Pushed Off the Platform | Feature | Chicago Reader

Pushed Off the Platform 

Why does CTA head Frank Kruesi spend so much time busting buskers?

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By Neal Pollack

Gary Jones sat outside Branch 46 of the Cook County Circuit Court on Tuesday, April 27, awaiting his trial. He was wearing a tweed jacket and a burgundy tie. His guide dog, a black Labrador named Taylor, lay at his feet.

"The city says buskers have no class," Jones said. "We'll show them."

Taylor was wearing a tie too.

Jones and the guy sitting next to him got to talking about the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The story, Jones said, was all about God's compassion for the poor.

"Jesus Christ, he ripped on the rich," he said. "It's safe to say that if Jesus came back today he wouldn't be a yuppie. He wouldn't be driving a Beemer."

The guy thought this was funny and introduced Jones to his girlfriend. "What they accuse you of?" he asked.

"I'm a real hardened criminal," said Jones. "My crime is playing music on the subway."

Jones actually faced three charges of criminal trespass on state-supported property, dating from three different arrests on the Clark and Lake subway platform. Each charge was a Class A misdemeanor and carried a maximum sentence of 364 days in jail. He was also being tried for the unlawful solicitation of public funds, a charge that threatened no jail time.

His trial was scheduled for 11 AM, but Judge William O'Malley had a full morning call. Witnesses for the prosecution began to arrive: two platform supervisors for the Chicago Transit Authority and four Chicago police officers, two plainclothes and two in uniform.

A few minutes before noon, the final witness, CTA president Frank Kruesi, appeared. He was just in time for the judge to call a recess.

Kruesi chatted with his lawyers by the elevator. "Guess you had nothing better to do today either," he said to me.

"Not really," I replied. I'd been subpoenaed by prosecutors, somewhat inexplicably, because I had written a Reader story about Jones in October 1997.

"Well," Kruesi said, "if the court calls you..."

A few feet away Jones was conferring with his public defenders. He knew the routine better than Kruesi did. The CTA had been making him show up in court for more than two years to no effect. But that was before Kruesi was on the case.

Jones has been blind since an accident at age 14. He earned a degree in economics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but after graduating in 1988 he moved back to his hometown of Joliet and supported himself by selling flowers that he made out of copper wire. In 1992 he moved to Chicago and became a subway musician. He'd taught himself to play guitar and learned to read music in braille. He could play more than 300 songs, preferring classic rock chestnuts by Tom Petty, the Beatles, and Bob Seger. He played every day on CTA platforms from mid-afternoon until the end of rush hour, making enough to support himself until his trouble with the law started.

Subway musicians were outlaws until the mid-80s, when Harold Washington's administration set up a licensing system, charging $10 and giving musicians the right to play wherever they wanted. Soon there was an explosion of buskers, and the boom continued until 1990, when Mayor Daley set about trying to ban musicians from the subway altogether. They were too loud, it was argued. They blocked the public way. Most unforgivably, they wanted riders to give them money.

The CTA held a series of hearings, which were well attended by an informal union of subway musicians that had sprung up to oppose the restrictions. Downtown building owners testified that subway musicians were bad for business, and a liaison from the Mayor's Office for People With Disabilities said their music made it impossible for blind people, whose canes were sensitive to vibrations, to know when a train was arriving. "It was all bullshit," says Dennis Dixon, a sometime busker who was part of the union. "Eventually they did what they wanted to do, which was to make it impossible for you to perform."

In 1991 the CTA established a policy that limited musicians to four spots in the system--at the far edges of the Washington and Jackson platforms at State and at Dearborn. Musicians called the restricted areas "starvation zones," because pedestrians rarely passed by. But the CTA rarely enforced the regulations, so musicians continued to play wherever there were crowds.

That changed in November 1996, when David Mosena, then president of the CTA, began cracking down on musicians as part of a campaign against panhandlers and peddlers. Between November 11 and 17 alone, 55 people were arrested on misdemeanor charges on CTA property. Gary Jones was not among them, but his time was coming.

On March 7, 1997, a platform supervisor at the Clark and Lake subway station approached Jones and told him to stop playing. Jones refused. When the police arrived, they took away his guitar and handcuffed him. He was charged with the unlawful solicitation of CTA patrons. Jones compared himself to Rosa Parks.

