a pig. I took a short nap and then the waitress woke me with a gentle "Coffee, hon?"
"No. Just a check. Thanks."
I left a nice tip and got up to pay the cashier.
"Would you like a kiss?" the cashier asked with a wink. I knew without a doubt this was the original Mitchell's, not one of those pale imitations. I picked a chocolate kiss from the bowl on the counter, thanked her, and walked across the street to catch the Lincoln Avenue bus.
Some of you might remember when the number 11 bus actually went somewhere--downtown, for instance. If you're old enough, you might even remember when two buses, the 10 and the 11, operated on Lincoln and took separate routes downtown.
Now the Lincoln bus goes to Mitchell's, that's how I think of it. It runs from Devon and Kedzie to North and Clark. Mitchell's and the Village Theater--the only reasons I ever stay on until this new end of the line.
The number 11 bus also makes a stop right in front of the White Hen Pantry at Lincoln and Schubert, which, as far as I'm concerned, has the best coffee in town. That's why I'd skipped coffee at Mitchell's. They may know breakfast, but White Hen knows java.
The bus went up Clark to Lincoln. At Fullerton it turned west and picked up some people waiting by the el station. It then took Sheffield back to Lincoln and stopped again in front of a CHA senior citizen high-rise.
I waited while a couple of old-timers hobbled aboard and found seats near the driver. As the bus began to move, I stood up and pulled the cord for the next stop, then went hurtling forward as the bus immediately jerked to a stop.
The little green light over the exit door came on. I was right by the door, but I didn't push it. What was he stopping here for? I looked to see what the delay was, but the street ahead was clear. I waited for the bus to move, but it didn't. I looked up front again, and the driver was looking back in his mirror. I pointed up the street. "Next stop," I said. Still the bus didn't move. "Schubert," I said. Still nothing. "Seminary," I tried. But the bus continued to sit there.
I looked out the window, thinking maybe I'd blacked out from all those delicious hash browns, but we were still in front of the old people's home. Why was he stopping here?
I noticed the other passengers had turned my way. Even the geezers were staring. Jesus, did I complain when it took them ten minutes to get up two steps?
I could feel my face turning red. Maybe I'd depleted what little testosterone I had just getting my breakfast out of that frying pan. I pushed the exit door and stepped out onto Lincoln. And the bus started to move, fishtailing in the slush. I jumped out of the way as the rear wheels hit the curb and bounced away.
I ended up on my back in a snowbank. When I looked up, there was a bus stop sign. I looked behind me and saw the old people's home. This didn't make any sense. The geezers had gotten on at that stop. I turned my head and it all became clear: There was another bus stop just down the block.
Two bus stops on the same block. New CTA my foot, I thought, as I started brushing off the snow. There was no street between the stops, just a fire hydrant and a row of brand-new parking meters. A city snowplow was sitting there with its lights on. The driver was behind the wheel, a 7-Eleven cup in one hand and a Sun-Times in the other.
This is such a typical Chicago scene they should use it on the city Christmas cards: a snowplow sitting near a doughnut shop or a convenience store waiting for snow that seldom comes. The drivers must get bored. The city should find something useful for them to do to pass the time. Maybe they could knit mittens for the meter maids, or answer nonemergency phone calls, or wash and wax Resident Only parking signs.
This driver didn't look like a mitten knitter. He looked like he'd probably be more comfortable poisoning rats. He was staring at me as if he knew right where to start, as if I were worthless, the kind of guy who spent his days lounging in snowbanks. In other words, someone without relatives in city government.
I shrugged and smiled and gave one of those I'm-a-nice-guy waves. He was probably a nice guy too, under that rat-terminating exterior. But he continued to stare. Even this minor show was probably better than reading the Sun-Times horoscopes for the ninth time that day. "At least I know good coffee," I shouted and trudged up the street to the White Hen.
As soon as I walked in, a familiar voice called out my name. I turned and spotted Mike Panicola, who runs the place with his wife, Kathy, stocking wine in aisle two.
"Hey, Mike," I said.
"I'm fine," I said. "What's up?"
"You sure? You look a little..."
"No. I'm fine," I said.
"Let me buy you a cup of coffee," he said as he led me toward the back.
"You don't have to buy," I said. But he bought anyway.
We stood around by the coffeepots talking about this and that. Mike usually has a good joke or story to tell and this day was no exception. Before long I was smiling and laughing. After a while I felt good enough to tell him about the two bus stops down the street.
Now Mike is a great city guy--one of those guys who makes you proud to call yourself a Chicagoan. But the truth is, he's lived in the suburbs his entire life. And if he's ever been on a CTA bus it was probably on its way to a Bears game. But Mike listened to my story until the deli got backed up. "Hang on a second," he said and slipped behind the counter to start making sandwiches. That's the kind of guy he is--he doesn't stand around shooting the breeze while customers wait.
