Commuting and Socializing and Uncategorized11 Jul 2008 02:49 pm

Four guys and a turbocharged Bobcat are in my backyard this morning requiring my attention so my regular departure is delayed. I opt to stay even later and dial in to a 10:30 AM client call so I don’t miss it. I end up taking the CTA elevated and subway to work.

My ride reminded me why I like public transit: friendly random encounters with a real cross-section of the city. This time it was international.

After transferring from the Purple Line to the Red Line, I decide to entertain myself by listening to my iPod and working on my MacBook. Somewhere south of Loyola the man next me gets off and I notice a young African family, mom, dad, little girl, board but split up to take the seats available. The woman sits next to me and is wearing a beige dress with embroidered designs and matching headwrap but I don’t stare and offhand I can’t identify from what country she might be. They are fair-skinned, slender, and the little girl sitting on her mom’s lap is just a bundle of smiles and enthusiasm, looking out the windows and at me and other people. Just about as cute as kid could be, in my estimation.

Eventually, despite my electronic haze, I notice the mom look at me and ask a question. Out come the earbuds and out comes a piece of paper she has on which is written an address. In slow but understandable English she asks how to get to East 79th Street. I explain that they should get off at the 79th Station and I point to the route map above the opposite doors. “How far?” she asks and I refer to the paper which has an address in the 2500 East block. “About 3 miles,” I say, referencing Chicago’s convenient “8 blocks to a mile” system. I am pretty sure there’s a 79th Street bus and tell her that, to go up to the street and talk to the bus driver. I point east to help her with the direction. She gets it.

An older white woman on the sideways seat is taking this all in. She smiles, then tells the mom in Slavic-accented English that she can get a CTA map in the train station. She then compliments the little girl, asks her how she is, and the little girl holds up three fingers. The woman then asks the mom where she’s from.

At first, it’s the broad answer: “Africa.”

“Where?” I ask, being a stickler for details and just wanting to keep the conversation going. “Do you know East Africa?” Of course, the countries I say don’t include her own country of Eritrea, although I’m embarassed not to understand her pronunciation until about the third try, and only after she makes the association with Ethiopia.

The older white lady volunteers that she is from what used to be Yugoslavia. “Where” I ask. I just can’t stop myself, it seems.


Turning to the Eritrean mom, she now says, “Tito was a special communist. Things were good. Tito and Haile Selassie were good friends” and she indicates their closeness with two fingers together.

The conversation had pretty much reached its limit by now but was a friendly, random exchange of the kind I really enjoy. I’ve had others like this on the train as people dare to engage strangers to ask for help and most strangers willingly accommodate in Chicago, still a fairly friendly city for its size.

I wrap up the iPod and the laptop. Who needs “entertainment” after this encounter with my community?

3 Responses to “Wednesday 7/9/08: Strangers on a CTA Train”

  1. on 11 Jul 2008 at 7:21 pm Simon

    Asmara, Eritrea is surreal and amazing place in Africa, where I worked as a volunteer. I miss the city above the clouds, and the fantastic people not to mention the coffee.
    I believe it has the highest no. of Art deco buildings after Miami. Here are some articles and a clip.

  2. on 13 Jul 2008 at 5:01 pm Shel Silver

    You may have dodged a (probably) metaphorical bullet. The Eritrean political & military struggle to split from Ethiopia began during Selssie’s reign, and though now separated a generation, the countries are, off & on, still shooting over their disputed borders. Meanwhile, mostly Christian Ethiopia has become the US’s main E. African military proxy with tens of thousand of troops in Somalia fighting Islamist militia’s Bush doesn’t like, and Eritrea remains one of Ethiopia’s unhappy & Muslim, though so far unfundamentalist, neighbors.
    Be careful.

  3. on 16 Jul 2008 at 11:07 am I Disagree with shel silver

    As an Eritrean, I would like to correct Shel Silver for the misguided comment he/she made about Eritrea being a “Muslim country.”
    Eritrea is a young nation with a population evenly divided between 50% Christians and 50% Muslims, a beautiful mosaic of nine ethnic nationalities, who can be taken as a model of cultural and religious harmony based on their historical and deep rooted traditions of religious tolerance and cultural harmony. Therefore, to say Eritrea is a “Muslim country” is totally inaccurate and unfair to the 50% Christian Eritreans such as myself. Nothing can change the fact that Eritrea is an enviable model of religious and ethnic tolerance and harmony.

    Again, you also made another error by saying a “Christian Ethiopia” when in fact 60% of the Ethiopian population is Muslim whereas the rest 40% are Christians. It is true that the former and current Ethiopian regimes have sold the idea of “Christian Ethiopia” to the West in order to get food-aid from the Christian donor nations. Although the Muslim population in Ethiopia are the majority in the country but years of oppression by the Christian rulers have made them a second-class citizens in their own country, many of whom are now conducting an armed struggle for equal rights and justice, and some for self-determination. Therefore, Ethiopia is NOT a “Christian country.”

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