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Opinion: 'I Hate Mom' tattoo never a good sign

(The following column by Phil Kadner appeared on the Southtown Star website on September 24, 2009.)

CHICAGO — I just hate it when a guy boards a commuter train with the words "I Hate Mom" tattooed across his forehead.

"What's that about?" wondered Dorothy Ford when she saw a man with that tattoo board an elevated train she was on in Chicago.

"I was on the CTA's Red Line train around Labor Day when a man got on with the words 'I Hate Mom' tattooed on his forehead,'" said Ford, a SouthtownStar employee who works in the credit department. "Well, right away you're wondering what's wrong with this guy."

Ford, a suburbanite, doesn't take the Chicago rapid transit trains very often, and on this occasion was traveling to DePaul University with her daughter and three granddaughters.

The fellow with the tattoo soon began making threats, according to Ford.

"He said he had bombs and dynamite," she said. "He said we, the other passengers, were all crazy and he was going to kill all of us.

"A man sitting across the aisle from him told him he was scaring the other passengers and asked him to be quiet, but that just caused him to become more animated and irritated.

"He was talking to this other man but kept staring at us, this group of women, and I got scared enough to take out my cell phone, keeping it out of sight and put my hand on the buttons to call 911."

It just so happens that about the same time, federal authorities had put out an alert to transit agencies across the country about a possible terrorist attack on commuter trains.

"I didn't know what to do," Ford said. "I don't think this guy was a terrorist. I just think he was a nut. But the train wasn't very crowded, and if I had tried to call 911, he would have seen me and overheard me talking to the dispatcher.

"So I didn't want to take a chance on provoking him until he actually did something more, like try to harm someone."

The suspicious man, whom Ford described as middle-aged and rather large, got off the train at the State Street/Grand Avenue station.

"At the next stop, we got off the train and we looked for an attendant to report this guy," Ford said. "There was no one around. I eventually found a police officer and told him what had happened and gave him a description of the man and he called it in on his radio. That was about 10 minutes later.

"But what if this man had gone a step further? What do you do? I was just praying that nothing would happen because you are basically just waiting to die. It was not a comfortable feeling."

And that got me to wondering just what commuters should do in a dangerous situation, whether they're feeling threatened by a thug, a terrorist or someone with a mental problem.

I telephoned officials at Metra, the commuter rail agency, and was told that since 9-11, recordings play all the time in the passenger cars, telling people to report any suspicious activity to a conductor.

"The conductor has access to the engineer, and they have radio access to authorities if there's a serious threat," a Metra spokeswoman said. "At train stations, if people see something suspicious, we urge them to tell the station attendant.

"All of our employees have been trained in what to do in the event of a suspicious person or possible threat to passengers," she said. "We can secure the station, if necessary, before a person even boards the train by contacting local law enforcement officials."

If a threatening passenger is already on the train, police would try to board the train at its next stop, the Metra spokeswoman said.

A spokeswoman for the CTA said she would have to contact other officials and get back to me about what passengers should do in a situation where they feel threatened.

That struck me as strange.

Since 9-11, I would have thought that all transit agencies would have a plan in place, known by all its employees, for dealing with suspicious characters.

"I'm sure we do," the CTA spokeswoman said, but she quickly added she would still have to talk to some other people at the transit agency before she could tell me what the official response would be.

She later sent me an e-mail, stating that "customers are encouraged to report any suspicious activity they observe by notifying the bus/rail operator or the CTA personnel on duty.

"All CTA platforms are equipped with customer call buttons and telephones for direct access to the CTA's Control Center and to 911 respectively. Also, each train is equipped with an emergency call button (located under identifiable blue lighting), which provides direct contact with the train operator."

Ford said if she had tried to touch the call button, the tattooed man would have seen her and, well, she didn't want to take a chance on agitating him.

I told Ford that I would have called 911 as soon as the fellow left the train because, dangerous or not, he sounded like a seriously disturbed individual.

Ford said her 9-year-old granddaughter was frightened and said she never wants to ride a commuter train again.

I don't know what people should or could do in a situation that was actually dangerous.

I do know this.

Whenever a man gets on a train with an "I Hate Mom" tattoo on his forehead, I'm moving to another car immediately.

And I'm getting off at the next stop if he doesn't.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

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