After decades of riding CTA, here’s what I learned about staying safe

I can offer this advice that echoes a former professor: Be aware of your surroundings, be sure of yourself and be brave of heart.

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A 95th bound Red Line train travels towards the station on Chicago’s Southside, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022.

A Red Line train travels towards the 95the Street station on the South Side, Aug. 2.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

I was born and raised in the city’s then mostly white ethnic 10th Ward, and from 1978 through mid-2015, I was a near-daily rider on the CTA.

Starting in the fall of 1978, I attended the old Loop College — now Harold Washington College — on East Lake Street, just off Michigan Avenue. To get to class, I’d start my pre-dawn commute by catching the #30 South Chicago bus, then transferring to the #106 East 103rd bus to get to the Red Line at 95th Street. At day’s end, my pockets were filled with change, paper transfers and tokens.

By the winter of 1980, I expanded my journey north to Northeastern Illinois University and later Loyola University, as either student, teacher, or both. I rode the Brown Line to Albany Park and the Red Line to Rogers Park. As for the all-important South Side leg of my commute, I experimented with different routes, taking the #30 to the Red Line at 69th Street, or transferring at 83rd Street to the #14 Jeffery Express.

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I made my commute day and night — sun and moon, stars and rain — for close to 40 years, and nothing harmful ever befell me, even while waiting for the next-to-last southbound #30 at 69th and State after teaching summer night classes. Granted, I was the recipient of some hard looks now and then, but that’s all.

I attributed my safety to something I learned in my very first class at Loop College, as well as from my ongoing CTA experiences on the Black South Side.

Regarding the class in question, the professor was tall, with long hair and nicotine-stained fingers. Each class consisted of free-flowing discussions about writing, literature and the world. Eventually, we would arrive at a subject to write about.

One day, the problem of urban violence and of being a victim somehow came up. He startled us by stating that people are often victims because they want to be. Noting our disbelief, he elaborated. Victims signal something to their would-be attackers: nervousness, uncertainty or fear. 

Before dismissing the class, he exhorted us that we should go out and experience the city! It’s yours! And always know where you are going! And most importantly, always act as if you belong there! Although skeptical (and I still am), I kept his advice in the back of my head while traveling on the CTA. 

As for my CTA experiences — say, on a #14 lurching up Jeffery Boulevard before sunrise — I quickly learned that the people around me were no different than anyone else. Older riders complained to their friends about their jobs, or bragged about their children’s accomplishments, or whispered personal or family gossip. Younger ones groused about classes they were taking, or sighed over the need to find a job, or daydreamed of locating a better place to live.

How did my fellow commuters react to me, the token white guy at the back of the crowded bus? Sometimes we’d exchange a nod of “Hello” (men, mostly), or sometimes we’d share a smile and a “Good morning” (women, mostly). Otherwise, we were silently respectful, immersed in our own thoughts. In short, race really didn’t matter. We were all just human beings trying to get somewhere, trying to live our lives.

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Naysayers will complain that I’ve not offered a solution to the problem of violent crime on the CTA. That’s true, because there isn’t one. The violence occurring on the CTA, and especially on the Red Line, is an extension of the violence occurring in the city proper. In the heart of any civilization, there will always be a certain amount of barbarism.

While calls for bringing back train conductors and the transit police should be considered, conductors are merely conductors, not kung fu masters. They can only be an extra set of eyes and ears on any given train. As for reactivating the transit police, the city would be better off hiring more police officers for the neighborhoods. The criminals on the streets are also the criminals on the CTA.

Some might wonder if I’m placing the blame for violence on the CTA upon the victims themselves. Not so. But I can offer this advice that echoes that from my former professor: be aware of your surroundings, be sure of yourself and be brave of heart.

The city is yours to experience — make it your own!

And I still have a long-obsolete CTA token. I found it, inexplicably, in my change at the end of a very long day eight years ago.

John Vukmirovich is a Chicago-area writer and book reviewer.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

(Editor’s note: Columnist S.E. Cupp is on vacation.)

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