CTA train operator offers pleasantries and smiles aboard the Red Line
- By Christopher Borrelli
- March 31, 2009
Tribune reporter/CTA Red Line rider Christopher Borrelli has dubbed Michael Powell (above) The Nicest Train Operator in Chicago
(Tribune photo by E. Jason Wambsgans / March 30, 2009)
first time I noticed The Nicest Train Operator in Chicago was when, as
we pulled away from the Wrigley stop on the Red Line, the train
announcement took the form of a kind of city poem: "Wrigley. Cubs. All
aboard. Batter up."
The next time I noticed him was on a Wednesday. As we pulled away from
the Lawrence stop, he said, "For sure, it’s not a Monday." He doesn’t
shout. He speaks in a clipped rush, as if whispering a secret on the
run. Certain details about him were self-evident: As he pulls into a
station, he waves to everyone on the platform; he has the soft,
benevolent face of a grandfather; he wears a blue striped conductor’s
bib and hat; occasionally, he shakes hands.
But that’s all I knew.
I called the CTA to ask about The Nicest Train Operator in Chicago. I was promised that
I would receive a return call. I received no return call, so I called
back and explained: I was looking for a driver on the Red Line; I run
into him maybe twice a week, heading north, around 7 p.m. He probably
has been driving for years. I was looking for him, I continued, because
everything’s lousy and everyone is miserable, yet this man is a bright
spot, a credit to the CTA, a guy who goes out of his way, several times
in the course of my anonymous 40-minute ride to Rogers Park, to wish passengers a nice day.
He reminds them not to forget their belongings; he implores them to do
their homework. He says, "May the Force be with you," and he says,
"Nighty night," "Rain’s better than snow," "Scooby-Doo."
But he is not a chatterbox. Sometimes he goes a half-dozen stops without a single bon mot.
He does not intrude on personal space. He brightens it. He is one of
those rare souls who cares enough to loosen the monotony—and anxiety—of
the everyday by injecting a bare minimum of humanity.
And he works for the CTA.
I explained all this to the CTA, and the next morning I received a
call, and these were their words: "We cannot help you at this juncture."
That night, however, as luck would have it, as I stood in the station
at Grand and State, The Nicest Train Operator in Chicago appeared, his
head poking from his window. I introduced myself. He said his name was Michael Powell
and he has been with the CTA since 1978. He was friendly and
professional, but he said he didn’t want to hold up passengers—so we
Later I learned a few more things: Powell is 54. He went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
He became a driver less than six months after graduation. He met his
wife, Elaine, because she had the same reaction I had: She was a
passenger on his train and she was curious about this guy who made the
unusual announcements. They were married 29 years ago and they have
three children. Powell also has a basement full of model trains. He
calls his conductor suit his "Choo Choo Charlie outfit," and he told me
that he loves driving a train for the CTA so much that he would do it
for free. "But, of course, you can’t," Elaine says firmly.
It strikes me as a shame that Powell has never been a passenger on his
own train. He never saw the woman who sat across from me and wore a
scowl until she heard "Have a pleasant evening." Then she looked at the
ceiling of the train and grinned, not because it was funny, presumably,
but because warmth is unexpected.
I called the CTA to ask if it discourages warmth, or sincere
pleasantries, or if it reprimands for delivering them. Their people
told me they would have to check. Seven hours later they had an answer:
They do not discourage pleasantries.
I called the transit union. President Robert Kelly told me the CTA’s probable unease was that acknowledging one driver’s
quips, regardless of how innocent, might embolden others. God forbid.
Still, I bet he’s right. On a recent morning, the operator of my
southbound Red Line train wished a good morning to the Purple Line
train as both trains sat side by side in the Belmont station.
The operator was not The Nicest Train Operator in Chicago.
But he’s in the running.