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For car aficionado, CTA looks better in rear-view mirror

One license plate roaming the city seems to condense the hopes and dreams of regular users of the Chicago Transit Authority into seven simple letters.

It reads: NO MO CTA

Its owner, Jerry Giovannelli, once turned down an offer from a CTA bus driver who, upon retirement, desperately wanted to buy his vanity license plate for $10,000.

Giovannelli’s history with the plate runs deep.

As a teenager growing up on the Northwest Side, he struck a deal with his dad: If I get straight A’s, you buy me the old beat up Chevrolet Corvette Stingray our neighbor is trying to sell.

“So one day my dad tells me to come to the garage, he got me the Stingray. So I go in and he opens the freezer door and has me remove two shelves and there was a stingray — a fish,” recalled Giovannelli. “I said, ‘Yea. OK,’ and walked away. . . . And he’s laughing. He says, ‘You know how much this cost? This is good when you slice it up and put it on the grill.’ ”

He was stuck with the CTA.

Jerry Giovannelli | Saiyna Bashir/Sun-Times

Jerry Giovannelli | Saiyna Bashir/Sun-Times

At 23, after serving as a pilot in the Illinois National Guard, Giovannelli was attending class at the University of Illinois at Chicago — a commute that required CTA buses and trains.

“I was flying helicopters in the Army, and there I was still taking the bus and I was just like, ‘Screw it. I’m buying a car,’ ” Giovannelli said.

“I bought a BMW M3 and I haven’t looked back,” he said.

The vanity plate, which he pays a yearly fee to maintain, has since moved to a Lexus, and, more recently, a nicer Lexus.

Giovannelli, 37, noted that he buys all of his cars used and never pays over half the sticker price.

“I like cars. You’ve got to like something in life,” said Giovannelli, who lives in the western suburbs with his wife and two sons and works as director of construction and planning at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

“Every single day people see the plate and honk, wave, smile, laugh — all positive. I think to go from the CTA to a nicer car like that, it’s a real story. I think people write their own story.”

Giovannelli thinks perhaps his appreciation for cars — and his relationship with the CTA — came from his dad, John Giovannelli, who once, as a young man, owned a Corvette — until his roommate crashed it.

“After the accident, his roommate fled the state and my dad was left holding the bag for the crash. He lost his license for three years and had to take the CTA the entire time. So I guess he thought, ‘If it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me.’ ”

Another of his father’s arguments for taking the train: When else are you going to have someone open the door for you?

“My dad is a character,” said Giovannelli, who loves his father but sometimes did not fully appreciate his sense of humor growing up.

“He came from nothing and worked his way up,” he said. “He came here when he was 18 from Italy and went to Northwestern and IIT and went on to help design nuclear power stations.”

“He had me working at the age of 6, helping him carry material that he’d use to refinish basements in the neighborhood. A few years later I was cutting lawns.”

His parents did finally help him buy his first car.

“But I learned a lot before that day ever came,” he said.