Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Hostage Crisis (as it appeared to "us" on the Red Line)

3 surrender after nearly six-hour Uptown standoff shuts part of Red Line

     I had planned to devote this post to something tied into the previous post, covering the topic of how when certain gamers find new and cool "crunch" they want to exploit the basic dynamics and expectations of play can suffer as a result.  Seemed like a good idea at the time.  Still about gaming (and maybe I write both too often and too shallowly on that subject) and about where some of my frustrations lie.
     Instead, I would like to share my experiences on being diverted while on my regular trip up to the Dice Dojo (5550 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL).  To get there, I take public transportation.  I have a five minute walk to the Blue Line stop at Circle Ave. (the western entrance to the southern Harlem stop) and the Red Line lets out less than a block away from the store at Bryn Mawr.  The trip usually takes just under an hour to get there and up to an hour and a half to return (the wait for the Blue Line at Jackson is usually lengthy after 11:30pm).  Knowing this, I make sure to leave the house with enough time to have to wait the full interval for two trains and still make it to the store before the 7:00 pm start time.
Okay, I've never taken a photo of  that would really sell what the Dice Dojo is.  So please accept this picture pilfered from Flickr.
     On Monday, I was a little rushed.  I was adding some audio files to the iPod – there may eventually be a post about authors who don't feel the need to stick to the script when reading their own book – and packing unnecessary crap into the messenger bag.  While I didn't do something incredibly stupid like forget my wallet (wouldn't be able to get on the train without the fare card) or keys, I did leave my phone sitting on the table in the TV room.  Not a huge deal.  I had a book to read (with the author reading along with me) and couldn't imagine the circumstances where not having the phone would be little more than an inconvenience or means to let someone know I may be up to ten minutes late.  Sure, I wouldn't get whatever emails or Facebook information pinged through on the phone, but I could definitely do without that.
     I was making good time on the Blue Line.  Only one sluggish drift between stops instead of the regular two or three.  No lengthy waits at any stop.  Just zipped right down to Jackson. Off the train, down the steps, through the tunnel, back up some steps and the Red Line train was in sight.  It was as if it were too good to be true.
Put the train back about 75 feet and it would be a good representation of where the train was for several minutes while "we" patiently waited for it to pull into the station.
     That train sat there – in sight – for about seven minutes.  Odd, sure.  But there weren't any announcements, the southbound trains were still running, and most surprisingly, the musicians performing at the stop (a kind of jazz-blues-rock trio – with the drummer working with just one drum, one symbol, and a cowbell) were good.  It was just a simple matter of waiting for the train to actually pull into the station.  Besides, trains get delayed all the time.
     As a group, we passengers politely filed into the train and took seats or found places to stand.  Because of the wait, space was at a premium.  I managed to get a seat and opened the book back up.  Might as well get some reading done.  After a handful of minutes the conductor announced that we would be standing for a short while.  Maybe two minutes later we received some information.  There was a police situation ahead and trains were backed up.
     I think most of us had ridden the CTA long enough to have – at least peripherally – encountered the train hits citizen event, usually when citizen leaps into the path of moving train.  Sometimes when the police make an arrest at a stop the trains get delayed for a short while; I sat at Kedzie one time for ten minutes while the criminal who stole a woman's phone – in the same car I was in – was arrested and waiting to be picked up for a patrol car.  We were told twice more than we would be waiting for clearance to move ahead before the conductor suggested that some people may be better served by just walking to the next stop (if that is where they needed to go).  Some five minutes after that we were off, but skipped the Monroe stop.
     For whatever reason, none of us seemed that concerned.  We had to wait again for several minutes, but we were now told that there was some problem by the Berwyn stop (this of course was not an accurate representation of what was happening).  Most passengers are off the train well before that.  Hey, I thought, just get us to Belmont or Addison and most these people will be happy.  Yes, I knew I was going to be pretty late now.  I now cursed not bringing the phone along; not an emergency, but it would be nice to let the other players know I would be late.  There still wasn't much discussion amongst the passengers.
     Eventually the police cordon was announced to be further south than Berwyn.  This was followed immediately by the announcement that all of us hard to deboard at Addison.  That got us talking.  What the hell? was the common sentiment from the other white people near me, though these were the kind of folks who take the CTA in (relatively) cold weather dressed only in black dress pants and thin shirts that may be accepted wear for an office, but are certainly not preferred.  Two older black men started to wonder aloud as to what was happening.  One of them had been on the train for over an hour now (apparently the delays started before I saw the train waiting just outside the Jackson stop). 
I have to think that Viggo – and not just Lord of the Rings 'I don't notice that Peter Jackson has been calling me Aragorn for the last hour' Viggo – would have done a good job at finding a way to keep the Red Line in service.
     We wandered down to street level where we were told shuttle buses would be waiting to take us...somewhere.  Much like the underseen Sylvester Stallone vehicle Daylight (1996), the city seems to have no planned response for situations that could easily happen.  No, I'm not arguing that one should anticipate that a truck carrying toxic waste is going to be hit by robbers fleeing arrest and cause an explosion that destroys the tunnel between Manhattan and New Jersey.  But something could happen to cause serious damage to the Holland Tunnel.  And some idiot could take hostages (the story that eventually spread among us) and threaten that there were explosives that could be set off and damage the L tracks.  Have a plan, right? 
