Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Farewell Michael...

The end of the year causes most of us to sit back and take account of the events of our lives, our communities, and the world over the past year. Most of us take the good with the bad, and we consider a year to be good if we come out slightly ahead.

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
Another policy that Michael had little regard for was the application of the recorded voice of the CTA that calls out stops and lets the passengers know, as if they didn't know it already, that there was a delay. On Michael's runs, you seldom heard that smooth but impersonal voice. Instead you heard Michael's friendly, high-pitched voice commenting on the events of the day, or just informally shooting the breeze in a stream of conscious manner. As Michael delivered his train into the Loop during rush hour, he would typically bid adieu to his passengers with: "May the Force be with you" or other popular aphorisms. Sometimes he would simply say: "goodbye and have nice day." Never would anyone of Michael's regular riders think for a moment that he didn't mean that from the bottom of his heart.

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.


Ed McDevitt said...

Lynn, that's a superb bit of recognition for someone who sounds like a great guy who loved his job and took it seriously. Thanks so much. On the Green Line we have a driver like Michael. I'm struggling to remember her name (I will make it a point to find out). She greets passengers, looks out for their safety, scolds fools who stand on the blue platform stripe, wished everyone a fine day and thanks us for riding the CTA. One day a bunch of us were standing on the Harlem platform waiting for a very delayed train. She was there keeping people informed about what was going on. She said to us, "You know, you're not passengers to me. You're family! I care for each and every one of you." And she does.

I did travel on the Red Line a couple of times with Michael (didn't know his name until now), and loved being on his train. May he live and be well.

Ed McDevitt

James Iska said...

Thank you Ed for the kind words. I didn't fully realize how many lives Michael touched until I witnessed the reaction of my fellow passengers to the news of his retirement. He will be greatly missed. Fortunately, like your Green Line driver, there are others in the system who infuse life into our increasingly mechanical world by turning off the infernal voice of the CTA. Hopefully the authorities will let them keep on doing their thing. On another note, I'm Jim. Perhaps you confused me with Lynn Becker. If that's the case, I'm very flattered. Happy New Year!