People-watching on the Number 66

We’re on the #66 bus to downtown Chicago. We’re trying to be cool and pretend that we do this all the time, but we’re still pretty new at it. We have a borrowed bus pass – we know we have to run it under the scanner when we get on the bus, but we’re not sure how. “You go first”, “No, YOU go first.” We don’t want the driver to yell at us if we do it wrong. Finally my excellent husband takes one for the team and gets on first.

We make it through the scanner and find seats. At the next stop the driver lowers the handicap ramp, and a lady drives on the bus in her Amigo cart. Without prompting, two riders jump up, flip up their seats and suddenly there’s room. She backs her cart into the spot like a pro. She chats on her cell phone and tells her friends to order her breakfast, then gets off a few stops later. We silently marvel at how 10 years ago this woman would have been out of luck – most buses did not have handicap ramps then. A group of 60-something women get on at the next stop. A couple riders get up to offer their seats – the women defer to each until finally the two with the most gray hair take the seats. They all look pretty spry – I think today’s 60 and older group don’t like to be singled out as “old” by having someone offer them a seat.

We’re getting off the bus now. We walk by the old water tower. Usually you can count on seeing some performance artists there – a guy dressed as the tin man standing on an overturned plastic bucket or “Marcel Marceau” doing the moon walk, but it’s a blustery day so no one’s out yet. We’re seeing lots of groups of 20-somethings wearing green T-shirts and no coats, despite the rainy, cold weather. It’s St. Patty’s day here, and Chicagoans take it pretty seriously. A girl with leggings, a sweater cape and no socks saunters by – again seemingly impervious to the cold. A man stops every passerby and asks for $2 for the train, but everyone knows the train costs $2.25, so he’s not getting any takers. The water tower is not open yet – there’s usually a photo exhibit inside and a chance to peek through the grate up the stairs where the alleged ghost lives. Last time we saw photos of downtown carriage horses; before that, pictures of the abandoned Michael Reese Hospital.

We stop at the American Girl store because I’ve always wanted to see what these dolls are about.  It’s a veritable doll Disneyland inside – at least 20 different dolls (although if you look closely you can see they all have the same body and pretty much the same face – only the hair and clothes are different.) Each doll has a name, a book with her story, a wardrobe and accessories. You can buy an outfit for your child that matches the doll’s outfit. You can take your doll to tea, or to the doll hair salon. “Who are these people,” I wonder, “who buy $100 dolls that need wardrobes and accessories?” Shoppers here are well-dressed, moms and grandmas with little girls, mostly white folks I’m sorry to say, although the doll selection represents all ethnic groups.

We’ve seen enough of the doll store for a lifetime. Back outside we pass a street musician wailing on a bright yellow clarinet. A homeless man sits motionless with his back against the Newberry Library fence, holding the inevitable cardboard sign. In front of the Cartier store, a Greenpeace activist muscles his way into our space, trying to convince us to sign a petition.

We clatter down the steps of the Red Line station to buy a fare card for the bus ride home. While my husband ponders the directions on the machine, I throw caution to the winds and just insert our card. Turns out our card is expired and a helpful transit guard appears out of nowhere to tell us to buy a new card. Very patient Chicagoans wait in line while we figure out which slot for the money, which buttons to push. Probably Chicago children have mastered this by the age of three, but we live where we never need to navigate public transportation.

Back on the street we wait for the bus. Many groups of St. Patty’s day revelers pass, none of them dressed for the weather, and all seem to be feeling no pain. When the bus arrives we step on and are immediately hit with an overwhelming stench of urine. Drunken revelry aside, what kind of person does that? We pass by seated passengers holding their noses and covering their faces (this odor really IS bad). There’s a seat open next to a black gentleman, but after smelling the urine, I’m wary of sitting on anything. But I’m afraid of giving the impression that I don’t want to sit with him, so after cautiously feeling the seat for wetness, I take it. Others on the bus are having a rousing and gross discussion about the urine stench, which escalates into a treatise of other disgusting bodily smells. I’m thinking that this is worse than putting up with the odor; finally after several blocks this talk becomes old news.

A woman wearing what seems to be men’s clothing, although looking very dapper I must say, gets on the bus. She seems to know the group talking about the smell and starts up a new topic of conversation. The man next to me asks to get off so I stand up to let him out. Now my husband thinks that I’m trying to get off at the wrong stop. Momentary confusion ensues. We start talking about the movie “The Fugitive” and the great line that Harrison Ford says after he knocks out the bad guy – “You missed your stop” and everyone’s favorite “You find this man!”

Finally, we make it back to our stop, gladly exit the stench-laden bus, and end our day of people-watching on the # 66.