Illustration by Mark Matcho

You probably saw the nightmarish Pioneer Press story a few months back about the woman who got assaulted on the Blue Line with a sock full of feces. “It was everywhere,” said the 21-year-old college student, who understandably chose to remain anonymous. “On my face, my hair, my clothes. . . . The worst part is nobody had anything to wipe my face with.”

Maybe you retched, or maybe you laughed. As the unknown assailant’s fecal high jinks went viral, jokes began stacking up on message boards. (“If more people on that train had been carrying socks full of poop, this never would have happened,” quipped a commenter on Deadspin.) But for commuters who have witnessed all manner of el-related depravity, the attack was just another brick in the wall: Good Lord, now I have to pack a change of clothes in case I get hit by a random shitsock?

The whole filthy skirmish could be seen as a good-night kiss to the old CTA, which has begun rolling out its brand-new 5000 series railcars. The first beneficiaries were the Green and Pink Lines; recently, even the beleaguered Red Line started to get a few of its own. Each of the new cars—eventually there will be 706 of them, at a cost of $1.37 billion—features hydraulic suspension, LED displays, and seven live security cameras, which will finally provide conductors with multiple angles from which to spectate excrement hurling.

The new interior represents the most notable change, with its long rows of center-facing perimeter seats, a wider aisle, and more standing space near the doors. “New aisle-facing-seating floor plans provide a roomier interior designed to allow passengers easy ingress and egress through the exits of the car doors,” said CTA president Forrest Claypool at a November 2011 press conference, mouthing what sounded like a computer-generated sound bite. Indeed, the 5000s, the CTA’s first train upgrade in 20 years, are cleaner, greener, smoother, safer, and more economical than the old cars. And riders hate them.

Common laments include motion sickness, lack of privacy, door crowding, badly placed poles, feet in the aisle, compulsory crotch gazing, and a sense of being herded like cattle. Even those who prefer the new cars—manufactured by Montreal-based Bombardier Transportation—might focus on the fact that the 17.5-inch bucket seats don’t come close to containing your average Chicago tuchis.

We could debate ad nauseam whether your $2.25 entitles you to a foot of personal space, a window view, or the right to not get clocked by a stranger’s backpack while you play with your iPhone. Let’s not. More germane is that the CTA has obliterated generations of unspoken el protocol. The rider’s code of conduct, once as ingrained in us as our contempt for Wisconsin drivers, is suddenly irrelevant. That’s why commuters hate the 5000s. Bombardier says they will last for 40 years, and it may take half that time to unlearn our habits.

When we boarded the old cars, our limbs acted on impulse. Within milliseconds, we could scan the entire car, with all its familiar nooks and crannies, and immediately understand where the most desirable spot was and how likely we were to get it—and what our next best option was if we didn’t. If that plum seat over there was open only because it had some mysterious stain or the guy beside it smelled like a gibbon’s armpit, we knew before looking and/or sniffing. With a quick glance, we sensed who was pregnant and who simply obese. We stood if we had to and sat if we could. We moved to the middle of the car and got up for seniors not because we were kind, but because it was the el and that’s just what you did.

Everyone knew how the game was played—even the riders who refused to play along: the pole huggers, the door whores, and the individuals who used bags to save seats for imaginary friends. And the rule followers instinctively knew which of their fellow riders could not be counted on to follow the rules. Our heads did all the social geometry; our bodies responded accordingly.

Now? We look at those little seats, 17.5 inches of flimsy molded plastic, and do unproductive mental calculations regarding the dimensions of all adjacent shoulders and asses. Our inner monologue involves unanswerable questions: How badly do I want to sit? Am I willing to compress my own testicles to fit into that tiny space? Is it worth risking that skeezy dude dry-humping my leg?

If we sit, the new train configuration forces us to confront something far worse: the possibility that we’re not cut out for urban life after all. The old rows of two-seaters gave Chicagoans the illusion of privacy. Now we’re thrust into a community that doesn’t embrace us any more than we embrace it, face to face and thigh to thigh with the same hucksters, drunks, and maniacs we could once ignore, trying to decide whether to suppress every territorial impulse or punch someone in the throat.

Our brains, saddled with outdated operating systems, can only crash when presented with a new layout and rules we don’t understand. So we end up doing the easiest thing, which also happens to be the most selfish thing: We stand by the door. Or we grab a pole because they’re familiar and something deep in our core doesn’t trust those straps hanging overhead. (Most of us forget the straps entirely until one smacks us in the face on the way out.) “Passengers still need to learn how to use these cars most efficiently,” Kevin O’Neil, a.k.a. the CTA Tattler, wrote recently on his blog—a nice way of saying people don’t know what the hell they’re doing.

Once upon a time, we could live a fantasy that we were protected from the city’s germs and odors and inconveniences. We could disregard Poopsock Man. But he’s still out there. And if he strikes on the new el, the shit will hit us all.


Illustration: Mark Matcho