SUBWAY TRILOGY PART I: Fear and Loathing on the CTA

Though I live outside of Detroit these days, I was born in Chicago, and raised in the suburbs. Luckily, I had grandparents who owned a huge apartment complex in the heart of urbia (Uptown, to be exact), so I didn't grow up some sheltered suburban turtle, ignorant and terrified of the ways of the big city. Before I could even read I was all over the CTA, and taking the subway train was second nature to me by the time I was 9. The worst thing that happened to me during my formative years was a pathetic (and unsuccessful) attempt to mug me and my sister as we sat on a bench between the Museum of Science and Industry and the end of the Jackson Park El, which didn't end up slowing me down one bit. By the time I officially moved back to the city to attend the University of Chicago, I was pretty fearless about riding trains wherever, whenever; perhaps foolishly so. But I think my lack of fear actually kept me from being fucked with. I figured if my mostly blind grandfather could ride the trains, often all by himself, then I would never have any trouble.

Thirteen years after I got 'mugged' as a kid by Hyde Park, it happened to me again, with surprisingly similar results. My friend Vince and I were waiting on the 51st St. El platform after practicing at Scott's place (he was the future 'Dread Scott' of flag-stomping at the School of the Art Institute fame) with our band Fudge Tunnel, and we had our 'axes' in tow. I had a bad feeling when I saw a scrawny young black kid jump across the tracks and approach us, but all he did was ask us if this was the Howard train. I thought it was a pretty dumb question, but didn't think much else as he staked out a spot a good distance away from us on the platform. Finally the train approached, and Vince picked up his bass as I picked up my guitar. The kid came up into our faces as we did so, and started swearing his head off. 'Leave the muthafuckin' instruments and get on the muthafuckin' train without them,' he hissed at us, as if we'd never heard a black person swear before, and he added, 'or I'll blow your muthafuckin' heads off.' He pulled up his jacket to reveal something that looked to me like a piece of copper pipe. Vince and I looked at each other at a loss for words, and the kid seemed to be getting nervous.

Then something came over me that I was completely unprepared for. It was rage; a rage at being treated like some kind of dumb-ass suburban know-nothing who could be intimidated by a black kid and his lame swear fest and fake gun. I was pissed as hell at how condescending this skinny punk was being to us; at how he assumed that we were easy marks because of the color of our skin. Perhaps my mishap over a decade before brought back a resolve to not be treated like a naive intruder on someone else's turf. I can't explain all that was behind the statement that burst out of my mouth almost on its own volition, but my response to him went something like this: 'If you want to kill us for our piece of shit guitars, go ahead. I wouldn't waste my time if I were you.'

How I would pay good money to somehow get a photo of the kid's expression after those words left my gullet. His jaw dropped a good foot or so, and he looked completely bewildered and at a loss for what to do or say next. Vince and I walked onto the train with our instruments, and the doors slammed in the face of our would-be mugger, still sporting the same dumbfounded look he couldn't seem to shake off his face. It was almost comical, but I was shaking with rage, still pissed at the kid's gall. Vince and I talked about how unbelievable the encounter was the whole train ride back to the north side, hoping that maybe that kid learned something from us other than that he should start packing a real gun in the future.

Believe it or not, that's the one and only time I was ever fucked with on CTA property. I've carried drums and amps and microphones and all kinds of expensive crap I couldn't afford to get swiped on the El over the years, but probably looking tall and geeky and destitute made would-be marauders pass me by. I always had an ace in the hole just in case anyone tried to pull something on me, too: I practiced frothing at the mouth and speaking gibberish, figuring that there are very few assailants who would have the imagination and courage to get past that freak out. I felt a certain vindication for my unorthodox defense strategy when I went to a women's self-defense workshop and they suggested carrying tablets of Alka-Seltzer to create defensive mouth-froth for those scary encounters with would-be rapists. The workshop leaders said that the white stuff pretty much always did the trick, throwing off pea-brained jerks who feed off of women's fear extremely effectively.

- Russ Forster