Chicago has its rewards: mixed nuts, Lobster Man

August 14, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

"There are two seasons in Chicago," the person is saying. "Winter and Construction."

I don't respond.

"That's a joke," the person says.

I remain silent. I know what is coming.

The person wants me to fly to Chicago and give a speech. Giving speeches has become controversial ever since it was revealed that some reporters have been getting big bucks from groups that have their own political agendas.

[I would like to take this opportunity to say that my recent speech to the Poison Gas Council titled "Mustard Gas: What's All the Fuss About?" actually should have been titled: "Canada: Friendly Giant to the North."]

"We're a journalism group, and we can't actually pay you anything," the person has already told me. "Do you ever do that?"

Yes, I said, but I stand at the lectern and don't speak.

"Oh," she said.

L That's a joke, I say. It's an example of my dry, biting wit.

"Ah," she said. "Yes, they warned me. Anyway, we can't pay you to speak, but we can pay your expenses."

"But the thing is," she goes on, "it's Construction season in Chicago and the expressways are all torn up and, well, would you mind taking an L from the airport instead of a cab?"

The L or El (for elevated train) is part of Chicago's famed rapid transit system. It is a system I grew up with and I know from personal experience that large parts of it are survivable.

Sure, you will meet the occasional drunk, thug or killer, but the same can be said about taxi drivers.

Cities all across this country are now debating whether to extend their rapid transit lines to their airports.

The process can be hugely expensive (the cost of extending BART to the San Francisco airport, for example, is placed at $1.3 billion), but commuters seem to prefer rapid transit to being stuck in traffic.

So you want me to fly to Chicago and take the L, and in return I get paid nothing? I say to the woman.

"Oh, we'll get you a hotel room," she says.

And I can get cashews from room service? I ask.

She pauses. "Mixed nuts," she says.

Done! I say.

I am such a tough negotiator.

So I fly into O'Hare and I find the L station and it is clean and graffiti-free. The cost of a ride is a trifling $1.50 compared with a $20 or $30 cab ride.

the other hand, when you take a taxi, you don't get strangers entering the cab every few minutes. On rapid transit every mile can be an adventure.

A few stops down from O'Hare, four teen-agers dressed in flannel shirts and backward baseball hats get on. These days that means they are either gang members or National Merit Scholars. Since they didn't bother me, I assumed they are gang members.

The train begins to fill up with a variety of people. But nothing prepares me for Lobster Man.

Lobster Man gets on at Western Avenue. He is wearing a poncho and carrying a large clock radio, the kind you would have on a bed table. But it must have a battery because it is playing very loud, jangling music.

The most distinctive thing about Lobster Man, however, is the large crustacean he wears around his neck. Whether it is live, once-live, or frighteningly realistic plastic, I do not know.

If I have learned anything from a lifetime in cities it is never to make eye contact with strangers or their shellfish.

The noise is deafening. Finally, one of the kids in the flannel shirts walks over to Lobster Man.

"You could turn it down?" the kid yells at him. "A little maybe, OK?"

Lobster Man points to the crustacean. "He doesn't hear so good," he mumbles.

The kids ponders this. "Maybe if you held it closer," the kid says.

And so Lobster Man holds the radio closer to the crustacean's ear (or where a crustacean's ear would be if a crustacean had ears) and turns the radio down.

"Thanks man," the kid says.

"Thank you for the suggestion," Lobster Man says.

Some minutes later, I get off in the Loop, leaving the Lobster Man and his pal on board.

So here is my conclusion: Taking rapid transit from the airport can be a good deal as long as you exercise reasonable caution. And bring your own melted butter.

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