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.”

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

1 comment:

David's Piano said...

I love this report... I've always wanted to hop on that train, but never knew where to catch it. Where did you find out?

I love the "har, har", and the pseudonyms.