Paradisiac's Corner - Shanks On A Train
by Arvo Zylo

I was asked by Machine Media to drop them a blurb of 100-200 words about my most memorable experience on Chicago's public transit, and this is what happened:

Some time in 2003, I was working the graveyard shift at the Dunkin’ Donuts location on Clark and Belmont, catering to any number of drunks, jerk-off baseball fans, punk rockers, goths, homeless people, and scumbags on a nearly full-time basis (3 days one week, 6 days the next), but I’d have to say that our primary clientele was transsexual hookers. They would often visit in a group of 5 or so, order one donut, and sit there for hours, as if they were on break from standing on the corner. It got to a point where I knew all of their names and a little bit about each of them.

Their pimp was a tall, skinny person who looked like a man with a slim mustache, a lot of gold jewelry, and a lot of feminine gestures about him. He had a sort of delicate, medicated calmness devoid of machismo, but still somehow confident and commanding when he ordered his “Coolatas” or vanilla donuts with sprinkles. What I came to learn though, is that while he was their pimp, the transsexual prostitutes also existed as an autonomous gang or a branch of a gang, as it goes, who also, to their apparent benefit, had a leader. She, too, was tall and skinny, but much more gruff and formidable in her presence, always wearing red ruffled dresses, and always looking angry even if she was telling a joke. Through time, I gathered that her brother was a leader of a long-standing and far-reaching gang.

This knowledge came in handy regarding a couple of incidents. One day I was returning from L & L tavern, when they still served absinthe, on my lunch break just before 2 am. I remember wanting to be alarmed, but not quite registering it past everyday occurrences when I saw a bunch of trannies in the parking lot, about 15 in total, waving around broken broomsticks, steak knives, bike locks, chains, and the little baseball bats that they give out at Wrigley Field sometimes. They were yelling and arguing violently in the vacant summer night, like as if it was out of some grainy1980’s low budget gang movie. All I could hear was the echoing words “MOTHERFUCKER!!”, “BITCH”, and “THAT’S BULLSHIT!” in between lots of herd tumult and expletives bouncing off of the sleeping buildings. I casually walked into Dunkin’ Donuts to find that my co worker, a 60 year old Middle Eastern woman, was panicky, hiding behind the counter, and about to call the cops. I reasoned with her, tried to calm her down, and told her that if she called the cops, we might end up being questioned at length or in the police station filling out incident reports, and I don’t get paid that much. To my disbelief, in the 4 months that I worked there, I saw maybe two police officers come in, and that includes the times that my co-worker actually did call the police. Even on the night when I saw six police vehicles, including a police truck in the parking lot for what seemed to be merely a drunk driver they’d pulled over, not one officer had a craving for a pastry. Eventually, I convinced my “team member” in the clearest impersonation of her thick accent while also trying very hard not sound patronizing, that I would handle the scuffle without police.

Outside, the situation was rectified more easily than I expected. I’d gathered that one trannie threw a rock at another trannie for reasons that I can only presume were scandalous or territorial, and so reinforcements were delegated and arrangements were made for the chance meeting at the parking lot of Dunkin’ Donuts. The leader’s brother had more on the way. I patiently walked into the circle and calmly suggested that if anything is going to happen, it cannot happen in this parking lot. In the middle of people yelling, arguing, and threatening, I asked a number of people individually, and in a very civil way, that there is a frantic old foreign lady itching to call the police, and if they could relocate their engagement to somewhere that isn’t well-lit, and on the corner of two busy streets.

Each person, riled up and itching to fight, replied politely that they don’t make any moves without the consent of their leader. After the third or fourth person I asked of the people who looked as if they were immediately going to swing, I finally got to the leader, who naturally was standing in the least vulnerable position, hence my reasons, in the immediate heat of things, for not going to her in the first place. I introduced myself with a brisk handshake in case she didn’t remember, and explained that there’s nothing I can do to prevent my co-worker from calling the police, that this altercation would be better pursued somewhere like an alley. She affirmed and wasted no time, authoritatively snapping her fingers and exclaiming “C’mon girls, let’s go”. At an instant, they all ignored the opposing party, flipped back their hair, and walked behind their leader with a confident strut, as always. It was a truly amazing sight to behold, a group of people with the character traits and habits of a greaser gang, just short of a secret whistle and a fat guy named “Slim”.