That charge was subsequently thrown out, as were disorderly conduct charges filed when he was arrested in July and September. While many other musicians had been permanently chased out of the subway, Jones said his arrests only strengthened his resolve. The city was in the wrong, not him. "They're turning me into more of a revolutionary," he said.

He began to show up at CTA board meetings, holding handmade signs. One read, "Just want to entertain while you wait for Da Train." He handed out typewritten flyers signed by "the Busker Militia, freedom fighters for the liberation of free expression." Now when he went down to the subway, instead of playing music or selling his wire art, he'd rant against the CTA and ask people to sign petitions to end its restrictions against musicians. Then in October 1997, Frank Kruesi took over the CTA.

Just before Kruesi became CTA president, John Kass wrote a column about him in the Chicago Tribune. The column described Kruesi as the ultimate political insider and an unbending Daley loyalist. When Daley was state's attorney, Kass said, reporters dubbed Kruesi "Honest Frank" because of his tendency to lie to them about the Gary Dotson rape trial. He was one of the mayor's top operatives until he was dispatched to a high-level policy job in the U.S. Department of Transportation. "Through it all," Kass wrote, "he got a reputation as a turf fighter who tried to make quid pro quo deals with reporters to harm his political enemies. Anyone who challenged him, including innocent bureaucrats, city commissioners and others, got squashed and leaked on and driven into the ground."

Kass noted that the Tribune had described Kruesi as "Daley's Machiavelli," while the Sun-Times called him "Daley's Rasputin." "For those who don't study history," Kass wrote, "think of a guy who would stick two dead rats on the ends of a wire coat hanger and sell them to a blind man for earmuffs. Not for the money. Just for the challenge."

Kruesi took over an underfunded agency in disarray. Despite a desperate public outcry, David Mosena had overseen the passing of an unprecedented array of service cuts. Kruesi proceeded to implement the cuts. He also embarked on a massive lobbying campaign for capital improvements to the rapidly decaying Ravenswood and Douglas el lines. His efforts bore partial fruit last week, when Governor George Ryan announced a transportation-funding package giving the CTA more than a billion dollars. The transportation bill still has to pass the General Assembly, but it has the support of both Ryan and Daley.

Kruesi's most visible program, however, has been his drive to rid the system of peddlers and panhandlers. From January through September 1998, police made 137 arrests for peddling on the CTA and 256 for illegal begging. In that same period they issued nearly 3,000 warning citations for the same offenses. Kruesi says he received few complaints from passengers, but he remained unrepentant about his program to "clean up" the system.

On July 29, 1998, Kruesi approached a 36-year-old man named Redrick Neylon on the Blue Line. Neylon was selling peanuts for Chicago Assembly Outreach, a church on 63rd Street. Kruesi told him to stop. "Man, I'm just trying to make a living," Neylon reportedly said. (He later testified in court that he was paid $4 a day by the church, with the rest of the money going to various church programs.)

Neylon got off the train, and Kruesi trailed close behind. He followed Neylon onto another train and then a city bus. Along the way Kruesi called the police and had Neylon arrested. In September 1998 Neylon pleaded guilty to criminal trespass on state-supported property and received three months' court supervision.

"Do you realize what a mess those shells make on the trains?" Kruesi said at the time. "The bottom line is that I don't really care if people are soliciting money for good causes or for themselves. What I care about is that our customers have a good ride."

"I have taken a very aggressive stance," Kruesi told me last fall. "I've made a point in reporting these, going up to people and telling them that there is no peddling. I'm working to set an example. In our effort to provide on-time, clean, and friendly service, I want people to expect a ride on public transportation that is free of peddling, free of hassle."

Gary Jones got caught in the net. On March 10, 1998, he set up at Clark and Lake to sell his wire art. Platform supervisor Oscar Molina asked him to leave. Five minutes later Jones returned on a train and set out his art again. Molina had him arrested. In a formal criminal complaint, Chicago police officer Thomas Kampenga wrote that Jones "knowingly and intentionally caused a danger and a hazard to himself, CTA paying persons and a canine guide dog (Taylor) by blocking a portion of a CTA platform used for the purpose of persons waiting to travel on CTA trains."

