The Graham Garfield interview

IMG_5950.JPGToday's interviewee is actually a fellow I went to high school with: we had several classes together but we spent our most formative time in the offices of the Evanstonian, the high school newspaper where, not to brag, I co-won Best Features Editor with my friend Claire (I still have the trophy.) Anyway, after that auspicious beginning, Graham's life has only gotten cooler. Not only is he a new dad, he has the kind of job that I bet makes him very fun to sit next to at a bar (especially if you live in Chicago.) He is the General Manager of Customer Information at the Chicago Transit Authority. He oversees the CTA's signage, publications, and web and social media, and digital user experience. He's also one of the agency's unofficial historians, running the site Chicago "L" .org, which has answers to lots of questions I am confident you've always wondered, like is it "El" or "L," and what's up with those lights on the outside of the train cars? He is often a spokesperson for the CTA: most recently you might have caught him as a source for WBEZ's Curious City or on WTTW's "Chicago Tonight."

We were on the school newspaper together in high school. What, if anything, did you learn in high school journalism that you use today?
This is a surprisingly relevant question! Because maybe a month or so ago, I related an anecdote from our Evanstonian days to my boss and a few co-workers at CTA. I recalled how, being eager 17-year olds, we naturally thought we were Woodward and Bernstein and we'd want do stories about what we thought the administration was doing wrong or some injustice being perpetrated upon us. After we tried to sell him on letting us do some such piece, I remember our faculty advisor, Mr. Lowe (who was quite a nice guy) just saying to us, in a very tired voice, "C'mon folks, I gotta work these people..." So, aside from the smile hearing him say that in my head brings, I suppose the usable lesson there is the idea that sometimes righteously crusading within your organization for something isn't always effective if you just end up pissing everyone off.

Aside from that, other lessons I learned are that working on something is a lot easier when you have fun with the people you work with. And that having a couch in your office can actually help productivity, something Mad Men later re-affirmed for me.

By the way, according to the Evanstonian web site, Mr. Lowe is still the faculty advisor, 20 years later. That's amazing.

What lines do you think are underrated? What's your favorite station?
In some ways I'd say the Purple and Yellow lines are maybe underrated. The Purple Line - the shuttle part, the Evanston branch - is probably not often ridden by tourists, and much of it really is sort of bucolic; some of the little stations, like Main and Dempster, are quaint and remind me of stations on the far reaches of parts of the London Underground. The Yellow Line is a really unusual ride, with so much ground-level running - it's more like a suburban light rail line, which it owes to its origin as an interurban electric railroad later bought by the CTA.

For stations, while we have some neat modern ones like the new Cermak-McCormick Place stop, my preference always veers toward the historic. Quincy, restored to near-original condition, is an obvious favorite, but I also like the station one stop southeast, LaSalle/Van Buren - same vintage but not restored, so it's like a diamond in the rough. But Wilson has always been a particular favorite. It was once a very grand facility, and a lot of that detail and ornamentation remained, albeit some of it hard to see and appreciate. It's being rebuilt, and a new station house is replacing the old one, but the 1923 station house - a beautiful Beaux-Arts terra cotta building - is being restored and converted to retail space.

What does Chicago need to do to avoid the L deteriorating the way Washington DC's Metro system did?
The short answer is aggressive maintenance and good funding. But it's always a little more complicated than that. The situation with the Washington Metro is sort of an interesting one, from both a transit management/policy and a political perspective. I think what's happened with the Metro is the result of a few different things: One is that, basically, the system has finally come of age. The MetroRail system is a newer one, and for a long time it was new enough that it didn't have the aging issues that older systems like New York, Boston and Chicago have long dealt with, so maintenance was easier. But now the oldest parts of the Metro are 40 years old, and some systems and infrastructure are reaching end-of-life, and I think they were not used to having to deal with maintaining aging, declining systems, whereas a system like CTA is used to that and has a program in place that deals with it on an ongoing basis. It's funny, because being new and modern and in the nation's capital, MetroRail was often held up as what an American urban rail system should be.

The second issue is how WMATA - the transit agency that runs the MetroRail system - is governed, funded and influenced. It's a regional system, so multiple states and jurisdictions have a say in its management. This isn't itself unusual - most regional transit systems are set up that way - but I think the level of direct influence is more extreme at WMATA, not unlike how Washington DC's municipal budget must be approved by Congress. System maintenance requires inconvenience - temporary track, line or station closures and the like - and I think they had not been doing enough of these because the representatives didn't want to inconvenience their constituents. But the result then was that a lot of maintenance was deferred and got worse.

CTA actually already does a fairly good job of dealing with these issues. We do a lot of maintenance to the tracks and other systems on nights and weekends, typically closing one track at a time, requiring trains to share the same track in both directions. For more major work, we might close a section of line for a few hours or over an entire weekend. People really hate when we do this - which I totally understand - but it's necessary to avoid situations like Metro's. People ask why we don't just do all the work at night, but the Red and Blue lines run 24 hours, and the other lines only close for maybe 2-4 hours, which isn't a lot of time to do any really substantive work.

What are some of your favorite CTA artifacts that you own or have handled?
I have some old uniforms that are pretty neat, and a 1920s station sign from my local station that is a pretty great find. I also have a number of original architectural drawings of "L" stations - hand-drawn ink on linen. There is an artistry to them that is missing in a drawing made in CAD. They're each a work of art.

