Most of the hundreds of thousands of people who ride the L or take a city bus every day don’t pay much attention to transit employees — at least until something goes wrong. When that happens, those workers get an earful, and sometimes worse. They also routinely have to deal with sick passengers, rowdy teenagers, violent drunks, fare skippers, suicide jumpers, and homeless people desperate for shelter, to say nothing of the demands of keeping trains and buses running on time 24 hours a day in a congested city in all kinds of weather.
Chicago asked a dozen CTA workers to speak anonymously about their jobs. Their anecdotes and observations are by turns funny, disturbing, moving, and just plain bizarre, an account of everyday encounters colored by both customers’ astonishing rudeness and their incredible compassion. Few of the men and women we talked to see their job as a calling, but most exhibited a deep-seated sense of pride in keeping the city moving.
Here are their stories, nuggets of wisdom, rants, and revelations, in their own words.
Click the sections below to expand.
I. “I Don’t Even Want to Know.”
You get singing groups, you get shell games, you get people dressed up like it’s Halloween when it’s not Halloween. There was even a guy in a diaper once. But you know, this is Chicago.
We call the Purple Line the Privileged Line. The Brown Line is the Bougie Line. The Red Line, we call the Dirty Red. The Blue Line is the Boogie-Down Blue, because anything happens on the Blue Line. The Pink Line is for the retirees, people who are about to join the KMA Club — the Kiss My Ass Club — because they’ve put in their time. The Yellow Line is the School Bus. It’s just two cars — it’s depressing.
Sometimes a mom puts her kid on the bus and is like, “They’re getting off on such and such stop.” And I have to tell her, “Listen, I’m not responsible for your kid.” But I look out for the kid’s stop anyhow.
I’ve seen a person carry on a toilet, an actual commode. I was like, I don’t even want to know.
You press a button if you want the motorman in an emergency. And sometimes it’s idiotic questions like “How do I get to the Daley Center?”
I’ve seen shopping carts on the train, like actual Jewel shopping carts. I’ve seen people bring on motor-powered bicycles. I’ve seen people bring on cans full of gas: “My car ran out of gas at such and such place.” Come on, man.
Office chairs. Microwaves. Car parts. I’ve seen whole toddler beds with crib rails and everything.
Believe it or not, I have found several pairs of underwear.
Only service animals are allowed on trains, but you see kids try to walk around with dogs and make like they’re blind. I’m like, man, you’re not blind.
This lady left a 24-pack of toilet paper on the train. How the hell do you forget a 24-pack of toilet paper?
I’ve seen a woman rip another woman’s wig off and throw it across the train for talking too loud on a cellphone.
You’re supposed to ask for the fare twice. And if they can’t pay, then you just let them go. This is the only job that I know of where you cannot demand fare for a service.
This man dropped a few cents into the fare box and just walked past me. He stunk and he had a heroin spoon in his hand. I kept telling him he hadn’t paid, and he was like, “Uh-huh,” and just kept going. What was I going to do? Do I sit there and argue with this junkie, or do I get the rest of these people where they need to go?
People are always trying to be nickel-dime slick. They have old fare cards, they have expired fare cards, they have fare cards they’re picking up off the street. They know damn well there’s nothing on them, but they want to get on the bus and give you this sad story. “I know one of these works.”
Bedbugs can live in the fabric they had on the seats, so then they went to the smooth plastic seats, but now people are falling out of those.
Let it get cold out, go to the 95th Street station at like 3 or 4 in the morning, and see who’s on the trains. You’ll get a firsthand look at the homeless situation.
They obviously didn’t have CTA veterans design those long bench seats on the 5000 series trains. They’re like one big, long bed for homeless people.
Rauner and Rahm closed a lot of the shelters in Illinois and in the city, and some of the people start reverting to actually living on the train. Whole families living on the train.
We’ve had people falling off the platform and losing their lives because of intoxication. The train is coming in and the platform is full, and somebody wants to show off for a friend and they lose their balance. The public gets frustrated: “Why are we sitting here for five minutes? What is taking so long?” Not knowing that the next station over, someone died.
