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James Porter, pictured above, is one of Chicago’s foremost authorities on getting around the town without an automobile. As a music journalist, singer, harmonica player, and one half of the DJ duo East of Edens Soul Express, he travels from his home in the Mid-South neighborhood of Chatham to every nook and cranny of the city to get to record stores, concerts and gigs, usually by walking, bus and train. Last winter he contributed an essay about his experiences as an expert Chicago Transit Authority rider. Here’s another story from James about some of the colorful characters who help keep the CTA interesting.

He was a dapper brother. In the 1990s, on my way to New City magazine (where I was working at the time), I’d see him all the time. Waves in his hair, double breasted suit, and like the master orator he was, he worked that northbound Red Line like it was Showtime At The Apollo. But his real intent was to turn the morning train into church.

From car to car he’d stroll, exclaiming to the African-American riders that we needed to have God in our lives. He usually got on around 69th street and left at Roosevelt, right when the train passed through downtown Chicago. With charisma turned all the way up to eleven, he’d warn young ladies not to be so promiscuous – “I don’t care if he looks like Denzel, tell ‘em – no ring, no ‘thing!'” He’d also warn the men to look past the fact that she was “light, bright and almost white” for something a bit more substantial.

He also railed against psychics on TV commercials, especially the ones that Dionne Warwick was shilling for (“She don’t even know the way to San Jose! How’s she gonna tell you what’s gonna happen in the future!”). He’d throw in a bit of childhood nostalgia (“remember when you were young and going to Sunday school in the little suit your mother made you wear?”), shame the crowd into listening to his rap (“I see some of y’all got your headphones on, or pretending to be sleep! God’s gonna get to you anyway!”), or throw in some current pop-culture reference – “I see some of y’all are like R. Kelly – you like to do it down low, whispering so no one has to know!” And when the first white riders boarded the train around 35th, he’d start mentioning all these outdated arena-rock acts from the eighties, just to prove he was down with the fair-skinned set as well.

And then he’d ask for donations for his church.

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The sharply dressed, but sadly homophobic, Old Navy Preacher, near the Red Line’s (now defunct) Washington stop.

All these years later, I’m sorry to say that I never gave him a dime. Especially after I called the number on his business card for a possible New City story, only to find the phone was disconnected. Looking back, I should have kicked in anyway just for the free show.

Long trips, whether by car or public transportation, can be tedious. You can read, strap on the headphones, think, people watch, or even look at the rooftops as they whiz by – the Brown and Green Lines are especially good for that. But more enterprising people use the train as an impromptu vaudeville show. And if you’re in the right mood, getting there really is half the fun.

Subway preachers are not uncommon, but for some reason they do tend to confine themselves to the South Side. Just like the right reverend I mentioned above, they disappear once the train hits the Loop. The one time I saw someone deliver a sermon north of Roosevelt Road it was right after a Cubs game. The train was packed, but it was much too crowded for the man to pace the aisle and work his show. And at least one eight-year-old asked his mother, with a straight face, “Are we having church on the train?”

Musical performers are seldom seen on this circuit. On the subway platform, sure, but hardly ever on the train itself. One of the most hysterical characters I saw one summer showed up at the Jackson stop with his loud saxophone blaring in everybody’s face. Just before the next stop, he decided to go for a grand exit: he held up his arm, as if the conductor could hear him, and yelled “Slow down train!” He was expecting applause, and all he got was some teenaged girl yelling, “PLEASE! Let him off!”

When you do see musical acts, it’s generally confined to rappers. I haven’t seen any lately, but they were ubiquitous in the ‘80s and ‘90s, usually capping their rap by asking for donations so they could “make a demo.” There was one rap trio who used the demo line for a good two or three years in a row, by which time they should have released that many albums.

Other people have used the train for more noble ventures, like selling tube socks and incense. When Streetwise magazine first started, several of the vendors sold it via train until they started receiving complaints (as one irate letter writer said, “The magazine is called Streetwise, not Trainwise!”). And, as with everything, there is a dark side, like when the same rap trio saving money for their “demo” almost got nasty on some drunk Vietnam vet who tried to disrupt the act. Or even worse: the occasional person who loses his money in a shell game (it’s always a drunk man from out of town trying to impress his buddies, never a woman). The tube-sock salesmen get it worse than anybody; at least one guy I saw had a full meltdown, claiming that he was being unappreciated. He’s steaming for a good five minutes until yet another salesman enters the car, selling his wares at top volume: “Socks, skullcaps…” The whole train erupts in laughter, except for vendor #1 who knows he’s been humiliated, and vendor #2, who doesn’t know what the hell is going on.

However, the positives override the negatives five to one. Just ask the performance artist a few years ago, who assembled a bunch of people for a rush-hour Blue Line ride some time back. Scattering to different parts of the train car, as soon as the doors opened, they started laughing on cue, at nothing in particular. This wasn’t spontaneous, and I’m sure more than one passenger not in on the joke wondered if their fly was open, but an occasional spot of silliness on public transportation never hurt anybody.

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  • http://twitter.com/aka60643 AKA60643

    I’ve definitely seen my share of entertainment on the red line.  On the north side, it’s more likely to be drunk college kids.  On the south side, it could be almost anything.  

    I remember one night when a guy started putting the moves on the woman he was sitting next to, trying to get a date – nothing sincere about it, trying to be smooth and utterly failing at it.  She quickly put him in his place.  Calling him a fool was the warm-up to a long string of put-downs.  He started trying to defend himself, then tried sweet talking another woman nearby.  He scored another round of put-downs.  When he protested, a whole chorus of women joined in, giving him an earful for acting the fool.  Half the riders on that car got into it before the show was over and he left.  It was like being in the studio audience for a taping of [insert your choice of cheesy talk shows here].  Priceless!

    Seen the shell game a bunch of times.  Seen all kinds of things sold: tube socks, candy, DVDs, single cigarettes, do rags, etc.  I’ve had some interesting conversations with people.  I never know what I’ll see next, but I can always count on seeing people moving through the train from one end to the other for varying reasons.

  • Danlman2003

    To me there’s one entertaining interaction for every twenty annoying interactions. I find it very annoying to be preached to, sold to, performed for, or begged while riding the trains. In an environment where our eyes and ears are already overwhelmed, we shouldn’t be forced to give our attention to any nut who can pay the train fare. (or sneak under the turnstile like I have seen multiple times)
    P.S. The pictured preacher called my girlfriend and I fornicators as we walked by. He did have a point.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

       If only the Old Navy Preacher could limit himself to railing against cigarettes, then he’d be doing something positive.

    • C L

      I agree, it’s almost always annoying.  Performances and random happenings can be interesting, but I feel uncomfortable when people solicit aggressively on the train — I think it’s because we’re a captive audience, so we don’t have the option of walking away.  Some solicitors just walk by mumbling about their products, and that’s not a big deal, but others are much more aggressive.

      Solicitation is bad for public transit because some riders will be discouraged from riding after several uncomfortable experiences. I’ve never avoided the train because of solicitors, but I can imagine some suburbanites sitting there thinking “I should have just driven to work” when someone makes them uncomfortable… and maybe the next day, they will drive, and the CTA loses another fare.  

      • http://twitter.com/aka60643 AKA60643

        If only more people had a thinner skin about this sort of thing…  I’ve gotten pretty good at tuning it out when it’s not something that interests or amuses me.