That is why my later experience on the CTA was so memorable. I’ve been exposed to Chicago’s Public Transit pretty regularly since I was a freshman in high school; having never owned a car, and never quite latching on to the bicycle phenomenon. I’ve partaken in all manner of madness, absurdity, and otherwise enriching situations on Chicago’s mode of public transportation. The CTA world offers a cornucopia of mental disorders, ex-convicts, half-way housers, homeless insane, gang bangers, solicitors, beggars, gamblers, drunkards, thieves, harassment, and just plain random discourse; sometimes life-affirming, usually not.

One night I caught the last car on a red line train in a hurry, running into one of those cars where a bum had shat in the corner, piled in a heap of splattered, blackened diarrhea, stinking up the whole place like burnt corn and dead fish. It was truly repugnant. I live in a part of town that is particularly rife with homeless people, especially since two shelters had been shut down right around that time, so I am used to the smell of piss and things like that, but this had to be the fecal matter of some junky having withdrawals who’d resorted to eating rotten cabbage or something to pass the time. I held my nose, tried to hold back my nausea, moved through the emergency exit to the next car and grabbed a seat by the doors to get as much fresh air as possible.

Just then, 3 or 4 of the regular transvestites from the donut shop walked in from the emergency exit on the other side of my car, sitting down on the other side of the door to me. They quietly sat down together until someone else came in behind them.

One of the trannies of the group, “Miss Jennifer” (the only name of theirs that I can remember), had always been the one that was the most convincing as an attractive woman. She was the one that people would quietly ask me about at the counter. “Is that really a guy?” or “Damn, I was checkin’ out her ass, until I saw her Adam’s apple!” She was more articulate and insightful than the rest, and I had engaged in conversation with her less than often, but more than seldom. She had a voice that was very high in register and often sounded like a squeal, so I would at least smirk if not become awkward when she would flirt with me either to make other people feel uncomfortable or to please herself in the knowledge that I wouldn’t say anything derogatory to her or talk down. It wasn’t embarrassment though, it was more that her voice worked in a way that seemed to be from an otherworldly creature, amplified by the stereotypical lisp.

I said hello to her and she pleasantly waved back, so I asked across the train how she was doing, and just then another guy walked through the same emergency door they’d entered through. He’d been following them and threatening them about the gang he was in and what area he was claiming; a black kid from the west side, about 15 years old that couldn’t have weighed much more than 100 pounds. She walked over and sat next to me, giving me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. The rest of her group followed, as well as the kid, getting louder and throwing up gang signs. The other three were standing adjacent to us, understating the young thug’s status (or lack thereof) and brushing off his barking. Then he threw up a gang sign with his hands about 2 inches from the leader’s face.

The leader swiftly pulled out her flimsy steak knife and started yelling, brimming with anger. Again, the only words I could make out were “SHANK”, “NIGGER”, “MOTHERFUCKER” and other exclamations of the sort, but she eventually pushed him onto us, causing Miss Jennifer next to me to start swinging at him and yelling with her particularly shrieking voice. He got back up, and immediately I was watching the leader swiping a knife back and forth in his direction as he was being punched in the ribs from the side. Somehow, he backed off, said some self-inflammatory parting words, and went through the other emergency door that led to the “shit car”. Until our stop at Belmont, we all engaged in small talk and made jokes about the fact that he’s probably sitting in the car that reeks of foulness, with nowhere else to go until he gets to his stop, trying to reassure himself that he’s still a bad boy. I could just see the pseudo-machismo energy trickle out of him while he ponders being “punked out” by some “faggots” dressed like “bitches” who take it in the ass for a living.