When you hear “Medical emergency on the tracks,” think major delay.
People have masturbated on my bus, they have defecated on my bus, they have urinated on my bus, they have smoked crack on my bus.
If you see a young white kid riding the Madison route on the far West Side, you’re like, I know why you’re here.
We have special bays in the garage, and you tell ’em, “Hey, guys: bodily. Glove up.”
There’s a guy on the train who sniffs aerosol cans. He lies in the fetal position and he sniffs them. I can eject him, but he’s just gonna go somewhere else and get back on.
If you open the doors in a station and see people running out of one particular car, you know there’s a problem.
You get back there, and someone’s urinated in the vents. The vents are still blowing, and we have to stand over them to open the doors. Then, when you get off work, you’re trying to figure out why you stink.
You might come across anything. You might find someone passed out. Someone might have spilled beer all over the place, so now the car smells like Genuine Draft. Or you might just find poop on the floor. And you know it’s not from a dog.
II. “Bus Justice Is Awesome.”
What makes my day is a person who says, “Have a great day,” and then goes and sits their ass down.
I let them vent. I understand, I’ve ridden the bus. You’re out there freezing your tail off. “Man, where the hell have you been?” Usually a couple minutes later, they’ll come up and be like, “Hey, sorry about that.”
In the morning I got over a thousand people on the train, and pretty much every one of them have headphones on. People don’t talk anymore.
Some drivers just face straight forward. As long as they hear that Ventra card going off, they don’t care. But I can’t help myself. I have to talk to people.
I always say, “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” “How’s it going?” It puts people at ease even if they’re aggressive when they get on the bus: Damn, this bus is fucking late! But man, this driver’s really nice. I’m gonna spit on the next driver.
I’m sure that the CTA would have a problem with this, but I have my own personal no-ride list on my bus. I’ll give everybody a chance, but if you fuck up, you’re not riding with me again.
I was working North Avenue last winter and this man was like, “Ma’am, I’ll just be honest with you. I recently lost my apartment, and I’m cold.” I told him not to worry about it, so he put 75 cents in the fare box and went in the back and dozed off. He got on my bus again a couple months later and said, “I’ve been looking for you. You don’t know what you did for me that night. You were so kind. I got a job. I’ve got my own apartment. You know, you gave me hope in humanity.” I wanted to cry.
Just the other day, this kid gets on, he’s maybe 15. He says, “I don’t have my bus fare, ma’am. Can I sing?” And I’m like, “You know what, honey? Go ahead.”
If you’re fortunate enough to stay at the same station for a long time, you can watch your customers’ kids grow up. You see mothers become grandmothers, you know? It’s just nice.
You have regulars who know your name, know your schedule. They know when you’re having a good day and a bad day. I remember one day I was just extremely tired, and this regular customer came through and said to me, “Something’s not right about you today.” Then she just gave me a hug.
Tourists make you feel so special.
We have a passenger who has autism. He and his mom get on the L every day at the same time, like clockwork. He is so fascinated by trains, and he has a million questions. By now he knows every intricacy of the train. He almost knows it better than we do. We incorporated him into our routine. We talk to him, we’re patient with him, and we love him.
A simple hello — you don’t understand what that can do for someone.
I pulled up to Lake Street, and there was an elderly female passenger in a wheelchair. The train was so packed that I had to get out to help her get on. One passenger asked, “Can’t she just wait for the next train?” That really triggered me. So I made everybody get off the head car. It took me 10 minutes to do that, get the lady situated, and get everybody back on. But she has the right to ride.
People in Chicago are quick to tell you to screw off, but they’re also quick to do the right thing. You’ll have old Mrs. Smith telling a kid, “Hey, young man, you need to move it, because that lady needs to sit down. Respect your elders.” And if that kid gives old Mrs. Smith a look, somebody else will be like, “That’s right, young man, move it!” It’s camaraderie. It’s bus justice. Bus justice is awesome.
In some neighborhoods, people are always trying to tip the bus operator. If you’re at Harbor Point — at the east end of Randolph — the older people will say, “Thank you, young man,” and try to give me 20 bucks.
