The 1.64 million passengers the Chicago Transit Authority ferries around on an average weekday have perhaps one thing in common: They’ve seen things on the city’s buses and trains that can never be unseen. For $2.25, commuters hop aboard a traveling sideshow of the hilarious and horrific—unfortunate body hair, butt cracks in full view, drunks passed out in their own puke. Disgusted and captivated by the parade of humanity, CTA riders armed with camera phones are finding an outlet and an audience for their experiences.
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The People of the CTA Facebook community page is blowing up walls with a daily stream of user-submitted photos and videos, most shot on the sly. “I like raw pictures,” says page founder Sean Coan, 30, a quality-assurance analyst for a local video-game developer. “I don’t need, like, ten Instagram filters on a homeless guy passed out.” All species of public-transit fauna inhabit the page: the El rider in the i punch puppies and choke cats T-shirt, the gangly Caucasian geek in a packed train car intently studying a copy of How to Be Black, and the woman reclining in her bus seat apparently unconcerned about her conspicuous lack of underwear. A photo of an El passenger with a beer keg in a shopping cart serves as the page’s avatar.
The comments accompanying each post range from barbaric bitching to gallows-humor harping to misery-loves-company commiseration. Of a photo featuring a man perilously hitching a ride on a bus’s rear bumper, one person remarked, “After they raise the fare in January, we might see more of this.” The shot was liked by more than 3,000 people.
Though People of the CTA has been active since April 2010, the bulk of the page’s 65,000 likes have flooded in within the last few months. The sudden popularity blindsided Coan, who was inspired to document his late-night Red Line trips home from work in a form similar to the People of Walmart website. “I started it for me and a couple friends to get some kicks,” the Lakeview resident says. “I didn’t expect anyone to get into it.”
“We’d see people on the train to and from baseball games and be like, ‘What the heck?’ ” recalls Coan’s friend Andy Hernandez. “No one would believe us unless we had photographic evidence.” The 31-year-old logistics account executive co-manages the page and helps Coan comb through 150 weekly photo submissions.
“We had only 600 likes all the way up until this past August,” Coan says. “Then it suddenly exploded and took on a life of its own.” Halloween was a particularly fertile time for the page as the costumed masses boarded the CTA to parties. A snapshot of a dead-on Beetlejuice waiting for the train racked up more than 15,500 likes. “Readers have started sending me personal messages like, ‘The page is my morning coffee,’ ” Coan says.
Most commenters pile on with brainless bursts of “LMFAO!” but occasionally a lone sympathetic voice will pipe up with charges of insensitivity. “I get it, people need things to laugh at to keep them from thinking of their own shit lives,” someone wrote below the shot of the aforementioned underwear-less wonder. “I think it’s sad that there’s no compassion.”
Coan says the page merely reflects the city. “When you leave the house in the morning on public transportation, people are going to see you. If someone takes pictures, we post them. If you get offended by that, go look at something else.” But, he adds, if gawking at transit riders in fugly Christmas sweaters is your thing, stay tuned.