Delight at the end of the tunnel
CTA train operator Michael Powell keeps his passengers looking on the bright side.
Wed Jun 2 2010
You’ve been there, Red Line riders: waiting for a Loop train after a miserable workday. It finally pulls up, the doors open, and a nasal voice comes over the static-plagued PA: “Welcome aboard. Nice to see you.” The message is brief but sincere. You perk up a bit. As you step off at your stop, there it is again, a friendly little remark from the overhead squawk box: “Enjoy your dinner. Tomorrow’s a new day.”
If this sounds familiar, thank Michael Powell. Silver linings are the 55-year-old train operator’s specialty. He’s well aware of his standing among Chicago Transit Authority employees, not known as the most cheerful lot. “I’m the Happy Train Conductor,” he said last week while on break between shifts, cracking a gap-toothed grin—the same smile that has greeted commuters for 32 years.
During a ride downtown from the Howard station, Powell’s announcements included simple reminders (“Make sure you have your keys, glasses and cell phone before you leave”), locational cues (“Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs”) and even dispatches directed at specific riders (to a couple at the Sheridan stop toting golf bags: “Good luck with your game”).
“I guess I’ve always been a rah-rah person, always said more than the average driver,” he says. “It’s just old-fashioned courtesy: If you’re nice to people, they’re nice to you.” Just as old-fashioned: Powell’s blue-and-white-striped conductor getup that he dubbed the “Choo Choo Charlie outfit.”
Powell’s positive outlook began as a boyhood defense mechanism. The oldest of four children, he had a gloomy home life on the South Side. His mother—twice married, twice divorced—was unlucky in love and bitter. “There were no signs of affection from my mother,” he says. “She would always tell me, ‘Wait till you get out into the real world.’ She made it scary to think about being on my own. So having a positive personality was my way of keeping myself on an even keel.” After graduating from South Shore High School, Powell enrolled at UIC. He dropped out in his second year to find work. “I tried for UPS, tried for Amtrak—I always loved trains.” For a time he was a courier; in 1978, he landed a job with the CTA.
Back then, Powell says, the agency was easygoing. “All the CTA wants drivers to say to people now is, ‘Do not attempt to board. Doors are closing.’ That’s it. When I started, you could have your own little personality. You didn’t have to do it per the book.” Stop announcements (e.g., “This is Grand”) weren’t automated and Powell had room to ad-lib. “I used to comment on the Lotto,” he says, “when it was up around $40 million and no one was winning: ‘There’s always next week.’” The devoted churchgoer just had to cut out occasional religious references like “Have a blessed day.”
Powell met his wife, Elaine, while on duty. Like many passengers, she was curious about the man behind the intercom and decided to introduce herself. They’ve been married for 30 years and raised three kids—two girls and a boy. In the basement of the couple’s Morton Grove home, Powell keeps a large collection of model trains that he plays with on the weekends, making steam engines and freighters chug through tiny towns. “I put people in the trains and everything,” he says.
Monday through Friday, Powell rides the Skokie Swift to Howard to start his shift (8–11am, 2–8pm). Though he finds other operators’ announcements “mechanical,” the senior operator is not down on his colleagues. “Most of them are good guys and gals. Most of them have good attitudes,” Powell says. “But it’s a high-pressure job. It takes a lot out of you. That’s why I try to make it fun. Otherwise I’d feel like a machine, too.”