This man gets on at Chicago Avenue and he’s only got 27 cents. I was like, “Sir, that’s not enough fare.” So he goes up to this group of older ladies that want to get to the grocery store — they’ve got their little shopping carts — and he’s like, “Hey, gimme some money.” I tell him he can’t solicit money on the bus and tell him to get off. He says, “Man, fuck you. You’re behind that shield because you’re scared.” Then he gets off the bus, pulls down his pants, and yells, “You scared of this?” And I swear to God, all those little old ladies look at him, and one of them says out the window, “Baby, I wouldn’t be scared of that!”
III. “My First Priority Is to Go Home at the End of the Day.”
We’re driving in the middle of shootouts all the time. You can’t stop. You gotta get that bus to safety.
They spent all that money on cameras on the bus, and all they’re going to be able to do is point the blame at who should have done this, who should have done that. The cameras aren’t preventing anything.
I’m not going to die over $2.50.
One motorman got mad at a passenger and took these plastic salad forks, broke them in half, and duct-taped the pointy pieces to the tops of his knuckles. He thought he was going to be kung fu fighting this guy with the forks on his hands.
No matter how much you may be provoked, the best thing you can do is either lock yourself in that motor cab or just walk away completely.
As soon as you spit on me, I’m going to try and knock your head off. But one of those fights didn’t end very well for me. The guy reached through the train window, grabbed my coat lapel, and pulled me through the window, wedged me in there. I couldn’t move. And he just beat the living snot out of me.
I’ve been called “bitch-ass nigger” and all types of names. I’ve had people get on the bus and try to open up our protective shield. I’ve been told, “I feel like punching you through this fucking shield.” And don’t get me wrong. I know how to defend myself. But my first priority is to go home at the end of the day.
You gotta have that scowl on your face at all times so people don’t even attempt to try stuff with you.
We have lots of lost children. Parents think the child has stepped off the train with them, but by the time the child gets to the door, it’s closed. When that happens, it’s like an APB, like an Amber Alert put out among CTA workers. Usually somebody on the radio will hear it: “I have that child here with me at this location. The parent can come back and get her.”
I said to this one guy, “I don’t really care if you pay or not. But I see you got your hand on this latch, and you’re trying to open this shield. You see this badge? You see these cameras? This uniform? I don’t give a fuck about all that. Once you open this shield, I’m going to wreak havoc on your ass.”
What’s the guaranteed way to get your stuff stolen on the train? Stand by the door.
I take it personally when these high school kids lean over the edge of the platform and tap the train as I’m coming into the station. It got to the point that I would tell them, “If you die, one, they’ll pay me to be off work; two, they’re just going to wash this train off and put it right back in service; and three, you’re going to leave your family with the unfortunate burden of planning a funeral.” One of the passengers said, “That was harsh.”
There was a guy at Harrison who went down there trying to get a beach ball. He ended up dying.
The third rail is higher than the other two. That’s how you know.
I don’t see the CTA paying for security for us. Why would they? We’re security.
A passenger dropped a bottle of water on the tracks before I pulled into the station, and I said, “You want us to turn off the power so you can go down there and retrieve a bottle of water?”
Every day is like, Am I safe?
IV. “The Hardest Part About the Job Is Staying Awake.”
The CTA has made it so I can take care of my two kids by myself. I don’t need anybody’s help. I don’t need to work two jobs. They made me financially independent, and I thank them for that.
I have a master’s degree. There is no way in hell I should be driving a freaking bus.
I see my black ass working on the bus and I see everybody else enjoying their weekend.
I look at it as a guaranteed paycheck. So why not drive a few-ton killing machine and pretty much be your own boss?
The humanistic side of you really goes into a twirl because of this job. A lot of operators collect socks, gloves, hats, and scarves in the winter to give away. Because that could be your brother, your sister, your mother, your grandmother.
