Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Today's commute...

I took the Metra Electric commuter train down to Hyde Park this morning. Whenever I ride that train my thoughts go back to a dear friend, John Mahtesian. John was a wonderful photographer whose work was filled with keen wit, a profound sense of humanity, and not a trace of cynicism. That's why you probably never heard of him.

John lived in Hyde Park and on the morning of October 30, 1972 as was his routine, he hopped aboard a train at 57th Street for his daily commute to work. Back then that rail line was owned and operated by the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad. John entered the last car of a Loop bound train and spotted a seat in the rear half of a brand new double decked Highliner car, but another man beat him to it. The man flashed John a little victory smirk as he jumped into the coveted seat. Since there were no other seats available, John moved over to the vestibule area to stand in the center of the car.

That seemingly insignificant event saved John's life, and no doubt cost the other man his. Minutes after boarding, their train overshot the 27th Street Station. The engineer got permission from the conductor to back into the station, however the crew did not signal properly and an express (carrying a co-worker of John's), slammed into the train at a high rate of speed. The rear of the car where the man beat John to his seat was obliterated. John was severely injured, in fact he was the last survivor to be removed from the wreckage some six hours later. 44 people died in that crash, to this day the worst rail accident in this city's history.

John was fully recovered by the time I first met him eight years later, in fact the insurance settlement he received for his injuries enabled him to embark on the first of many journeys to the land of his parents, Armenia, where he made some of his most memorable photographs. Every time I ride that train I think of that terrible tragedy and of my old friend.


Going home from Hyde Park is always a bit of an ordeal no matter how I do it. The last time I drove, it took me about two hours to get home. Today's trip involved a bus to a train to another train to a bus. Not so bad, it took only about 1.5 hours. A strange thing happened at 35th Street. The train on the opposite platform opened its doors and everybody got out and boarded our train. It turned out the other train was from a different line that accidentally got switched over to our line. In other words, the train got lost. That was a first for me, not to mention an unpleasant first for all the passengers aboard the wayward train. They had to backtrack on our train to the last common station for the two lines. The lady who sat next to me went on about how this was her first time riding the L, about how awful an experience it was, and how she just cut her pinky toe open and it was bleeding all over the place. It didn't help when we got into the next station where her train was waiting, but completely jammed.

My second train was an express. The woman who shared my seat and her teenage son debated that fact as it was moving at a snail's pace. For the entire ride, mom and son complained about the speed of the train, even getting a fellow passenger involved in the conversation, wondering aloud why this express train was traveling so slow.

I could have told them the tracks were old and the summer heat didn't help, as a result the trains had to move slowly for safety reasons.

I should have told them to be happy, things could have been so much worse.

But instead I kept my mouth shut, just doing my best to enjoy the ride.

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