Saturday, January 10, 2009

CTA stories: Five-finger discount

This morning, I managed to hook the power cord of my laptop with my foot and drag it to the floor. The impact did a lot of damage; wires protruded from the back hinge, and the prong on the power cord was split. The girl at the Apple store didn't think it was worth saving. "It'll probably cost at least $750.00 to get it repaired. I mean, if it were me, I'd just get a new one." So, I did. "Seth," who looked too young to have a business card, will transfer the files from my trashed laptop. I had to stop at work to read my email and do this post. So, no music this Sunday. I will do whatever people used to do before there was an internet. I had this partially finished CTA story sitting around, so here ya go.

Although they only have engineers now, until mid-1990s every CTA train also carried a conductor. Conductors announced stops and delays, operated doors and were responsible for passenger safety. When I first moved to Chicago, a number of lurid crimes occurred on public transportation. The rape in broad daylight on a Loop platform. The stickup man on the afternoon west-bound who killed an Oak Park father of two. The young artist slashed across the throat with a razor. If I was traveling alone, I always got on the car with the conductor. It's safer to ride now, but I miss having conductors.

One of the Ravenswood line conductors livened his announcements with a little stage patter. I paraphrase: "Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Love Train. We are currently cruising at an altitude of 30 feet and at speeds between 15 and 25 miles per hour. Please relax and let us do the driving; however, do keep an eye on your purses and wallets, to prevent practitioners of the five-finger discount."

Pick-pocketing was common in the 80s, as was the related crime of chain snatching. Some of the older trains with no air-conditioning were still in commission. A mark wearing a gold chain would be sitting next to one of the open windows. The perp got off at the next stop, reached in and BAM! ripped the chain off and ran. It was nearly impossible for the victim to fight his way off the train and catch up.

I was picked once, when a man carrying what looked like his dry cleaning used it as a cover to unzip my backpack and remove a coin purse. I lost five dollars in tokens, a cheap lesson. A number of people on the platform saw it, but nobody confronted him. That was smart. Remember the young artist I mentioned earlier? He tried to stop a pickpocket from taking a another passenger's wallet. They could get aggressive if cornered.

One evening, a friend-I'll call him Danny-and I were waiting to get on the subway. Trains were delayed, and the platform was crowded. "Let 'em off first! Let 'em off," the conductor announced as everyone pushed toward the doors. One man held up the rest of us, shouting that his foot was trapped between the platform and the door. That was entirely believable, if you just fell off the turnip truck. The foot in the door bit was a distraction so his colleagues could get to work. A woman in front of us wore tight jeans, her wallet bulging out of the back pocket. A big guy in a trench coat sidled up, and delicately started to slide it out. Danny (who later said he had no idea why he did something this dumb) put his hand on the guy's arm. "Don't do it." The pickpocket looked amused. He put his arm around Danny's shoulder and said, in nearly a whisper, "If you do that again my friend, I'm gonna knock you out." He released Danny, and all three of us boarded the train. Terrified, we walked through several cars to get to the conductor. "Did them pickpockets get you?" she asked, shaking her head. Danny didn't want to file a police report; he figured the cops would just laugh at him, and he was probably right.


Anonymous said...

Happy Inauguration Day sis.

The Fifty Foot Blogger said...

I watched the CNN stream and wished I could be there. Happy Inauguration to you, bro.

RJ said...

Thanks for having a reference to the gent who did the Love Train shpiel; I was looking for information about him after watching this flight attendant on Southwest.

Yours was the first (and so far only) link I found.

The Fifty Foot Blogger said...

He was a very nice guy, I remember. We chatted now and then. Once, he showed me pictures of his young daughter, who was very ill from some hereditary disease. I hope he got picked up for the engineer training program after they booted the conductors.

Anonymous said...

I know this is a really old post, but I was going through my favorites and ran across this.. just wanted to say your story at the bottom caused me to recognize the very same setup as it was happening on the State/Lake Green Line Platform last summer. I too did what your friend Danny did, alerted to the situation by some reptilian part of my brain that remembered reading this post. I didn't get slashed or threatened, the perps merely ran off but the guy whose wallte almost got pinched was a tourist who was holding EVERYTHING in it.

I know it was stupid but I'll do it again. It's time to stand up to this sort of thing. Anyway, thought I'd share, though I doubt you update or even read this anymore.

The Fifty Foot Blogger said...

Of course I read my own blog, silly Anonymous. Not sure if anyone else does, however.

Glad you didn't get hurt due to your heroics.