On April 17, Jones was again at the Clark and Lake stop, playing his guitar with Taylor at his side. As Jones's trial would later reveal, several police officers, including Kampenga, had spent two hours "observing" him and called an evidentiary technician to take pictures. After the photos were shot, they arrested Jones and took Taylor to the pound.

Jones was processed, then left the police station at 11th and State. He asked for help from passersby. "I had no way to get home," he told me later. A man loitering around the station made a sign for him that read "Need a Lift. Police Took My Dog and I'm Blind."

"Somebody showed me onto the bus," Jones said. "That took me about six blocks from my apartment. I hung around there with my sign for a while until it started raining. I had Taylor's leash with me. I swung that around like a whip cane. Then I got lost in a parking lot. Finally, a security guard took me the rest of the way home." The next day, an employee of the Lighthouse, an advocacy center for the blind, helped Jones get Taylor out of the pound.

Now Jones was angry. Within a few days, he was back down in the subway, circulating petitions. He also passed out a flyer encouraging passengers to send a letter or postcard to the CTA. "But don't expect a reply," he wrote. "Customer relations is not a high priority at the CTA, as you may already know."

The flyer went as follows: "Bored While Awaiting de Train? There once was much more talented live entertainment for you on the subway platform. The winds of change have been shifting, and they're not to your benefit. Busking is the ancient proud art of performing in open public places, but those who run this system view buskers as beggars and a nuisance that must be run out of a subway on a rail.

"Currently, buskers have been restricted to just four platforms, but Daley's stooge, CTA president Frank Kruesi, seeks to end even that. The only thing he wants you to listen to between trains is a lot of CTA noise such as those unintelligible announcements. Not only is Daley's stooge, Mr. Frank Kruesi, making you wait longer for the train, he doesn't want you to listen to any live entertainment down there.

"Haven't we heard enough noise from City Hall? Which do you consider a worse crime down here--picking a guitar or picking a pocket? Who do you want to see drummed out of the subway--musicians who add culture to our city, or crooked politicians who want to take it away?"

He began singing songs about his situation. He wrote his own lyrics to the Tom Petty song "I Won't Back Down":

I won't back down.

I won't back down.

They send the police to push me around.

But I won't back down.

Mr. Kruesi sends the police to push me around.

But yet I won't back down.

Hey, CTA, hear what I gotta say.

You won't listen anyway.

So I won't back down.

I know what's right.

I got just one life.

They can send the police to knock me around.

But still I won't I won't back down.

Send my dog to the pound.

But I won't back down.

Hey, Mr. Kruesi,

I won't back down.

As the events of the next year proved, neither would Kruesi.

On the afternoon of September 18, 1998, Kruesi was riding the CTA with William Leahy, his new vice president for safety, security, training, and communications. It was Leahy's "field orientation."

"We had been on the south side on the Red Line and the Green Line," Kruesi recalls. "I was showing him the peddler problem in those areas in particular. We spent two or three hours doing that, observing various intrusions on our customers' trips."

That same afternoon, Jones was playing music at the Clark and Lake subway station. Platform supervisor Luis Diaz, who was familiar with Jones's act, was watching him.

"I walked over to him and told him this was not a designated area," Diaz testified in Jones's trial on April 27. "He used profanity, and I told him that I'd give him some time and I went back to the booth. I went up to him later and said, 'Once again, I asked you to leave. This is not a designated area. I'm hoping I don't have to tell you again, because I'll call the police.'"

Kruesi and Leahy arrived at the stop around 4:30 PM. Kruesi says he had intended to show Leahy how the CTA was planning to turn an exit-only "egress point" into an entrance. Instead, he says, "I saw that this person was there."

As Kruesi later testified, he went to Diaz's booth with Leahy. "I engaged him and Mr. Leahy in a conversation about the person who was at the pillar with the dog and guitar," he said. "He advised me he had spoken with the person. I instructed him to call control."

The police arrived within ten minutes, spoke with Kruesi and Diaz, and informed Jones that he had to leave. Kruesi testified that Jones quietly packed up his belongings and began to walk away. The police then attempted to handcuff Jones, Kruesi said, and Jones "fell" to the platform. In the trial, Kruesi's testimony went no further.

