Barr, 72, of Riverwoods, is an award-winning poet and short-story writer, as well as a professor emerita in creative writing and Spanish at Lake Forest College. Originally from Louisville, Ky., she calls herself a “typical suburban person.” Even when she lived in Chicago years ago, she didn’t ride the “L” much and mostly took buses.
“I get lonely driving a car,” Barr said. “I’m always on the phone, hands-free, talking to my daughter or my sister-in-law or my mother’s best friend in Louisville. But when I’m on the ‘L,’ I’m seeing stuff going on, and I’m nosy. I like that, being with other people.”
So far, Barr’s “L” rides to and from Edgewater have resulted in 16 poems, which she hopes to eventually publish as a chapbook, which is a small poetry collection, typically in pamphlet form. Her “’L’ poems” include pieces about the history of the Cabrini Green housing development, early rapid transit developer and notorious rascal Charles Tyson Yerkes and signs of spring, viewed from train windows. She has even written about the common mishap of being so caught up in a book that she almost missed her stop.
Besides listening in on conversations, Barr likes to peek at what people are reading, and even conducted her own “scientific study” about preferences, finding that 78% of riders use electronic devices, 19% prefer paper, and 3% just doze, stare into space or people watch.
In her poem, “Rainy Day on the ‘L,’” she describes a change in mood:
walk to Bryn Mawr
gray suede rain-proofed boots
Chicago Botanic Garden umbrella
I look down the long gray line
pause under awning then board
we are waiting for a signal
to resume momentarily
gray purse across my chest
black bag of books
black clouds loom
check to see
you have all your belongings
before you exit
Sedgwick is next
Manierre School reading buddies
fist bumps and smiles
expel the gloom
Barr watches people, but also has seen them watching her back. She once noticed a pair of young women kissing, who “flinched” when they noticed her looking, so she turned away to give them space. It was the same day Lori Lightfoot, the city’s first openly gay mayor, was sworn into office and Barr wondered in a poem whether it was also a kind of “inauguration day” for the young lovers.
“Everybody is kind of trapped in their own body and in their own life, but if you’re going to write, to do fiction, you really need to find out what’s happening to other people,” Barr said. She said the “L” is particularly good for poetry, because of all the sounds, and the 8/8 meter of the wheels.