For people living as far west as Kedzie who are yuppies, young white people, we make sure their service is good. Now, from Pulaski west to Harlem, we don’t give a shit. Why? Because minorities live there. The service changes. The problem is, in most of your black neighborhoods, there’s not enough people complaining. There’s not enough people saying, “This is ridiculous. I’m late every day.”
Cars have zero respect for the bus: Everybody wants to get around the bus. You’re always looking at your left mirror to see what’s coming up on the side of you.
You’re not supposed to drive and eat. You might catch an operator eating a bag of chips or hiding a bottle of Gatorade, but you definitely can’t eat a plate of Harold’s Chicken and drive.
I don’t care if it’s Lyft, Uber, Buber, Suber, Duber. When you are picking someone up, do not block the service stop.
A lot of people just look at us as “those people in the booth.” But we’re more than that. We’re guidance counselors, we’re mommies, we’re daddies, we’re babysitters sometimes. We’re therapists, friends.
The hardest part about the job is staying awake. That Blue Line driver who went up the escalator at O’Hare, she fell asleep at the controls.
Red Bull and Mountain Dew are our best friends.
Suicide attempts at track level — a lot of our operators have real serious mental effects from that. Some of them don’t come back for two or three years, if they come back at all. Or they just break down and cry right there in the training room because they can’t get it out of their head.
We come to work sick. We come to work in pain.
I ran a guy over at Clark and Division. At first I thought I was dreaming. When I walked off the train onto the platform, I could see this guy on the tracks all beat up, with a prosthetic leg and grease all over him. When they got him back up onto the platform, he was able to stand, and a manager walked over to us and said, “Uh, I recognize this guy. His name is Chris.” I asked how she knew his name, and she said, “This isn’t the first time he’s jumped in front of a train. That’s why he’s got a prosthetic leg.”
I saw a man on the tracks at Sheridan. He was walking around slapping himself. I called to have power turned off in both directions and climbed down to try to talk to him. He kept holding up his finger and telling me, “I’ll touch the third rail, I’ll touch it!” I asked him what he was so upset about, and he said he’d lost his job as a bartender. I looked at him and said, “Are you kidding me? You know how many jobs are out there you could replace that with? Just look in the newspaper.” And he just looked at me. Then he climbed back up on the platform and walked away.
You want to gun it. Oh my God, so many times you want to. But you need to think: Just chill and do the speed limit, because you get paid either way.
A good survival tip is: Carry sunscreen. I know it sounds funny. But when you’re by that big window, the sun is beaming right down on your arm.
We have this fat-ass book of standard operating procedures. You’re supposed to know this book front to back. To my knowledge, nobody has been like, “All right, I finally read the book!”
It’s important to watch the news before you get on the bus and start your route. Nobody wants to pull out of the garage and not know there’s a giant protest, a giant accident, a building just blew up.
When you’re operating a train, you have to constantly watch everything around you. You cannot daydream. You cannot think about other stuff.
I honestly had to change my approach to the homeless situation, because before I got hired, I was like, You shouldn’t be sleeping on the train, go get a job. When I started seeing it for myself, when I started seeing the children, I was like, Oh no.
I’ve had to calm down when addressing certain situations on the train, because one false move and there are 16 smartphones on you.
Eighty-Seventh, 79th, 69th: Those are the three major Red Line stations where you shouldn’t look back after you close the door. You look toward the end of your train once to make sure the last people got on, and that’s it. Because if you keep looking, you’ll see all the passengers still flying down the stairs, going, “Hey, wait, wait,” and they’re dragging little kids and they’re pushing strollers and they’re losing scarves and shoes. And you’ll be like, Damn, I should have closed the doors and kept going.
You have to shut doors in people’s face every day. That’s when you get the finger, because you didn’t wait.
When I get off work, I sit in my car at least 20 minutes before I head home. Because if I don’t, I’ll take this shit home.
Rush hour is my favorite. That’s when you can really appreciate the job. You get a sense of pride because you see all these people moving.
When the Orange Line’s coming over the river and you get the view of the Willis Tower — the view of that at night is the most amazing thing ever.
Despite the bad things that you see, if you just look at all the people moving and actually living, it brings joy to your soul. You’re seeing life.