But there were witnesses to Jones's arrest who never had a chance to testify. One of them, Sue Jang, described the scene to me: "It was pretty bad. They had his arms behind his back, and he was kicking and screaming. There were two cops on either side and one walking in front. He was handcuffed and they were holding on. He was screaming, 'You're hurting me!'"

Abel Cervantes was another witness. "I remember people protesting, speaking their mind to the officers," he says. "There was a pretty big crowd. People weren't even getting on the trains. I came down when there was an officer on top of Gary. He had his knee on Gary's back, and he was applying pressure on his ear inward. Gary was protesting and saying the officer was hurting him. A lady asked for the officer's badge number, and the officer took his badge off. He told another guy who was in his face to leave or he was going to be arrested too. Gary was just laying there. He was yelling, 'Why am I being arrested? I'm not doing anything wrong!' He kept repeating it over and over."

Kruesi saw the whole scene. "I was there when it happened," he told me. "That's all that I need to say, except that I made it clear to the police if it went to trial I would help. I was put on the police sheets as a witness."

"They actually physically picked me up and threw me into the elevator," Jones told me a month after the arrest. "When the elevator door closed, one of them whacked me over the head with some sort of blunt object. They kept me in jail for two days. They never gave me any answer as to why. I was waiting for them to run fingerprints. Why they took so long at that I don't know. Maybe it was one more attempt at meanness. I was lying there in pain on a hard bench. If they set out to hurt me that day, they certainly succeeded."

Jones filed a brutality complaint with the police department's Office of Professional Standards, but investigators dismissed the case.

On October 21, Jones had his first date with the Cook County Circuit Court at 1340 S. Michigan. The CTA was prepared to go to trial, with two private attorneys, four police officers, two platform supervisors, and Frank Kruesi. Jones's team included himself, his dog, and Diana Garcia, a commercial bill collector who had witnessed one of Jones's early arrests and had joined his cause.

"I couldn't believe it the first time I saw him arrested," Garcia says. "It took four officers to arrest him! Then they showed up with their canine unit. Instead of leading him, like they should a blind person, they pushed him. It's almost like they're going beyond the norm. I can't believe that they would go this far over a blind person. These cops are spending our taxpayer dollars to arrest a blind person when they could be arresting real criminals or helping people who are in need."

Jones faced two municipal misdemeanors--playing in a prohibited area and unlawful solicitation of funds. He was also charged with five violations of state law, including three counts of criminal trespass on state-supported land and two counts of resisting arrest. In presenting the case to Judge O'Malley, the state's attorney referred to the police officers as Jones's "victims."

For his part, Jones wasn't intimidated by the crowd that had gathered to try and convict him. "They could bring in 500 people," he said. "How would I know?"

He had more than 4,000 signatures on a petition he'd been circulating in the subway. It read, "We recognize busking (public performance for tips) as an important part of the cultural life of Chicago. We request that the CTA Board and other authorities eliminate unreasonable regulations against busking that restrict performers to four designated spots throughout the subway system."

Garcia, for one, agreed with him. "I think they're doing a great disservice to the city of Chicago by not having the music there," she said. "These players aren't asking for money. They enjoy what they do, and if you give them money, that's great. Chicago's always been known for its entertainment. What's that Frank Sinatra song? Two people are dancing in the street? They're taking that away."

Judge O'Malley set the trial date for February 17, nearly four months away. Jones now had a lot of free time. He and Taylor hopped a Greyhound bus and went to New Orleans for a couple of weeks. He intended to play music, but mostly ended up drinking and carousing, "everything you're supposed to do down there."

With his busking activities curtailed, Jones needed other ways to make money. He and his brother purchased a fast-food joint in a mall in Mesa, Arizona, where most of his family lives. They called it the Food Factory, and it served homemade fudge. Jones came up with an ad for the restaurant based on his experiences in the subway. It featured a character called the Judge of Fudge and bore the slogan "The verdict is out. Guilty! The Food Factory is convicted of having the best fudge around." When that campaign didn't work, Jones concocted the following: "Food Factory--We Serve the Working Class." He offered a 10 percent discount for union members, which he hoped would create some controversy because Arizona is a right-to-work state.

When Jones returned to Chicago, he'd circulate his petition in the subway or sing songs about Frank Kruesi. Here are the lyrics to his version of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues":

I hear that train a-comin',

Rollin' round the bend.

