Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mumbai on Devon Avenue

“It’s finished,” says Kanu.

He’s standing behind the counter in Al-Mansoor Video, on Devon Ave. at Rockwell St. A TV suspended from the ceiling plays news from an Indian network, received here by satellite.

“Now that it’s over,” he adds, “now we are relaxed.”

It’s about 9:15 p.m. Kanu, who has closely-cropped hair above a round face, stands with a friend by the counter, surrounded by Indian DVD’s of fanciful Bollywood productions and other segments of escapism. The brightly lit store, which has mostly DVD’s and CD’s and tapes, along with phone cards in the back, has no other customers, leaving Kanu and his friend with their eyes looking upward.

Another man walks into the store, and then a man and a woman. They all have dark skin.

“How’s your family?” the woman asks Kanu. “Everyone’s okay on your side?”

He replies in an Indian language.

Everyone stares at the TV.

The broadcast, an Indian version of a CNN or Fox News, has a shot of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. Suddenly, the camera shows a man tumbling out of a ground floor window, as if he had been shot out.

Then, the Director General of India’s National Security Guard gives a new conference in Hindi.

“So, how many people were in there?” asks one of the men.

“I think 20,” replies Kanu.

It’s now 9:26 p.m. on November 28. The screen reads 8:56 a.m., 29 Nov 08.

The woman, like the man who accompanies her, has an Indian skin tone but speaks English with a good American accent. Her dark hair is long, and she wears a nose stud to one side.

She says she grew up in America but— and she insists on being paraphrased here, not quoted— India is still her country, wherever she goes. She adds that she just hopes everyone is safe. (Everyone, presumably, means the people that those around her know.)

The screen shows the tag line “Taj Reclaimed.” The words “India’s 9/11” flash intermittently among segments.

The couple joins Kanu in the back of the store, by the phone cards. When they all return to the front, the couple is smiling and laughing. They’re still smiling when they head for the door and say good night.

his is more than 103 years old building,” says Kanu, pictures of the Taj Mahal Hotel flashing on the screen. “It is ancient building.”

Kanu grew up in the city of Ahmedabad, some 300 miles from Mumbai. In Ahmedabad, he worked in a small barbershop. He says he visited Mumbai’s Colaba neighborhood, in which the hotel is located, just once.

He came to Chicago as opposed to another American city, because, like so many immigrants, he had family here. He got a job at the video store, because he knew the man who runs the place from when they lived near each other in India.

We’re also, ahh, seeing images— if you could replay that, as well— of saluting our martyrs. The ATS chief, Hemant Karkare—

Kanu shakes his head slightly.

—was one of them, ahh, who’s been killed. Two hundred and fifteen policemen, we know, have been killed, ahh, in this battle against the terrorists.

“They killed chief of the anti-terrorism squad,” he explains to a visitor as the TV announcer goes on.

And that’s the funeral—

“Hmmm,” he exhales, shaking his head.

—of, ahh, Hemant Karkare, a very sincere, straightforward, no-nonsense officer…

How do Kanu’s friends feel about what’s been happening?

“Oh, my God. I mean, already it’s really hard to live in India. Even where I live, it’s all same thing like this. I mean, just I told you, like, uhh, a few months ago that there was, like, uhh, 20 or 30 people in a blast over there. A lot of people were killed.”

“What they are doing,” he adds, “also, we don’t understand.”

A phone in the store rings, and Kanu answers it.

“Well, now it’s time to go,” he says after hanging up.

It’s now almost 10 o’clock, closing time for the store. Kanu turns off the TV, puts the remote control down on the counter, and walks to the back of the store to prepare to get on with his evening.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Next Stop, North Pole. Doors Open on the Left...

Santa Claus is standing on a flatbed train car at 95th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway.

It’s not exactly where you’d expect to find him. But there he is, with his red and white coat, glasses, and white beard.

Flanking him on either side are silver train cars with strips of colored lights, snowflake decals, and an unfolding winter scene beneath the windows. The flatbed car on which he stands, the fifth car of this seven-car train, has a fake layer of snow, along with Christmas trees with ornaments, Nutcracker soldiers, reindeer (the stiff kind), and a sleigh.

Santa Claus greets passengers at the 95th/Dan Ryan Red Line station. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

“I come down from the North Pole,” says the man.

What’s his name?

“Santa Claus.”

(Not exactly the name a reporter is looking for.)

Is it a long trip down from the North Pole?

“It depends on which way I go,” Santa replies. If he goes the regular route, he adds, it takes eight hours. If he flies commercials flights… well, he might have to make stopovers and whatnot.

The train leaves the 95/Dan Ryan station at 2:55 p.m. for the long haul north. In the second-to-last car, a little over a dozen people are aboard for the ride, among them a few children.

They marvel at the extravagant decorations in what, in its alter-ego, is a regular CTA el car: Metals poles covered with red and white swirls; seat padding with patterns of Santa or Christmas trees with bells; red and green ceiling lights; tinsel and wreaths.

Regular advertisements have been replaced with cute ads with winter or Christmas themes (“The Sharp Dressed Gentleman Shops at Snomann Bros. Haberdashery”— Frostye T. Snomann, president; “Need Glasses? Dr. Yul C. Klearly, OD”). Interpsersed among these are seasonal jokes (“Why didn’t the Abominable Snowman get married? He got cold feet”; “What do you call a reindeer who does backflips while flying through the air? A deerdevil”).

A woman named Phyllis rides with two nieces, Trinity, 8, and Trinity, 5, and a nephew, Philip, 3. They’re making a field trip all the way up to the last stop— Linden— and back.

When the younger Trinity is asked what she thinks of the train, she smiles and covers her eyes.

