A train story, part VI


Welcome to part 6 of my life-long quest to write 88 Train Stories. I really do intend to finish this series in sixty years’ time.

Last weekend, I took the Amtrak down to DC from Penn Station. I opted for the train over the bus, which means I’ve passed Level 4 of Adulthood. Next on the list is being able to fold my clothes properly.

Right outside of Philadelphia, the train came to a screeching halt. The engine shut down, the AC turned off, and you could hear a pin drop in the car.

No power. No AC.

After thirty minutes, we’re still sitting there. The train has become a sauna. Why the hell is it 95 degrees in September.

Thirty minutes after that, we’re still sitting there, roasting nicely. No one’s really told us much.

Finally, after an hour of waiting, we’re told that they are sending a replacement engine. Fifteen minutes later, it arrives. Fifteen minutes after that, the power is back, the sweat beads dry up, the train breaks out in applause, and we’re on our way.

But this isn’t a post about Amtrak. Or my heat stroke. Or the lack of customer service.  I’m not going to air my grievances about Amtrak, because no one cares. This is a post about choice.

You see, kids, whenever we face the inevitable suckitude of life – those everyday mundane annoyances like waiting in traffic or standing in line or sitting on a hot dead train – we have a choice. We can get frustrated, annoyed, impatient. This is our default setting as humans. It is wired into us, and like many things that are wired into us, it is hard to shake.

Or we can just, like, deal with the problem in a thoughtful way, and force ourselves to stay calm and reasonable.

So as I sat there on the train, I thought of David Foster Wallace’s This is Water speech. This is what I often do in annoying life situations. Here’s DFW:

“The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work
of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long
checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious
decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be
pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural
default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about
me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home,
and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way.”

I tried to make a conscious effort to not get angry, to instead accept that the situation is out of my control. I tried not to ask Why me? Why this train? Because I am not immune from the crap that life throws at you. I tried to just sit there in peace and listen to some music.

Of course, I failed miserably. I was frustrated. My blood pressure rose. How could it not? Then I texted several expletives to my friends waiting for me in DC. But, here’s what I didn’t do. I didn’t yell a ‘GODDAMMIT’ like one of my fellow passengers. I didn’t openly complain to the conductor, even though it was probably warranted. I didn’t complain to other passengers that I simply cannot be late. I didn’t get angry, I didn’t show my frustration, and after awhile I realized that there was nothing I could do, and then I calmed down, and then it was fine.

And I considered that a small victory, because it’s hard to stay sane in those situations. It’s hard to look at those situations as anything other than miserable. But as I’ve often said, it’s not a bad thing to have optimism as a default setting. And so I came out of that situation thinking that things could be a lot worse.

This isn’t to say that you can’t get angry. By all means, get angry! Sometimes it feels good to get angry. Remember when Ryan Dempster hit A-Rod in the back a few years ago? It was the most blatant hit by pitch of all time, and he wasn’t ejected, and yeah, I got pretty angry about that.

I’m not trying to provide a moral compass here – as DFW wrote: “Please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to. “

But I do think it is important to approach life in a way where you’re, I don’t know, aware? Aware of what is around you. Aware of what you can and can’t control. Aware that you can decide how to respond to certain situations.  Yeah, I think simple awareness is a good step towards getting through those situations without enduring misery.  And breathing. Breathing is good too.


A train story, part V


Welcome to part 5 of our Train Stories segment. We only have 83 more to go before we wrap up the 88-part series in the year 2076.

Last weekend I was on the green line, headed inbound toward Lechmere. A man and woman were huddled together – mid 50’s, graying hair, clearly tourists – looking intently at the subway map. They weren’t lost, because no one is ever lost in 2014, but they were having a difficult time finding their way.

I walked over and asked if they needed help.

Now, I never, ever proactively talk to strangers in public. I’m terrified of people. But I had just finished a grande caramel macchiato from Starbucks so I was feeling more chipper than usual.

They were trying to get to the blue line. “Oh, going to the airport?” I casually asked, because why else would you go on the blue line. “No,” they said. “But we’re going in that direction.”

The green line used to transfer seamlessly to the blue line at Government Center. But Government Center is closed until 2016 because of course it is. So what we had here was an old fashioned arithmetic problem. I did some quick math in my head, made sure to carry the one, and I deduced that the only option was a double transfer. Then I did some more math. I came to the conclusion that it would be the most efficient to transfer to the orange line at Haymarket. Then, they would have to head inbound on the orange line toward Forest Hills and then transfer to the Blue Line at State.

Make sense? Probably not. Here is a diagram:


So I told them my solution, and I explained it six different times because they kept asking, and when they finally understood where they needed to go we began the typical small talk. It was a pleasant conversation. They are from the bay area, it’s their first time in Boston, they love the city, etc. etc.

