My father always called Chicago “the world’s largest small town.” I didn’t realize how accurate this was until I lived in New York, where eye contact and smiles were met with cold stares and frowns. When I returned to my Midwestern roots, I began to appreciate good ol’ Chicago politeness. But on a crowded El train, I’ve noticed that sometimes manners dissipate as quickly as Bush’s approval rating.
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To prove this theory, I assume various sympathy-inducing states to test whether train riders would give up their seat for me: First I’m pregnant, then I hobble on crutches, another time I struggle with two overflowing bags of groceries and for the grand finale, I combine all three detriments to become feeble personified.
First stop: Preggersville.
Day 1, 8:10am
Before heading out, I throw on a rented faux pregnancy suit—a slightly crusty body pillow with little attention to the female anatomy (the breasts are at my clavicle). Decked out in maternity clothing and rubbing my belly, I haul my never-to-be-born baby up the stairs to the Belmont station’s Loop-bound platform. Men with leather briefcases shimmy up the stairs on either side of me, carefully avoiding my enlarged belly.
I finally make it up the stairs to be greeted by an arriving Red Line train, and the same men who were so careful on the stairs suddenly form a wall blocking me from entering. Once I get on the train, things only get worse. No one offers me a seat. In fact, people don’t even look me in the eye: One woman puts her head down and makes a big show of shuffling her papers, and I overhear a girl stage-whisper to her boyfriend, “I bet she’s single.” Feeling like I had a scarlet letter emblazoned on my coat, I hop off at Fullerton. Angry about the assumption that I was knocked up and single, I leave the station and hide in a shaded passageway between two buildings on Fullerton and light up a bummed cigarette. A grey-haired woman spies me and yells, “What kind of mother are you?” I explain I never wanted to be pregnant in the first place. She gives me a knowing look and says, “Well, it’s your own damn fault.” Man, no one cuts a pregnant lady any slack these days.
Day 2, 8:20am
No longer pregnant, I don a borrowed leg brace and crutches. I struggle up the rickety stairs of the Sheridan Red Line and when I get to the platform, two men jump up from the bench so I can splay out my bum leg. The woman next to me starts chatting me up.
“I hurt my leg a couple years back,” she says. “I was putting up Christmas decorations, and I was standing on this chair and all of a sudden my knee went out.” She taps her right knee. “And you know it made sense, too, because my whole life I have felt pain in that knee when I’m menstruating! ”
The train’s arrival interrupts my attempt to respond to such a bizarre statement. When I board, three people immediately offer me their seats. Chicagoans must love a girl with a broken leg.
Day 3, 5:22pm
I’m on the Red Line coming home from Trader Joe’s, carrying two unbelievably heavy bags of groceries. Every tired commuter clings to his or her seat and no one offers to help me. The train creeps through slow zones then jerks into faster gear, spilling one of my bags all over the ground. People bump heads as they help me gather my groceries. A bag of apples scatters, and I start searching between people’s shoes when I find a Honey Crisp resting next to an expensive pair of pointy-toed women’s heels. As I look up at her, she aims her shoe at the apple and kicks it just beyond my reach. Clearly, most people have butlers to haul their groceries—and no sympathy for the less fortunate.
Day 4, 5:19pm
I’m on the Red Line, “pregnant,” with a broken leg and carrying a heavy bag of groceries (beer, but who has to know that?). A young woman with a big smile looks me straight in the eye and offers me her seat. I’m angling my way into it when I slip on the plastic bottom of my leg brace and start to fall; a construction worker grabs me and saves me from landing flat on my face. I mumble, “Thank you,” and with a hearty smile he replies, “We all gotta stick together.” I couldn’t agree more.