Sick Guy On A Train And Other Scenes Of A Fearful Chicago

CHICAGO — On Monday, there was time for one last sit-down lunch in the Loop before new coronavirus closures shut down restaurants and bars for weeks, or longer.

So, I took an eerily empty Metra Electric Line train downtown for a bite, hoping to gain some perspective on how devastating the threat of a pandemic has been on Chicago’s thriving business district.

After all, Monday was supposed to be the middle of a long period of St. Patrick’s Day partying.

On the ride downtown, I had a whole train car to myself. The conductor who checked my ticket told me ridership was light all morning, noting he witnessed “no real signs of hysteria, yet.”

“You know how it is,” the conductor said. “Stuff like this virus doesn’t really hit home until it hits you at home.”

Moments later, a tall, thin old man wearing a purple overcoat and a felt fedora boarded the train. He was carrying a blue snot rag that he repeatedly used to wipe his runny nose. As the train left the station, the gentleman grabbed a pole with his snot-wiping hand to steady himself.

I held my breath and socially distanced myself, hoping against hope that guy wasn’t infected (or close enough) for the virus to hit me at home.

At Millennial Station, I got off the train without getting too close to, well, anybody while heading for the exit to Randolph Street. There weren’t many people around. The popular hot dog stand was shut down. Starbucks was empty, and all the seats had been removed. A solo drinker sipped a beer a the station tavern. And only a few folks were sitting down for dine-in burgers at Burger King.

There were only a couple smokers out on the corner of Randolph and Michigan, which is usually packed with pedestrians engaged in a real-life game of frogger with drivers. I began my journey through the Loop with a stop at the city’s busiest Intelligentsia coffee shop, which serves pour-over coffee, lattes and tasty pastries to a steady stream of clientele on typical work days.

The joint was like the Randolph Street sidewalk — empty.

“We’re like musicians on the Titanic,” barista Kristen Ronning said as she kept busy cleaning up behind the counter.

I stopped at Petterino’s, where a lunch date usually requires a reservation. A few regulars gathered at the bar for one last round with their favorite bartender before the governor-mandated shutdown.

While enjoying a perfect cheeseburger and a cup of tomato bisque, some folks grumbled about the political implications of the pandemic that’s inspired a statewide slowdown aimed at curbing the spread of the new coronavirus, which has crippled countries in Europe.

Richard Falen was the most outspoken of the bunch.

“You wanna know what I think? J.B. Pritzker is a fat-a– fascist. He’s taking down our economy, and he’s gonna use this as a bouncing point to run for president in 2024,” he said. “It’s awful for the good people who work here. I’m going to tip $50 just to help out a little.”

“Jose” the bartender kept a sunny disposition. “A lot of these regulars, they’re like friends. I tell them that it will be OK,” he said. “But there’s a lot to worry about. They say this [shutdown] will last two weeks, but we’ll see who comes back to work and if they’re going to spend money. This could last a month or more. I’m just going to stay calm and positive.”

Before heading out, I washed my hands. Above the sink in the men’s room, there’s an artful reminder that we’re living in contaminated times, aimed at inspiring folks to scrub their hands for the full CDC-recommended 20 seconds.

After lunch, I bumped into infamous government gadfly George Blakemore, who was waiting for the No. 22 bus at Dearborn and Randolph.

I asked him for his take on the new coronavirus-inspired closures around the state. He offered this reminder: “[Chicago] government is not always working in the interest of the people,” Blakemore said. “They’re working in the interest of the [Democratic] Party.”

After Blakemore got on the bus, I popped in at the Chicago election board news conference at the shuttered drug store being used as an early-voting super site.

Election board Chairwoman Marisel Hernandez gave reporters an alarming update about one public event — which could attract more than the maximum 50 people in a single gathering as Pritzker has mandated —that hasn’t been called off: Tuesday’s election.

Hernandez said a “tsunami” of trained election judges have quit over new coronavirus concerns. She called on young, healthy voting-age Chicagoans to show up at polling places on election day to be sworn in to oversee the Tuesday’s primary.

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“We are in an untenable position at this point,” she said. When a reporter noted that Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine postponed his state’s primary, election board spokesman James Allen said, “God bless Ohio.”

“Election officials across the state of Illinois are in a Catch 22. We are under orders to conduct an election. End of story. Period,”Allen said. “If we say anything now to raise doubts about whether tomorrow is election day, we stand accused of violation the law, undermining turnout and discouraging voters from exercising their right to vote …. This is not our call.”

All around the Loop, folks from all walks of life grappled with the new social-distancing restrictions.

While Pritzker told reporters the number of confirmed new coronavirus cases climbed to 105, Robert Larson tried eating his lunch in a restaurant where seating areas were blocked off by blue tape and got kicked out.

“I think closing all these restaurants is terrible,” said Larson, who walks with a cane. “People need to eat. People need to work. I’m still working. Where am I going to go to eat? It’s making my life harder. This is fear on the part of the politicians.”

At Potbelly on State and Lake, John Spina and Anthony Davis had their last dine-in subs on a vacation gone awry. They came to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and stayed for social distancing.

“Now, since everything’s closed, we’re going to order pizza to our room and pick up massive amounts of alcohol to drink in our room until Wednesday,” Spina said.

Outside Potbelly’s, State Street was a dead street.

Near Jackson and Wabash, a trio of panhandlers bemoaned the new coronavirus’ impact on their workday hustle.

“People aren’t helping us out no more,” Joe Winter said. “They’re either gone or keeping, what is it called, social distance?”

Stevie Reed, who makes money selling single cigarettes, said he’s scared about more than declining profits on empty downtown sidewalks.

“We’re out here, and we’re surrounded by people. We don’t know who they are. We don’t know who might have [the virus],” the 65-year old said. “I’m hearing about how Italy is, and I’m praying to God that Illinois don’t end up like that. This is a serious thing for everybody, man. For us, too.”

I told the guys we’d get through this together — separately and in small groups, except for crowded polling places on election day.

I realize that doesn’t make sense, but that’s the state we live in.

Mark Konkol, recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting and Emmy-nominated producer, was a producer, writer and narrator for the “Chicagoland” docu-series on CNN. He was a consulting producer on the Showtime documentary, “16 Shots.”

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