One of the neatest things is being able to handle some of the old 'L' cars. I've been able to operate them at museums, but earlier this year the CTA announced it was creating a Heritage Fleet program to preserve and maintain vintage equipment on-property so people can ride historic railcars and buses in the city. We have a full eight-car train of 1970s cars, but the crown jewel is a two-car train of cars from the 1920s. They always turn heads when we bring them out and they're beautiful cars. And a lot of fun to operate on the 'L'.

I'm always a sucker for stories like the ones like this abandoned stop in New York. What are the most comparable abandoned stations or general CTA secrets?
I took a tour of City Hall station in New York when I was there last month! I had wanted to for years, but was never there when a tour was happening. Yeah, it's really impressive, and those sorts of "secret" places are always fun.

Chicago only has one abandoned subway facility, and it's just an entrance mezzanine, not an entire station. None of Chicago's subway stations are as ornate as City Hall either, just owing to the differing eras in which they were built - Chicago got subways fairly late (1943), and by that time streamlined Art Moderne was the popular style. But there are a few other abandoned stations on the 'L' system, the oldest being from 1907. That is Racine on the Ashland branch of the Green Line - while the platforms are visible from passing trains, the station house is locked up but is pretty well intact.

There are other little inside "secret" elements around the system as well, like connections from adjacent buildings directly into stations that no longer exist or are sealed off, or legacies of old lines that have been torn down or ones that were planned but never built. For the latter, for instance, if you ride the Blue Line between Clark/Lake and Grand and keep an eye out the window, you'll see that the subway tunnel splits off into a branch but there are no tracks - those tunnels don't go far and then end, but were built at the same time as the rest of the subway for a planned extension that was never built.

 Is it true that the CTA made the band Chicago change its name? That question came from my dad.
Ha! Good question. It's a popular story, though I've heard from some quarters that it's an urban legend. But pretty much every history of the band, including in some pretty reputable books and publications, say it's true, so it probably is, at least in some form or another. Most say it was the CTA, but some say it was really more the City; it might have been both, or the latter influencing the former. I've also read that while the transit authority did approach them to change the name, the band was already considering doing so because they were finding the name was getting miswritten, for instance on marquees. 

What is the best bet for securing some space on the holiday train? I tried to take my kid on once and it was totally packed.
Yeah, the Holiday Train - which I think is one of the nicest things CTA does - has become a bit of a tricky thing because of its level of success and popularity. Some tips to have a better chance of getting on the train include getting on at the terminal rather than an intermediate station; going on a weekday trip instead of a weekend trip (though not one at rush hour); and riding a line other than Red, Brown and maybe Blue line, especially on the weekend. Orange Line trips can sometimes get very crowded too.

CTA also has some plans for helping provide more capacity on the Holiday Train this year that I can't talk about right now, but stay tuned for when we announce the train this year, which usually happens around early or mid-November!

We sometimes take my kid up and down the purple line or the red line for a cheap way to kill an hour or so--what other lines seem to be fun for kids?
I think the Brown Line and the Loop would also be fun for kids - lots to see right outside the windows of the train. The lines in expressway medians might be fun for kids too, with the cars and train racing alongside each other on the highway.

What does one need to know before getting married on an El train?
Before I answer, I have to ask - are you firmly in the camp of spelling it "el" instead of "'L'"? That is a debate that has always driven me a little bit nuts! "El" is a legitimate spelling for some systems like New York's, and in a general sense referring non-specifically to any particular system. But Chicago's train has always been spelled 'L', since it opened in 1892, and CTA has confirmed officially that is the spelling. And yet there is a debate! Recently, the AP Style Guide changed its spelling to the 'L' when referring to Chicago's train... Just saying! Okay, I'll stop be an annoying crazy person now... for the moment, anyway...

What does one need to know? Not a lot, really - chartering a train is actually pretty easy, and not as expensive as one might think. For something like a wedding it's probably important to know that while you can have catered food and beverages onboard the train, you can't have alcohol, so there's that. But, you can have music piped through the cars' PA system! Certain cars have a jack in the motorman's cab that you can plug an audio device like an iPod into. I did that on the train I chartered for my wedding - we used it to bring guests to the venue, but we didn't actually do the vows on the train - and it was a lot of fun! People were dancing in the aisles as the train made its way down the line. You can also decorate the train, but you're responsible for taking it all down if you don't want to pay an extra cleaning fee.

10409658_10152917787517892_3434265733490664736_n.jpgBut if you want to actually do the vows on the train, you'll want to plan it carefully, since the train aisles aren't very wide, so staging your wedding party might be cramped. Also, if you do the ceremony while the train is in motion, everyone will need to hang on while going around curves and stopping at signals!

Have you had instances of people confusing you with this other, probably-inferior Graham Garfield?
Holy moly, thankfully not - that guy's quite the winner. Yeesh.

I think it's even more jarring because I never see anyone else with my full name - my first name isn't very common here; I need to go to the UK for all my vanity keychain and tiny bike license plate needs - so to see it now, with this yahoo, is really odd.

How does it feel to be the 419th person interviewed for
Honored that you thought I was interesting enough to be included among a rather esteemed group of interviewees!

I was workshopping a joke about how I must be more interesting than whoever is 420th, but given how long it took me to do this interview I doubt I'm still 419th, so that backfired on me nicely, didn't it?

Actually, you are 420th! (And the second Graham!) Way to go, Graham.