But I might not finish this song.

Here come the cops again.

They send me to 11th and State

When Kruesi comes around.

Take my guitar,

Send my dog to the pound.

He also sang this song:

I'm just a soul whose intentions are good.

Oh Lord, please don't let them lock me up and take my dog away.

Over the holidays, Jones donned a red suit and performed his "Rock 'n' Roll Santa" act on State Street in front of Marshall Field's. On New Year's Eve, he dressed as Santa and went down to the subway platform at Washington and State, where it was legal for him to play. As soon as he started playing, he says, the CTA began piping music over the loudspeakers. He kept playing anyway, and even popped a bottle of champagne at midnight. He left with $135.

The next night the blizzard of '99 hit. Roads became impassable, and people who don't ordinarily ride the CTA were forced to take the train. But the CTA had collapsed. Parts of the Blue Line stopped functioning. Hundreds of passengers huddled on elevated platforms for hours in life-threatening cold, with no trains in sight. Kruesi apologized for the delays, but said there was nothing he could do--some of the older railcars had experienced electrical shorts when they came into contact with snow.

Mayor Daley called Kruesi into his office for a spanking. He announced that he was pulling the plug on Kruesi's multimillion-dollar plan to renumber the city's bus system. The CTA's public standing, already in trouble, had been nearly destroyed by the blizzard.

Meanwhile, the state's attorney's office moved ahead with its case against Jones.

Kruesi appeared in court on February 17, as did the two platform supervisors and the CTA's lawyers.

"I'm surprised the trains are running today," said Praveen Kosuri, Jones's public defender. "Everybody's down here."

But not everyone had shown up. One police officer had called in sick; another was on furlough. The judge said he'd reschedule the trial for May. But Kruesi said he couldn't make it then. He'd be in Springfield trying to raise money for the CTA. So Judge O'Malley set the trial for April 26.

The state offered to dump the charges of resisting arrest if Jones would plead guilty to criminal trespass. He refused.

"I'm ready to go to prison," he told his attorney outside the courtroom.

"There's a chance that might happen," Kosuri said.

"It's not like it hasn't happened before," said Jones. "Only thing is, I don't want him to go to the pound."

"Who?"

"The dog. I'd want him to go with family."

"If you go to jail," Kosuri said, "I'll take care of the dog."

By the time April 26 arrived, prosecutors had dropped the resisting charges (the complaint actually accused Jones of "passively resisting arrest"), though they would press ahead with the three counts of criminal trespass on state-supported property and the city's charge of unlawful solicitation.

The public defenders convinced Jones to waive his right to a jury trial. To win a guilty verdict, they said, the state would have to prove that he had been interfering with people's "use and enjoyment" of the subway platform, not merely that he'd been asked to leave it and hadn't. They thought a judge could better interpret the legal issues at hand.

The trial finally began a few minutes after 1 PM on April 27. Frank Kruesi was the state's first witness. He pointed out Jones, who was sitting in the courtroom, and gave his version of the events of September 18. The state's attorney repeatedly attempted to get Kruesi to say whether or not Jones had been playing music that day, but Kosuri objected because Jones was not being tried for playing music. Judge O'Malley sustained his objections. The state's attorney then asked Kruesi how many people were around Jones at the time of his arrest. Kosuri objected. Judge O'Malley sustained. The state asked Kruesi if he'd seen a police officer "strike" Jones. Kosuri objected. Judge O'Malley sustained. Kruesi was asked whether it was safe to walk near the edge of a CTA platform. Objection; sustained. Kruesi left after almost 20 minutes on the stand.

Luis Diaz, the CTA platform supervisor who'd witnessed the September 18 incident, testified that he'd seen Jones playing at his station "20, 30 times."

"If he's not playing, I don't say nothing," Diaz said. "If he is playing, I tell him it's not a designated area and he has to go. I've told him so many times." On cross-examination, Diaz said he hadn't seen any passengers near Jones that day.

After brief testimony from platform supervisor Oscar Molina, who claimed that Jones had been "impeding the flow of traffic" on March 10, 1998, the state called Area One detective Thomas Kampenga, formerly of the police department's mass-transit unit, who had arrested Jones twice, on March 10 and April 17.

