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Weekly Column by Andy Grieser
Column by Andy Grieser

June 28, 2002

Since moving to Chicago, I’ve become a huge fan of public transportation. That’s a big change, considering I grew up in a state where you’d drive to the corner when walking was just as fast. That didn’t change in New York City: Given a choice, I’d cab rather than taking the subway any day. (I blame it on the CHUDs.)

Now I take the El to and from work every day, and use it to get around to a smaller extent on weekends. Not only is it a fast, efficient, clean method of travel, it lets me get my voyeur on every day.

I think every writer has to be a voyeur. You have to be able to look at people and wonder what’s going on inside. It’s one tiny part Sherlock Holmes — glance at the person sitting across from you on the train and figure out as much as you can about them — and many, many parts imagination. Everybody has a story. Probably you’ll never know it, so make one up. You’ve got to want to know. You’ve got to be a voyeur.

The El has stories every day.

There was the group of teen Muslim girls carrying Victoria’s Secret bags. The older girls sported traditional head coverings; one was emblazoned with the Calvin Klein "CK" pattern. They stood next to a group of women in their 20s wearing traditional Hindu garb. One of the Hindu women stood — she’d been sitting — so the youngest Muslim child could sit. There were smiles and thanks all around.

Next to the girls stood a tattooed man in his late 40s or early 50s. I could see a centaur (representing Sagittarius, maybe) on his right forearm and Felix the Cat on the right side of his neck. Why Felix? It made me think of a Felix stamp — the rubber kind, that you had to press in an inkpad — that my aunt Margo gave me as a child. The tattooed man was thumbing through a pocket Bible with a battered black covered and gold edging on the pages.

Speaking of tattoos, I recently rode with two tattooed men speaking in a foreign language — I couldn’t figure out which — who looked like they were in a punk band. (The huge backpacks gave them away as tourists.) One had elaborate ink, including a dragon and a devilish joker holding a pair of dice.

There were the two young boys each sitting on a milk crate next two stacks of empty plastic buckets. They were on their way to Wrigley Field to drum on the street for tips. (Such drummers are common in Chicago.) One was eating chili from a Styrofoam bowl; the other was drumming nervously on his feet, the train doors, the lip of the buckets — unpleasantly loud in a small train car.

I occasionally see the same people more than once. The modelesque blonde who works at a magazine near my office — I keep wondering whether she’s a model or a writer. The tall, gaunt man who reads his Koran from downtown until the DePaul University stop. The older man who wears Members Only jackets but looks uncannily like old artwork of Lamont Cranston, aka The Shadow. ("Who knows what evil lurks…")

I give them stories, and they become real in my imagination. I give them jobs, dreams, sex lives. They give me inspiration.

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