Riding the CTA? It’s one ‘L’ of a time

Today’s column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

Riding the CTA? It’s one ‘L’ of a time


Dec. 11, 2010

From what’s stuffed in your stocking to what’s wrapped inside those gifts beneath your tree to what’s sticking out of that fruitcake – no, really, what is this? – the holidays are just full of surprises.

And, in Chicago, few of them are more cheerful than when you’re standing, toes trembling and teeth chattering, on a wind-whipped “L” platform and the CTA Holiday Train pulls into the station in all its festive glory.

For the past 19 years, the Chicago Transit Authority has decked out the interiors of a six-car “L” train in thousands of multicolored lights, bows and garland, wrapped its hand poles like candy canes and perched Santa and his sleigh on an open-air flat car in the middle.

The purpose of the Holiday Train is to spread cheer to the needy (last weekend it delivered about 300 food baskets donated and assembled by CTA employees to 16 groups throughout Chicago) and to the needy (grumpy Chicago commuters who could use a grin).

The Holiday Train does both well and is one of Chicago’s more enjoyable wintertime quirks. But, to be honest, I’ve never needed “L” cars bedazzled in peppermint to entertain me. The trains – and their oh-so-colorful riders – are plenty amusing on their own.

These days, I don’t work downtown, so I don’t ride the train on a daily basis any longer. But sometimes I’ll jump on the Red Line just for the “L” of it, because if you’ve never taken the train through Chicago before, you’ve missed something. It’s definitely the most unique – and, perhaps, the most interesting – way to see the city.

Each time I step onto a train platform it’s like wandering beneath the Big Top at Ringling Bros. Call it the CTA – the Carnival Transit Authority – and you can forget P.T. Barnum, because it is the greatest show on Earth.

The only thing missing is a lion tamer wearing leopard skins. And, for all I know, one of those is roaming the rails somewhere.

Since moving to Chicago, I’ve taken countless train trips and have seen some pretty silly stuff, particularly after dark. The silliest of all might have been a guy who carried on a prolonged and passionate conversation with his hair pick while seated on the Red Line.

Yes, his hair pick.

The man’s taste in shampoo may have been a point of contention. It really was hard to tell.

Once, one of my friends had a guy try to sell him a doorknob while the two of them were riding in an otherwise empty train car. A few years ago, I watched with amusement as a man did an impressive impersonation of a dancing orangutan – or was it a chimpanzee? – on a train platform downtown. And on a late-night train trip northbound during the summer, I once witnessed a whole water cooler’s worth of conversation material in less than half an hour.

There was a girl in a tank top with huge angel wings painted on her shoulder blades for some reason. There was a woman fast asleep in a seat with an elaborate Indian headdress perched atop her head. And there was a friendly-but-kind-of-creepy guy who leaned in over my shoulder and engaged me in a rambling dialogue about his upcoming high school reunion.

His eleven-year high school reunion.

(Hey, you got me.)

So, while the Holiday Train – which runs on various CTA lines through Dec. 22 (check for schedules) – is a holiday treat, the “L” is also the gift that keeps on giving all year long.

Just make sure to wash your hands upon exiting.