Barreling toward the city one last time, Howard Eady is in the lead car of the 6:19 a.m. inbound Metra from Crystal Lake, telling a story among his friends.
This is not an unfamiliar scene – the Conductor of Comedy has many stories. Most are from the past, stock tales he keeps locked and loaded for whatever train car or local tavern or comedy stage he's occupying.
Now, though, standing up in the aisle to project, the 62-year-old Lake in the Hills resident adds to his repertoire a story from a day ago. As he'd done too many times to count in his 41 years as a Metra conductor, Eady was walking the aisle, punching tickets and cracking jokes. Suddenly, from the loud speaker, Assistant Conductor Don Kerpin blurted something about how Eady would be hanging it up the next day, calling it a career.
It started slow, Eady said, but then, car after car, the whole train went up in applause.
Eady stopped for a second, took it all in, and then fell seamlessly back into entertainer mode.
"Thank you, thank you," he said, taking an exaggerated bow.
"You still have to pay your fare."
* * *
It is a hot, sticky, June Friday morning, and Eady is donning the conductors cap a final time, though today is more a victory lap than a true day at the office.
Before he got to the Crystal Lake station for the early departure, Eady got a call from a Metra higher-up telling him there would be another conductor in charge. Eady was told he was free to enjoy his final ride.
That would not be a problem.
In the train's front car, Eady gathered with a dozen or so of his closest friends, regulars of the 6:19 inbound Metra. The group passed around coffee and doughnuts and talked about how the "train family," as they call it, is losing its lead member.
Eady, who has channeled his roughly 40 years on the tracks into a comedy routine under the stage name "Conductor of Comedy," will be retiring to relaxation and more time to perfect and perform his act.
A friend asks him if he's ready for retirement.
"I was born ready," Eady said. "My last name is E-A-D-Y. All I need is the R."
* * *
The 14th of 15 children, Eady was born in Alabama and moved to Chicago at age 3.
When he was 21, he went searching for a job.
"They called me here first," Eady said. "I was a phone call away from being a mailman or a bus driver."
The conductor ranks are built on seniority, and Eady spent many years with unreliable and long hours.
For the last three years, he's been in charge of the 6:19 a.m. train in from Crystal Lake, and of the 6:30 p.m. back from Ogilvie Transportation Center. The time in between is his. He goes to baseball games, hits the beach, sees movies.
"It was such an easy job," Eady said. "You went in the morning and I was off for 10 hours."
His career as a conductor didn't always go so smoothly. One time, early in the going, Eady was backing an empty train into the rail yard for cleaning when he rolled through the red "pot signals" telling him to stop.
No collision occurred and nobody was injured, but Metra installed a new system after the incident, taking the responsibility off the conductors to back the trains into the yard.
Eady, who was without kids at the time but today has four, was fired from Metra for a year.
"We made the best of it," Eady said of him and his wife. "When you don't have kids, you don't need that much money."
* * *
Eady would like to believe his impact stretches beyond a Metra policy change.
One time, when he was walking around in downtown Milwaukee, someone stopped him and asked, "Hey, aren't you a conductor on a train?"
Eady was taken aback at the fact he'd been recognized.
On his final day, Eady spends the last half of the trip walking through the aisle, saying his goodbyes between plenty of comedic relief.
"This is the guy with a smile no matter what," said Rita Davenport of Cary.
At one point, he finds himself in the middle of a handful of Arlington Heights regulars, cracking jokes and reminiscing.
"You think people are paying to ride the train," said Ray Costello, of the Arlington Heights group. "They're paying for the ticket to the show."
"It's called a cover charge," Eady said.
* * *
Eady is the first one off the train once it reaches Ogilvie. He positions himself in the line of traffic so as to make sure he says as many goodbyes as he can squeeze in.
When the area has mainly cleared, after a parade of "I love you" and "I'll miss you" and hugs and handshakes, Eady stands between the tracks and reflects on the morning. This time, there are no jokes.
"It was overwhelming. I wasn't sure what to expect," he said, softly. "It's been a nice ride."
Eady walks back into the lead car to gather his belongings. The train is now empty.
Martin Harper, the young fill-in conductor ushering people on and off all morning, steps in looking deflated.
He'd been disappointing people the last hour and a half.
"Every stop I get off, everybody goes, 'Awww....'" Harper said. "It wears on you."
Tough crowd. The next 6:19 inward conductor better tell a decent joke. Otherwise, he might just get booed off the train.