Thursday, December 08, 2005

Santa Train

Chicago Santa Train, originally uploaded by regrodriguez.

In Chicago at Christmastime, we have the Santa Train (click on the title of this post for the link). The Santa Train is a fully decorated Chicago Transit Authority el train with a flatbed in the middle that carries a sleigh and an actual live Santa Claus. The CTA officially calls it the "Holiday Train," but I like "Santa Train" better.

I love the Santa Train. I first encountered it at the end of November in 2002, a bad holiday season during which I battled depression and did a lot of crying. I had left a friend’s holiday party early on a Saturday night and was standing on the frozen platform waiting for the el. As usual I was wiping tears away when it arrived -- only this train was glowing with lights from end to end and had a guy booming “Merry Christmas!” from a gleaming flatbed! I was surprised out of my gloom and readily accepted this early Christmas fun. It felt like a gift and it felt great.

Each year I go online to find out when the Santa Train will run and at what station I can catch it. The following year I was very disappointed because its schedule and mine hadn’t synched up. I sadly gave up on it, but running errands after work one night, I ended up at an el stop I don’t usually use. I stood there bogged down with groceries, when what to my eyes should appear but the Santa Train! I hadn’t missed Christmas after all. I was so excited. I waved enthusiastically at Santa Claus as the train came to a stop.

As usual the entire train was stunningly lit and the flatbed was decorated with the brightest of outdoor lights. I wondered again how the man in the Santa suit could stand it: he sat there on the glittering sleigh in the open air, withstanding not only the Chicago cold, but the wind chill of travelling at typical el train speeds. The dedication amazed me.

As I stepped inside, I grinned at the pretend Christmas conductor and elf who stood just inside the car, handing out candy canes. The train was full of families out just to ride the train, and caught-off-guard commuters who were trying to look like it was normal for the el car to glow with red and green lights and blare Christmas tunes.

I was happily grasping a candy-striped handrail pole and beaming at all who would make eye contact when the music cut out. What happened to the music? I made my way to the “conductor” and said, “Hey, the music stopped. What happened?”

“Oh, sometimes the system doesn’t work. It should come back on eventually,” he reassured me.

“Should we switch to manual?” I joked and he chuckled. But as the train remained music-less, the switching-to-manual idea stayed with me. I made my way to the middle of the car and wondered if I should try it. I hesitated for a minute and then called out, “Hey, everybody! The music stopped so let’s all sing! Jingle bells! Jingle bells!

They surprised me with such enthusiastic cooperation that by the second “Jingle bells!” my voice was drowned out. When we finished that one, I launched us into another, but by the third song a couple of boys were ready with “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and my job as leader was happily over. At my stop a few minutes later, I yelled, “I gotta go, but keep singing!”

I think of the medical professions as the most useful. If there’s an emergency, whose presence is more appreciated than a nurse or doctor who happens to be in the vicinity? Those are useful things to be. I sometimes wonder, what’s the good of a musician? How do we make a difference? What kind of emergency would it have to be for someone to think, “If only there were a singer in the house!”

Now I know. It would be an emergency like that: the Santa Train needed music and thank God I was there to step in! Days later a woman with small children approached me on the street in my neighborhood. She said, “Hi, you were on the Santa Train the other night, weren’t you? We were in the same car and we were singing with you.” She told me that after I got off the train that night, the car had continued singing all the way to the end of the line. My work there was done.

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