I topped off my coffee, then bought a package of miniature chocolate doughnuts. I wasn't really hungry, but I had to buy something, right?
I said good-bye and walked out front and stood there sipping the coffee, swallowing the doughnuts whole. I decided I couldn't quite see Mike weaseling out of the bus the way I had. He would have flashed the driver an honest smile, walked up to the front, and explained exactly where he wanted to get off. And the driver would have nodded, smiled back, and driven up the block.
It seems to me it's the city's loss that so many great city guys like Mike are living in the burbs, while the city continues to fill up with dyed-in-the-wool suburbanites, many of whom can't wait for the day when the last of the natives finally gives up and moves away.
The next day I came back for more coffee, then walked down the street to take another look at the two bus stops. I'd brought my tape measure along for the ride, but I decided I didn't need it. The snowplow was gone. There were ten parking meters between the bus stops, and ten feet between each meter. Add another 20 feet for a fire hydrant, and that's 220 feet. In other words you could probably squeeze four CTA buses in the space between the bus stops.
I'm sure the CTA can make a lame justification for the two stops by pointing out that one is for Sheffield and the other for Kenmore. But couldn't they just put a single stop in the middle, which would be smack-dab in front of the senior citizen high-rise? Wouldn't that make more sense than making the old-timers hobble up and down the block? And that way they could get by with just one bus shelter. While most of the city is forced to hold on to bus-stop poles on windy days, this single block has two shelters. And why do the people on Kenmore need a stop anyway? Couldn't they walk the half block down to the stop at Sheffield or the half block up to the one at Seminary? Do we really need three bus stops to serve what's basically just one long city block?
You might be thinking, what's the big deal? You might even like all the stops. Maybe you get motion sickness at speeds above 15 miles per hour. Maybe you can't afford a health club and you like to walk until a bus comes along, then elevate your heart rate by jogging to the next stop to catch it.
But if the CTA didn't spend so much extra time and fuel making extra stops, leading to extra wear and tear on their fleet, they might be able to run the Lincoln bus all the way downtown, instead of just to a restaurant where they try to make you eat your food right out of the frying pan. They might even be able to run that bus after eight at night.
Could you imagine what it would cost United Airlines to have its flights stop in Rockford, Aurora, and Evergreen Park before landing at O'Hare? And if the CTA could better predict the number of stops a bus was likely to make, they might be able to keep their buses on schedule.
But the CTA has no idea. One bus might make all eight stops in a given mile, another might make one or two. With fewer bus stops overall, running times would become more uniform. And there'd be less bus bunching. The bus making all eight stops crawls along, while the bus making one or two will eventually catch up. Sometimes this bus just trails behind the one in front, refusing to pass. The CTA encourages this kind of behavior by punishing the driver if he gets ahead of schedule. That's why you'll frequently see a bus sitting at a green light.
Four stops a mile really ought to be enough. That way, the farthest you would have to walk would be one city block, an eighth of a mile. This would help bring people closer together, which would be nice, especially on those subzero mornings when there's usually no bus in sight. On days like that, every warm body helps.
And it's not just on Lincoln. There are many stops that make little or no sense.
The Irving Park bus stops in the middle of Horner Park. There's nothing there, except some trees and one of those wrought-iron fences. A half block west of California the bus stops at Mozart. Another half block and it stops at Francisco. That's three stops in a block and a half. It's not unusual for people to get on or off at every stop. That's a rate of 16 stops per mile. Flowers may bloom before you ever see Neenah Avenue. This may explain why some people take the one-way trip out to Chicago-Read Mental Health Center--they can't deal with the trip back.
At Leland and at Berwyn the Western Avenue bus has stops within a quarter block of each other.
The Lawrence bus stops right in front of the Golden Nugget Pancake House on the east side of Ravenswood Avenue. But for those who are still hungry, the bus continues east for a couple of feet, rolls across an alley, and stops in front of the Dunkin' Donuts at Hermitage too.
Everybody knows those doughnuts are mostly air and sugar, so now the bus travels for an entire half block before it stops again right in front of Byron's Hot Dogs at Paulina. I don't know about you, but after the Byron's on North and Clybourn was replaced by Chicago's answer to Woodfield Mall I've had a hard time passing by this Byron's without stopping in for a quick bite.
If you're a married guy and eat at all three places on the way home, your wife's probably not going to be happy to see you. But the CTA rides to the rescue--another half block and there's a stop in front of Fischer Flowers.
Every time a bus stops, especially in rush hour, other traffic passes. And when the bus is ready to go, it's usually stuck waiting for even more traffic to pass. And when it gets near the next light, it has to wait for all the traffic that passed it to get out of the way so it can get up to the bus stop. Then the five people who are getting off all have to use the front door, stalling the people who want to get on. If you're in a hurry, you can bet the balance on your fare card that the light's gonna turn red again before the last of those passengers steps into the bus.