Kampenga testified that on April 17 he had watched Jones "perform his so-called entertainment" and had called for photos to be taken. The state then presented these photos as evidence of Jones's guilt. During cross-examination, Kosuri pointed out that in the photos the closest person waiting for a train was at least ten feet away from Jones and most of the people were at the opposite end of the platform. Kampenga argued that they had been closer earlier in the afternoon. Kosuri asked if he had any pictures to prove that. He didn't.

The state rested. Then Kosuri told the court that according to the state's case anyone on any train platform at any time could be interfering with passenger "use and enjoyment" of CTA property. In fact, he explained, Kruesi himself had said people were forced to walk around him on the platform that day. Kosuri moved for a direct finding, and Judge O'Malley quickly ruled that the prosecution hadn't met its burden of proof on any of the four counts. Jones was not guilty. He didn't even have to testify.

Outside the courtroom, Jones thanked his attorneys, comparing Kosuri to Clarence Darrow. Kosuri warned Jones that if he continued to press forward with his protests he probably couldn't count on the public defender's office to come to his rescue. Since Jones's last arrest, city law had changed.

On April 21 the City Council passed an ordinance stating that all violations of CTA statutes would also be violations of the city's municipal code. That meant future CTA cases would be heard by the city's administrative hearings department instead of by the Cook County Circuit Court. Administrative hearing officers are mayoral appointees. They can't send defendants to jail, but they can levy fines. Defendants in such cases may hire an attorney if they wish, but they won't get a free one appointed to their case.

Kosuri told Jones that he'd be better off finding a lawyer through the American Civil Liberties Union or some other advocacy organization. Perhaps Jones could build a case like the one Robert Turley did in New York City. In December 1997, Turley, a subway musician, won the right for musicians to play anywhere in the system without a permit. U.S. District Court judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that New York City had violated Turley's First Amendment rights by establishing restrictions on where musicians could play and by charging permit fees.

But so far Jones has failed to find an attorney to come to his aid. "What is a man supposed to do?" he asks. "I wrote letters to all the politicians, and they never responded. Why don't they see this as an important issue? I grew up with this notion of participatory democracy, but I'm finding out none of that is true. All my delusions of democracy are being shattered. I really am banging my head against the wall. And for what? I've got no free speech in the subway. It's not like I'm coming in front of Frank Kruesi's house and playing my music. Not even close."

Kruesi, meanwhile, says he will continue to go after musicians who violate CTA statutes. He is pleased, he says, with the new city ordinance that gives the CTA more "tools" to go after scofflaws. "We have a judiciary that hears cases ranging from felony murder, aggravated criminal and sexual assault on down. From their perspective, our cases may not seem like a very big deal. The problem is that to our customers it's part of what kind of ride they're getting. On time, clean, safe, and friendly. If there are annoyances that they can avoid and don't need to put up with, they will choose a different mode of transportation. Almost always that choice is not transit. It's gonna be automobile."

As for the Jones case, Kruesi says: "We have regulations for where performers are permitted to perform on the system. Gary is one of those. He has a permit to do so in permitted locations. Not in other locations. He agreed to abide by those rules, and he hasn't. I have made a point in working to arrest, or at least remove from the system, people who are selling products, soliciting funds, intimidating people, doing things that are the little annoyances, and sometimes maybe the big fears in taking transit.

"I made a point of going to each and every court date, even though that meant in some cases altering trips out of state on behalf of the CTA, because I wanted to make sure that there is a clear understanding among the employees of the CTA, the police, and my customers that we are serious about wanting to have service that people will want to use. That means we are going to enforce our laws. Gary understands that what he's doing is inconsistent with our laws and ordinances and inconsistent to what he had committed to. The bottom line is real straightforward. We have places where what he does is permitted. He has a license to do so, and he chooses to break his commitment not to do it someplace else.

"That's what it comes down to. Beyond that, what he does has no bearing on us. He's been at a number of the CTA board hearings. Hey, I happen to be a believer in the First Amendment too. It's not a problem. But believe me, he understands the consequences of choosing whatever course of action he chooses."

On April 27, when Jones left Judge O'Malley's courtroom, the hallway was empty. Kruesi had already gone. Perhaps he had something better to do.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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