My second year in Chicago, my roommate, Amber, our friend, Dan, and I went to see Fosse at the Oriental Theatre. We were all barely clearing the poverty line, so spending money on a ticket was a big deal, and to further celebrate our feeling like adults, we went out after the show for drinks on a school night. It was expensive and classy, the kind of thing you do when you finally live in the city in your 20s. It was a special occasion and called for a special place, so, obviously, we went to Bennigan’s.
Hopped up on those Bud Lights and mozzarella sticks, we made our way to the Jackson Red Line stop. Dan went to the turnstile, stopped just short of inserting his card, looked around and said, “You guys, there’s no one working here right now.” The CTA sentry booth was indeed empty, and from the echoes of our voices, it seemed like we were the only people for blocks around.
“Let’s just jump the turnstile, there’s no one here to stop us,” Dan said. Amber and I looked at him. Sure, a ride was only a dollar fifty (the good old 90s), but we didn’t have much money, and, besides, who among us has not been fucked by the CTA at some point and felt owed a free ride?
So the three of us slipped under the turnstile. The misdemeanor got our adrenaline and giggles going. We joked as we walked down the stairs. “I can’t believe we just did that.” “We beat the CTA, you guys!” and “What if someone’s waiting at the bottom of the stairs to arrest us?”
I had just said that when we heard a knocking and a throat clear. We turned around and saw a badge being tapped on the recycling bin behind us. We only half stopped laughing, because we were pretty sure it was a joke.
“Did you guys pay for this ride?” Stunned, confused silence. “We got you on camera jumping the turnstile. Come with us.”
Two large Chicago police officers led us back up the stairs and onto the street. “Are we being arrested?” I asked, now nervously laughing. “Yep, for theft of service. What you did is illegal. Put your hands behind your back.” The three of us were then handcuffed and put in the back of a squad car—over a total four dollars and fifty cents.
Amber later learned from cops she knew that the transit beat used to be a pretty sweet gig, and if you didn’t make your quota, you’d lose the patrol. So some officers—some—would send the CTA workers away, then wait by the security cameras on the platform for people to take the bait.
When we got there, the station was packed. Because, you see, it was also the night of a huge Puerto Rican Day parade that had gotten out of hand, and about 100 people were arrested. I started crying as a woman pressed my fingers on a screen to print me. We would be out soon, she reassured me, after they verified we didn’t have records.
That’s when it got fucking real, y’all.
Amber and I were separated from Dan and taken to the women’s holding cell. If there is anything everyone has learned from very-special episodes, it’s that you get a phone call in jail, and we made sure to ask. We were told we wouldn’t need ours because we’d be out soon. Besides, the shift was changing and we could make our calls afterwards.
The holding cell was everything you’ve seen on TV: wooden benches around the perimeter, metal toilet in the corner, and cold. Very cold. Dazed and terrified, Amber and I sat on the end of a bench to wait. The cell was full, all of the other women having been arrested at the parade. A teenage girl asked what we were in for. “We jumped the turnstile of the CTA.” “That is some bullshit!” another woman said, and very quickly everyone agreed that none of us should be in there.
Slowly, the cell began to empty as fingerprints were cleared. Eventually, Amber and I were the only ones left. An officer came and unlocked the door. “Sorry, girls, bad news. The FBI fingerprint system is down so we have to hold you until it’s up again.” We were then taken to the real jail cells in back and again told we had to wait to make our phone calls. At this point, it was about 2 AM.
Amber and I were put in solitary cells next to each other. With a slam, I was alone in jail. I had been holding my need to pee for a good 3 hours. I hovered over my still fairly public, metal seat-less toilet, crying, because I was peeing in jail. I curled up on a bench and shivered myself into a lucid half-sleep.
So many things go through your mind when you spend a night in the Cook County clink, like,Can’t I get a blanket? How gross would that blanket be? Aren’t they supposed to give me a bologna sandwich?
But mostly, I thought about Fosse. It was no Chicago, no <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>Cabaret. There wasn’t a storyline. It was simply a collection of song and dance numbers that Bob Fosse had choreographed. It was cool, I guess—lots of finger snapping, high heels and visible rib cages, but when you got down to it, we paid forty bucks a piece to see a goddamn clip reel. Which is 26.67 times the value of the service we attempted to steal.
It was now seven in the morning and clear we were not getting out in time for me to go home, shower, get ready, then go back downtown to work. I had to make my phone call. I needed to call in sick so that I wouldn’t lose my job over a dollar fucking fifty. There wasn’t even time to worry if Cook County Jail was going to show up on my boss’ caller ID, I just wanted to get that call made before he got in so I could leave a message.
I stood at the bars, waiting for someone to walk by. An officer I hadn’t seen before came in. She looked mean, and I was scared to talk to her. “Excuse me,” I said, “but I haven’t made my phone call yet.” Her response was to turn her back on me. “Can I please make my phone call so I can call in sick to work and not get fired?” Desperation cracked my voice. She stopped and turned around.
“What are you in here for?” she asked.
“We jumped the turnstile of the CTA and they said— “
“You didn’t make your phone call?” she interrupted.
“No. And I’m supposed to be at work in two hours.”
The woman unlocked both our cells and took us to a pay phone.
We made our calls, went back our cells, relieved, and were released three hours later. We were told Dan was also being released, so we ran across the street to buy a pack of cigarettes and waited outside for him. Jail really does make you want to smoke.
Anxious to get home, and nervous to take the CTA, we sprang for a cab home. The charges were ultimately dismissed and our records were expunged, but that night taught me this: anything that seems too good to be true usually is; just because it’s Broadway doesn’t make it worth the money; and the cost of keeping someone in jail for a night is about $60. That’s forty times the value of a ride on the Red Line in 1999.
Although kind of traumatizing, that night was one of those necessary tooth-breaking chunks of whatsits that keep the cake of your life from being just plain vanilla.