Remember when CTA drivers used to call out, "Please step to the rear?" Remember when nobody under 70 ever went out the front door?
But this is the new CTA, they keep reminding us, and they keep trying to convince us that they are better and different than the old CTA. That's why the mayor had to stop them from spending millions to renumber the bus routes. They said the old numbering system didn't make sense. This was after they'd successfully renamed the rapid-transit routes because people couldn't figure out which train went to Howard Street. So the Howard-Dan Ryan line, which ran from Howard Street down to the Loop and then out the median of the Dan Ryan Expressway to 95th Street, was renamed the Red Line. See how much clearer that is?
The O'Hare line was renamed the Blue Line, but that seemed a bit confusing, so the Congress route was renamed the Blue Line too. And then they made the Douglas Park line part of the Blue Line. See how much clearer that is?
There are now three different Western Avenue stops on the Blue Line. If you ever want to have fun with your friends or to get rid of pesky out-of-town relatives, call them up and say, "Take the Blue Line to Western and I'll meet you there." Then quickly hang up.
I'm not complaining. I actually wish they'd make the Brown Line--formerly known as the Ravenswood--part of the Blue Line too. Hey, blue's my favorite color. Why do I have to live on the Brown Line? And that way four out of five Western Avenue stations would be on the same line. Doesn't that make more sense?
Oh, what the hell. Let's rename the Orange Line out to Midway the Blue line too. That way we'll have both airports and every single Western Avenue station on the same line.
As far back as I can remember CTA maps, signs, and placards used colors for the different transit lines--the same colors they use today. And this leads me to believe the old CTA was smarter than the new CTA. It understood colors are visual--you don't have to say them, just show them. With the old names you could always figure out which train went where, even if you never used the system. If you heard there was a derailment on the Lake Street line at Western Avenue, you might decide to avoid the area around Western and Lake. Now instead you hear about the Green Line and you're left guessing. We're getting much less information than we got before.
A lot of the riders the new CTA is now targeting actually love the new names. Most of these riders have no idea where Western Avenue is--or Howard Street or Douglas Park or Englewood--and if they ever find out, you can bet those worthless tokens you're stuck with they're going to stay away. They only take the train to work and back, and only in rush hour, when it's crowded with people who look just like them. They love the colors. Let me rephrase that. They love certain colors.
So maybe I am complaining. But as the new CTA keeps reminding us, the proof is in the greenbacks. And they claim ridership and revenues are both up. Of course, this may have more to do with the booming economy than with anything done by the new CTA. Every able-bodied person in America is gainfully employed--everybody with the possible exception of my two brothers-in-law--and some of these workers haven't made enough yet to lease their very own SUVs. Some of them are forced to take a CTA bus, where they can study the techniques bus drivers use to bully their way back into traffic.
The new fare-card system probably also has a lot to do with the increase in revenues. CTA employees haven't figured out how to siphon off their former percentage. But give them time--I have faith in their ingenuity.
Do I sound cynical? I like the new fare cards. The less I interact with CTA employees, the happier I am. How much do I have to pay to make CTA president Frank Kruesi go away?
Anytime I start to think fondly of the new CTA, or begin to believe they're different than the old CTA, I like to visit the intersection of Ogden and Lincoln. If you're under 30 or if you've recently moved to town--say, anytime in the last couple of decades--you might not realize where this intersection is. But the CTA is a professional organization--it's their business to know where streets are, even those that no longer exist. And this stretch of Ogden ceased to exist nearly 30 years ago. It used to cross Lincoln between Wisconsin and Armitage, running another block northeast before ending at Armitage and Clark. Now a restaurant, Ranalli's on Lincoln, occupies the space where Ogden once cut through. (Notice how they don't call it Ranalli's on Ogden.)
Though the intersection of Ogden and Lincoln has been gone so long there are probably few bus drivers who actually remember it, the number 11 Lincoln bus still stops there, just a third of a block from its Wisconsin stop and a half block from the one at Armitage. Maybe the drivers are waiting for a ghost Ogden Avenue bus to arrive, and discharge ghost passengers holding old paper transfers in their hands.
For 30 years, while millions of cars have circled this block looking for legal parking, the CTA has preserved two bus stops at a transfer point that no longer exists. During the same time, Chicago cops have probably written millions of dollars worth of parking tickets here.
For 30 years of fare hikes and service cuts, the CTA has been replacing bus-stop signs as they rust away or get knocked down in accidents. For 30 years, each time the CTA came up with some stupid new logo or cut its hours of operations because it had wasted so much money on things like logos or excessive stops or bus renumbering studies or senseless new rapid-transit line names, a truckload of well-paid CTA workers have come out to this ghost corner to change the signs at a bus stop that virtually no one uses.
And that's our CTA, old or new. More often than not, it will leave you scratching your head. We'd be better off if Mike from the White Hen took over. He hates to keep his customers waiting.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.