Chicago’s train network has been the center of many amazing filmic plot points from The Fugitive, where station announcements give away Harrison Ford’s location, to While You Were Sleeping, where Sandra Bullock works as a token collector at the Randolph/Wabash station. There’s also a risque scene with Tom Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay from Risky Business.
But one of the most romantic depictions of the CTA comes from FX’s The Bear. Throughout Season 2, train cars speed through the background, characters use the CTA to jump across the city, and spinning drone footage of beautiful El stations is used to transition between scenes. Even the CTA noticed. One question remains: Can restaurant workers with late-night schedules and long hours rely on the El?
Logan Square bartender Donya El-Shoubasi has been hearing that The Bear can avoid dealing with the reality of the CTA because it’s “a love letter to Chicago,” but she has thoughts. “If it really was, then make sure you are honest about her flaws and the things that we do put up with, which in part make the people that live here the way they are,” El-Shoubasi says. “There is something to say about the person in the industry that rides two buses to get to where they are going because the job and this industry means that much to them.”
It appears that characters in The Bear use the CTA more than the authority’s own executives do in real life. Of course, those CTA leaders aren’t trying to open a brand-new restaurant within three months with a looming opening countdown that appears in ALL CAPS in each episode. Real Chicago restaurant workers are routinely written up for tardiness, which can lead to the loss of their jobs. Though more bike lanes have appeared in recent years, riding a bicycle during Chicago’s icy winters is a challenge few can endure. The CTA, which charges $2.50, is much more affordable compared to rideshares with spiking fares during late-night hours. According to 2021 data, 75 percent of CTA riders reported income below $50,000, an income bracket that aligns with Illinois restaurant workers’ average salary of $23,593.
Couple the cost of a single ride with the relative unreliability of off-peak trains, and it raises questions about whether the El really lives up to its romanticized depiction in The Bear. “Both the Pink and Green [lines] stop running near midnight, while a lot of us don’t get out till sometimes three in the morning,” Orkenoy bartender Joy Kirkland says.
Commuters Take Action organizer and data analyst Brandon McFadden echoes that sentiment. “Many restaurant workers struggle to rely on public transit to navigate to or from their workplace because of schedules that do not adequately serve the times that they need to commute,” he tells Eater Chicago.
Christina Sprull, a host at Wicker Park’s Chop Shop, has observed that some establishments try to support staffers without cars by organizing carpools. “Getting home after a late shift has always been an issue, and thankfully some jobs will rideshare their employees but that’s not always the case,” she says.
What TV shows like The Bear frequently depict is “walk-up service,” where workers can enter an El station without worrying about train schedules and can expect only a brief wait. But some late-night services — like those at the end of a restaurant shift — can leave riders waiting up to 30 minutes, a far cry from a brief wait. Oftentimes, buses aren’t better. “I’ve spent a lot of time of my life waiting a very long time at a bus stop late at night,” Kirkland says.
McFadden sees the CTA’s portrayals in film and television as more aspirational than true-to-life. “The CTA is presently not delivering ‘walk-up service’ at all hours of the day, and even during peak rush periods, they aren’t consistently doing it from day to day,” he says. “TV shows like Shameless or The Bear provide a look into what myself and organizations like Commuters Take Action aspire our transit services to act like.”
Commuters Take Action, a “collective of frustrated Chicago commuters,” releases daily data about the number of scheduled trains, collects and distributes anecdotes about being ghosted by the CTA, and organizes for better transit. Many of the problems these commuters struggle with aren’t what The Bear characters experience, which allows characters like Sydney to have amazing moments like her neighborhood-hopping eating montage in Season 2’s “Sundae.”
“If I could jump across the city within 10 minutes, wonderful, but really her restaurant visit scene would have taken more time travel-wise versus the actual visit,” Sprull says. Unrealistic? Sure, but desirable. It would be amazing if restaurant workers could move about the city with the ease and flexibility of the fictional characters in The Bear — a better transit system would also make Chicago restaurants easier for consumers to access, especially south of Hyde Park. It’s not necessarily that The Bear has to reflect reality better, but that reality should look more like The Bear. This transit romanticization could be a point of civic inspiration.
then the west loop again back to logan back to bucktown and then back to river north having full meals at each restaurant all in the span of about one afternoon— Blake Rodgers (@TheBlakeRodgers) June 30, 2023
No one’s asking for The Bear to spend a whole episode on a stopped train, or a scene fiddling with the Ventra app during family meal — this is entertainment, after all, and not a local transit drama. “I think in terms of the actual chef stuff, I think we always wanted to shoot for like 50 percent accuracy,” co-showrunner Christopher Storer said on The Watch podcast. Maybe that 50 percent accuracy also applies to public transit. But if a show can revel in the small stuff (forks numbers, Potash Markets receipts, security system passwords — “gofastboatsmojito” is a much-loved Miami Vice reference) and is able to bring drama and emotion out of the most bureaucratic Chicago logistics (see: the fire suppression test episode), they the EL can surely get that same nuance and attention. Until then, Loop server Brian Froelich is happy with all the El footage already in the show. “The montages make the show ‘bearable,’” he says. “It’s the best part.” Froelich himself doesn’t even take the CTA — he’d like to, but it’s been too unreliable, so he drives.
As the twin SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America strikes continue, FX was unable to confirm how transit is approached and portrayed on The Bear. But a lot is implied: Sydney sold her car when she went bankrupt, Tina and Ebra don’t drive, and Carmy has to call Claire for a ride to Winnetka. According to 2021 census data, 51 percent of Chicagoans drive to work, and The Bear uses these moments in the car not as a place to explore the city, but a place for characters to explore themselves. In “Bolognese,” “Uncle” Jimmy Cicero’s parked car becomes a confessional for Sugar and Cicero to discuss interest rates and proper child-rearing. In “Pop,” Claire uses the privacy of the Winnetka car errand to finally discuss the death of Carmy’s brother.
Richie’s car is a place for him to fully be himself, without his abrasive Season 1 personality or his protective shell of Season 2’s suits. The first time he’s not an asshole is in the privacy of his own car (“Hands”), and when he emerges from working a Michelin-starred Ever in “Forks,” he celebrates by racing down Chicago alleys screaming the lyrics to “Love Story.” It’s dark, after a long shift — but Richie doesn’t care about CTA schedules! He has the freedom of the car to guide him alongside Taylor Swift. In a show with limited or muted personal space, he can call his car his own. “I wasn’t expecting company, by the way,” Richie tells Sydney when she drives with him. “These Arby’s cups are from different visits.”
Brand new film tours that center on Chicago trains in movies are popping up this summer. But those who commute via public transportation bring a special perspective to the table, says El-Shoubasi.
“No matter how long I have been doing this, there is something almost like a fullness that I can’t describe about getting on the bus to go home and looking around at all people in black with their shirts unbuttoned and a bag with their restaurants' namesakes carrying leftovers of comida on their way home,” she says. “Silent camaraderie in knowing we all just had the same kind of day.”
Disclosure: Certain roles within Eater are unionized with the Writers Guild of America, East.