For Chicago, my home town, it's been a year of losses. It was a particularly bad year for architectural preservation as we lost the beautiful and historic St. James Church in Bronzeville. We also lost the battle to save Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Women's Hospital which is being demolished as I write this. Perhaps worse than the loss of the building itself was the devastating precedent of the ruling by the city's Landmark's Commission, which declared the building worthy of landmark status then in the next breath, determined that economic considerations trumped that status, clearing the way for the building's destruction. After that disastrous ruling, no building in this city is safe from the wrecking ball.
More mundane to be sure but also worth noting was the loss of the enormous baseball that proudly announced the presence of the former Thillen's Stadium at Devon and Kedzie on Chicago's far north side.
Chicago lost a long time institution this year as all of the Dominick's grocery stores closed their doors for good this past Saturday, leaving thousands of workers unemployed during the holidays. Some of the locations have been purchased by other businesses but the vast majority of them will remain shuttered for the foreseeable future. As many of these stores anchored shopping centers, the businesses that shared those centers no doubt will suffer as a result. And a city already well known for its "food deserts" will have one fewer source of fresh food at reasonable prices in neighborhoods that can't afford to be without them.
There is one more loss to the city that I'd like to note. Today was the last day on the job for a wonderful man who for 36 years was the operator of CTA trains, mostly along the Red Line which runs almost the entire length of Chicago from 95th Street on the south all the way up to its northern boundary at Howard Street. His name is Michael Powell. I first met Michael about ten years ago as I was taking my young son to his grandmother's apartment downtown. As I did as a child, my boy liked to sit up front to watch the operator drive the train. Most of the operators I think appreciated the attention but for the most part kept quiet as the company rules prohibit them from talking to passengers while the train is in motion. Given that by now he's finished his last run, I can safely say that Michael had little regard for that rule. My boy and I learned Michael's life story that day, especially his love of trains. He never wore the standard issue uniform, as you can see in the picture he preferred the more traditional striped engineer's uniform and cap, his "Choo Choo Charlie outfit" as he liked to call it. If anyone was born for a particular job, it was Michael. I was shocked when he told me earlier this month that he was about to retire.
|Michael Powell on his penultimate run|
Michael's humor could be cornball but every once in a while he hit the nail right on the head. My favorite experience of riding aboard one of his runs was the day we had a blizzard that dumped about three feet of snow on the city. The storm was so bad that most businesses discharged their employees even before the first snowflake fell. Since we were in the middle of a project, my colleagues and I chose to stay at work and by the time we left, about a foot of snow was already on the ground. Needless to say, the train platform was crammed with cold and frustrated passengers who had no idea how long the journey home would take. After what seemed like an eternity, a train pulled into the station. As luck would have it, it was Michael's train. Although the train was packed like sardines, Michael told everyone to keep calm, that we were all in this together, and that by cooperating, we'd all get home in due time. His charming sense of humor calmed everybody down and soon he had the passengers eating out of his hand. I'd say the blizzard reached it's apex right around the time our train got to the Sheridan station, just north of Wrigley Field. The unfortunate people who got off at that station were hit by a tremendous gust of wind and snow; frankly it was a bit comical as the poor folks looked as if they didn't know what hit them. "Don't laugh..." Michael told the rest of us over the loudspeaker, "...pretty soon, that will be you."
Luck was with me again today as I left home unusually late this being New Year's Eve. It just so happened that I boarded Michael's train for one last time. I heard that familiar voice and remembered him telling me a few weeks ago of his imminent retirement. Something was strange however. That canned CTA voice kept popping up on the loudspeaker, much more often than it ever did during Michael's runs. Just every once in a while, Michael broke in to say "all aboard, thanks for riding." When our train dipped into the subway after Fullerton, that familiar voice broke in again saying, "My name is Michael and I'm about to retire after 36 years. It's been my pleasure to serve you." There was a collective groan from the passengers. Someone aboard our car informed us that in the first car people were signing cards for Michael. Just about everybody got off and headed there to sign his card and wish him well.
So did I.
I got off at my stop, shook his hand and said good bye. He told me that he'd miss me. I said that I'd miss him too.
All choked up, I never got the chance to thank him. It was always a pleasure to ride with him.
Happy New Year Michael, and may the force be with you.