As the train, with destination signs reading “Santa’s Express,” rolls along, a tall elf with a red-and-green shirt and auburn hair dances down the aisle, a plastic bucket of candy canes in hand.

How does she feel, this elf?

“I feel great, happy, rejuvenated…” she replies.

What’s her name?


Snowflake, as it happens, is actually Barbara Hellon, a CTA employee who works most of the year driving trains, working on switching, or helping with customer service. Today, she’s manning this car as part of a two-person— er, two-elf— crew.

"Snowflake" passes out candy canes. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

At the Sox-35th station, passengers on the platform bear inquisitive looks and smiles as the train pulls in. At Roosevelt, when a man and a woman step on board, the woman remarks, “This is beautiful.” As the train snakes under State St. with more passengers, eyes wander, lips smile, and cell phone cameras go off.

“This is North and Clybourn,” announces a man over the PA speakers as the train approaches that station. “Welcome aboard with Santa Clause and his elves.”

The man, heard by many but seen by few, is Steve Hastalis. Hastalis sits in the first car with a microphone, along with an acute knowledge of station names and the ability to tell what kind of track bed the train is riding on by the feel of vibrations.

Which is helpful, since Hastalis is blind.

Possessing a walking cane and a large, handheld device reminiscent of an accordion— but serving as a sort of personal computer with a Braille interface— Hastalis calls out the names of stations all the way up the line, replacing the CTA’s customary automated voice. An ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Administrative Analyst for the CTA, Hastalis has worked for the transit agency since 1975 and has had the job with this train every Christmas time for at least three years, he says.

He got the position when, a few years ago, he asked who was announcing the stops— and was asked in return, “You wanna’ do it?”

(The answer to that question might be clear by looking at Hastalis’ souvenir Chicago Rapid Transit hat, which dates to at least the 1940’s, when that private company— a predecessor to the governmental Chicago Transit Authority— managed elevated train service.)

Santa and his train crawl back into sunlight as they approach the Fullerton station. From the platform there, a few young adults look hesitantly at the train before boarding the second-to-last car. Once inside, they look curiously around.

Then, for reasons unknown, they get off before the doors close, simply staring at the train as it pulls away.

As it approaches Addison, Snowflake— that is, Hellon— bops down the aisle to the beat of the dance music now playing over the speakers.

Her partner, Jolly (aka Patrice Gray-Johnson), who wears a green jacket with the words “CTA Santa’s Express” emblazoned on the front, shares the responsibility of giving out candy canes. Making her way down the aisle, Jolly reaches a woman sitting near the door who politely refuses the candy cane bucket.

“At least one now,” Jolly insists, smiling. “Put it on your Christmas list.”

The woman relents and takes one. (She’ll later offer it to a fellow passenger.)

A woman and a young boy who have been riding near Jolly at the north end of the car get ready to get off at the Bryn Mawr stop. When they do, Jolly hugs the woman on the platform before stepping back on board.

“This is so cute. I’m so excited!” squeals a woman somewhere around Loyola. “I’m switching cars. I want to see them all.”

She and a friend take a picture down the length of the car, and then Snowflake takes one of them. At the next station, they jump off.

If there’s one thing that is magic about this train, it’s that passengers on this Sunday afternoon can travel past Howard towards Wilmette without having to change trains.

Har, har. Jokes on the Holiday Train. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

In a nearly empty fourth car in the leafy environs of Evanston, Dave Kowalski, Chief Maintenance Officer for Rail Operations for the CTA, explains that the so-named Holiday Train began running 17 years ago. It started as just two cars among four decorated with lights, and ran only on the Blue Line. Aside from entertaining, it also was used as a way to deliver food to people in need, or to charitable organizations that could get it to them. The food came from donations taken up by the CTA, and the recipients would meet the train on the platform.

Today, the train has seven cars and bears 30,000 lights among its decorations. And it still delivers food. On Saturday, says Kowalski, it dropped off 150 boxes of canned goods.

“It makes you feel so good,” he says.

CTA employees spend six weeks getting the Holiday Train ready for service. It began running on November 22 and will continue through December 23, riding at least once on every el line in the system. For the Yellow Line— shuttle service between Howard and the Skokie station, which can only accommodate two cars— Santa will ride in an abbreviated version of the train.

When the train makes a layover at a terminal today, kids can pose with him for photos.

Just how do CTA employees get to work as elves on the train? By having exemplary work records, says Kowalski.

And what about the music that plays over the speakers? The mix of upbeat, and more-classical, seasonal songs?

“I got so many CD’s,” he says.

At 4:23 p.m., Santa’s Express finally reaches the end of the line— and it’s four minutes early.

When this is pointed out to Kowalski, he simply replies, “Christmas magic, huh?”

Tour the Holiday Train

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

His Kind of Town

Last Tuesday evening, Chicago’s Grant Park found itself awash in a sea of people and publicity. Stories of humanity abound: From Jesse Jackson’s tears on international TV to the guy perched on a ledge at Michigan Ave. and Van Buren St.— where throngs of people flooded towards the park— who yelled out, “Vote for Obama, young man!,” to the man who hawked StreetWise, a newspaper sold by homeless people here.

In one night, Grant Park saw upwards of 225,000 people, according to one news report. They came from other neighborhoods, other states, and other countries. Among them were tall people, short people, black people, white people, people neither black nor white—or perhaps both. As CNN blared from extra-large TV screens staggered in the park, those people cheered, they thanked Jesus, they sat on the grass and ate. Occasionally, they looked up to see themselves on CNN.

For one evening, at least, the so-called “second city” was second to none other on the world stage.

Writer’s note: The text and video presented here are meant to tell stories and are not intended as support for any political candidate or party.