     We get down to the street and the only plan that seems to be in place is to shout that we need to form to single file lines – good luck with that since none of us want to wander to the end of a line that is going to make us not get on the first bus possible – and leave space for the regular bus to come and pick people up.  Great, the five people who got on were well served.  Now there was some talk between us passengers, but it was mostly about whether or not the shuttle bus was just going to go to the ultimate destination – Berwyn, one stop short of where I needed to be – or if it would make the in-betweens.  It was several minutes and one CTA worker shouting at us (I appreciate his frustration, and as I remember it none of us were disrespectful to him) to line up.  A bus came and we piled in, undoubtedly overloading it but all eager to get where we were going.
     Now there were discussions.  One woman was going to be late for work, but as she put it, what the fuck was [she] supposed to do?, and just wanted to be able to get there eventually; missing work would have meant she would not get her regular paycheck until her next pay period (this is what she said...I don't know that it is true, but it would seem like a pretty shitty thing to implement to make wage slaves show up for work).  One of the two older black men from the train was seated next to where I was standing.  He couldn't get a hold of anyone at home and was a little disappointed that nobody seemed to be missing him yet.  The woman in front of me asked if anyone had checked to see what the police were doing.  The other white people buried their heads in their chests or heard only the music from their iPhones, but I had my iPod turned off.  And I didn't have my phone to check and see what was going on.
     Suddenly there was a small community of us reliant on two women who were using their much less than premium smart phones to find information.  The rest of us were patient and waited while they gave us information one droplet at a time.  The police were out in force.  We could see the barricade and flashing lights.  One black woman announced that the Chicago Police Department didn't need an excuse to shoot people.  They would just shoot you for walking down the street.  Clearly she lived in the city during the late 1980s when my limited experience supported that belief (or rather that people really believed it).  Another black woman chimed in with agreement.  Somebody said there was a hostage situation and that is why they stopped the Red Line.
     My first thought was, who would take hostages on a CTA train?, because it seems like there is no way out of that situation.  That is as trapped as trapped seems to get.  People started to wonder where exactly the hostage-taker or takers were.  Was it close to home? The older black man next to me grunted.  I looked over at him and he smiled.  "We're just takin' a bus back to the train.  We got nothin' to complain about."
     Fair enough.  Not that more than one or two people had complained by that point.  In this moment of micro-crisis, at least as it impacted us, we sure seemed capable of working together, of respecting one another while still maintaining whatever fears and prejudices would normally be used to keep us distrustful of one another.  He didn't say anything else until one woman was frantic about getting off the bus shortly after we left people off at Wilson.  "You have to push on the door," he calmly said to her.  She continued to shout up to the driver that she needed off.  "The green light is on.  You have to push."  She eventually listened to him and got off.  He nudged me, smiled, and said, "I guess you can't make it easy enough for some folks."
     And that is when it struck me that none of these conversations, none of this experience would have happened if we were just having a normal trip on the Red Line.  The crisis – to us – had no immediate threat.  It would be interesting and some people might be at real risk, but we were almost entirely concerned with getting wherever we were originally going.  We were people that wouldn't normally strike up friendly conversations or share asides with one another but found it to be quite natural as we slowly made our way to the Berwyn stop via bus.  The damnedest thing was that we took four right turns and one left turn but seemed to be consistently moving north from Addison to reach Berwyn. 
     I took the train at Berwyn one stop – it was waiting for us and I figured it would be faster than walking – and made it to my game just over an hour late.  I wasn't happy about that but mostly because I missed out on the play experience.  Sure, what I experienced during the delay would prove to be more valuable than marching my pseudo-Bard through a dungeon – hey other Pathfinder players, my PC actually has the best to-hit and second best damage of the melee fighting characters so you shouldn't auto-place her at the back of the party – but it wasn't what I had planned for the evening.
     When we finished playing, Mike Tomczak and I walked over to the Red Line station and asked if the drama had been resolved.  We were given a very hyperbolic statement about snipers being put in position and that the shuttle buses were still running.  Mike needed to go to Wilson, so he would be chancing it on whether he would get let off there or not.  I didn't want to have to play hopscotch from train to bus to train.  We walked back to the Dice Dojo and asked for rides.  Jim Fortsas gave me a ride to a Blue Line stop – it would have been a long haul to walk to was apparently only a few blocks from his home – and Mike got a ride from Brad Ruby.  I got to go back to reading my book and made it home in time to see the repeat of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
     Still, I have to imagine this experience as a brief glimpse into how people can find their civility even when the common ground is no more remarkable than going home, or to work, or to a game.  I thought back to the images of the mass foot exodus of Manhattan on 11 September, 2011 and how those involved appeared – from the television news presentations – to have that subtle involvement that we seek to lose as we travel among others.  I wondered what the homefront experience of World War II had been like for that generation and what we were missing in not sacrificing, in not sharing in the decade long struggle in foreign lands that have become so much noise for us as citizens.  I experienced this odd moment when the selfishness that has become endemic to the American character was nowhere to be found – at least not on the surface – and advertised selfishness has become a brand of cool.
     The trip became memorable not because there was a delay, or because the cause of the delay was so far from the ordinary, but because of how we found a way to become a group that was quietly supportive.  Well, most of us. Seriously, the (other) white people largely kept to themselves, insulated or isolated by their electronics.  I know that my thoughts on the matter are heavily influenced by Peter Green writing about the turn from public works and service of Classical Greece to the more self-focused, private goals of the Hellenistic Age coupled with Barrack Obama's musings on the nature of the role of the citizen in government (sure, I'm getting to the book a few years late but I am reading it).  But what I experienced was real.  Maybe to random and fleeting, but worth the inconvenience. 

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