What We Take For Granted

This morning, on the Blue Line, I noticed a man standing across the aisle from me, leaning against the door. He had on a worn coat, and tucked into the left pocket of his jacket was an old school oil can (the kind that has a manual tab to release more oil). He was staring off, half-looking out the door windows. And when I looked at him, he seemed to exude this purpose: he looked as though he were on his way to fix something.

For some reason, I thought of the Tin Man, from The Wizard of Oz. In my mind, there was some trouble farther down the line, and this man was taking it upon himself to provide the solution.

I took out my camera, and fiddled with the settings for about a minute. There were a fair amount of poeple on the train, and I felt a bit awkward about trying to ask for a picture. But thankfully, I decided to ask and luckily… he said yes (and gave me permission to use his image on the site).

This is the shot I took, while on the subway train. I think we had just left the stop at Grand, and were heading to Clark and Lake.

As I was taking the picture, a man to my left made a few jokes. It took me a brief moment to realize they were travelling together, and were coworkers. When we arrived at the Clark and Lake stop a few minutes later, the three of us exited.

I talked with both gentlemen a bit, and inquired as to where they were headed. Turns out, they were off to the Green Line, and were to take care of some rotars. I can’t remember if this is the exact word for them, but rotars are the tall devices that allow for people to exit the station (and prevent people from entering). They’re like turnstyles, but stretch from the ground to the ceiling. The oil can was so they could make sure everything turned smoothly.

When I asked if I could take another picture, I offered to take one of both men. To my fortune, they both agreed.

I learned their names, but didn’t write them down. Instead, I’m going to use the psudonyms that they gave me. On the left is Oil Can Harry, and on the right is Timbuktu.

I can’t remember if his name (the guy on the right) is actually Tim, but the psuedonyms were his idea. He jokingly referred to his friend as Oil Can Harry, and when I asked his name he told me to call him Timbuktu. From what I recall, Timbuktu is an African city, and typically used as slang for an incredible distance, or something extraordinarily far away. For some reason, I always thought too that Timbuktu was some kind of star or constellation.

I didn’t immediately recognize the reference to Oil Can Harry. A quick Google search gave me no additional hints outside of the fact that Oil Can Harry was a villain that played opposite Mighty Mouse. What I’m unsure of is whether Oil Can Harry refers to this cartoon character, or if it’s yet another nod to some earlier, pre-talkie silent movie villain.

I found it really funny that I got psuedonyms for their names, particularly since I spend so much time online talking with other people who claim psuedonyms.

Before they left, I managed to get one more shot of the oil can. Call me a geek, but I just found this thing to be incredibly fascinating. It was the one thing I noticed when I first saw “Harry,” on the train, and I wanted to get a better shot of it for the blog.

As it turns out, both men were responsible for more than the rotars. I didn’t write down all the things they needed to attend to, but one that stood out was the preventative vents for each station. In the event of a fire, there were vents that would open to clear/provide air.

When they mentioned the vents, I thought about a NOVA documentary I had seen, years ago, about fire. One of the examples they gave was a subway station in London (King’s Cross), back when the escalators were all made out of wood. Over time, a lot of grease and whatnot accumulated and one day, someone’s careless cigarette ignited the entire thing and ended up killing a lot of people.

From time to time, I still think about that show and about how, trapped underground in a subway tunnel, something like fire exhibits dangers that I’m not even consciously aware of. Talking with Harry and Tim, I felt good that I asked to take their pictures, that I was able to document the work they were doing.

Most days, more than half this city of Chicago walk through these subway tunnels… their office. Both men are doing work behind the scenes, taking care of things that we don’t even know or think about, making sure everything runs smoothly, and keeps us safe. I felt happy to have met them both and, after talking with them, I felt much better the rest of the day.

After I went up the escalator (metal) to street level, I stopped to take this:

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