The T pulled into Haymarket, and the three of us got off. Haymarket is my stop too, but I was lucky enough to be done with the T. They still had a ways to go. And so we parted ways, and I watched them walk into the abyss of the orange line. I hope they made it.

A train story, part IV


Welcome to the fourth edition of Train Stories. We only have 84 to go before we wrap up our 88-part series. At this pace, we should finish the series sometime in 2045, right before we hit Ray Kurzweil’s singularity.

Last night I took the 12:20am local train home. Those late-night Metro North trains are always an interesting experience, and you really never know what you might see. One time I saw a guy sleeping in the overhead luggage compartment. Another time  I saw a guy rip out a poster from the wall and take it with him when he exited the train. I’ve seen people arrested, people fighting, people sleeping and missing their stops. It’s certainly more interesting than the morning commute.

The conductor was particularly cheery. She wished every single person a Merry Christmas and even incited some small talk with passengers. It was refreshing to see a spirit – a sense of purpose – from this woman, at 12:30 in the morning. A little bizarre, too.

This was my first time riding the Metro North train since the derailment over Thanksgiving weekend that killed four and injured others. There were these letters on some of the seats, written from the President of Metro North, that outlined new safety measures and protocols. It assured the passengers that safety was their top priority. I can’t imagine how he must have felt when he heard the news. I imagine his life will never be the same. It was a strange and unfortunate thing to happen. Well, it’s been a strange year.

A little after 1:00, the train stopped. We were at Ludlow station. We sat there for two, three, four minutes wondering what was going on. The doors were open and the cool night air was rushing in. Finally, the conductor informed us over the loudspeaker. We apologize for the delay. We have a, um, sick passenger on the train. Local police are on their way, and we should be moving shortly.

Another five minutes passed, and we still hadn’t moved. The police arrived – first one, then two, then five of them – to try to escort this man off the train. He was unresponsive. They called for an EMT. Five more minutes of waiting, and then the man was brought off the train in a stretcher.

And maybe it was late at night and no one was going to get much sleep anyway, or maybe it was so late that we were all delusional, but no one seemed to complain. No one was groaning or asking the conductor when we would be moving. No, the people in my car were actually smiling, laughing, enjoying the spectacle of this drunk man who had to be carried off the train.’Twas a Christmas miracle.

I finally got home. End of the line, the conductor bellowed before I exited the train. It was a long day of traveling.


Right before I got on the train, I snapped this picture of Grand Central. It was midnight, but the place was still buzzing with excitement and anticipation. It was beautiful. And, yes, I do tend to romanticize these types of things – but it’s hard not to appreciate the wonder of the place, especially in its centennial.


A train story, part III


Welcome to another edition of Train Stories, the third installment in our 88-part series. We are now on pace to finish this saga around the time I receive my first Social Security check.

The T in Boston is a whole different beast than Metro North in New York, with its squeaking and heavy brakes and the fact that it has to compete with cars and pedestrians. Let’s compare the two:

– On a Metro North train, you have a 98% chance of finding a seat. On the T, this drops to 40%.

– The Metro North train travels 45 miles in 45 minutes. The T travels 6 miles in 45 minutes.

– A one way peak ride on Metro North is $14. The T is $2.

Let’s call it a wash. Maybe the T should be compared to something like the subway instead – either way, it’s a wholly inefficient and sub-standard metro line. I’m talking about the green line, specifically.

But it’s all we have. You get used to it.

This has been a pretty wild week for the T and their employees. There have been delays each day, which has caused massive overcrowding. I’ve been on overcrowded T’s before, but it is much more enjoyable when it involves a bunch of college kids instead of a bunch of angry commuters.

At one of the stops, a man could not get on the train. He started yelling. I couldn’t hear what he said, but he got everyone’s attention. He was making such a scene that the driver had to get out of the car, which only exacerbated the already long delays.

It is always an interesting sight to see someone freak out in public, whether it’s the T, the mall, the grocery store, or anywhere else in public. This doesn’t happen often, and it’s a rare treat when you come across it.

How are you supposed to respond? Do you ignore it? Do you laugh? Do you make knowing faces at the other passersby*, with a quick roll of the eyes that says Who does this guy think he is?

*Passersby – the correct plural form of passerby.

I laughed. So did everyone else. The whole T of strangers, exhausted from the day’s work, finally had something to break the monotony of the commute. Headphones came out, eyes perked up, and people tried to catch a glimpse of this crazy man.

And then the doors closed, the man was escorted away, and the commute rolled on.

A train story, part II


Welcome to part II of our 88-part series related to train stories. Part 1 was ten months ago, which means we should conclude the series sometime in 2085.

I witnessed a pretty amazing scene on the train yesterday, something that seemed like it was out of a movie. It was a conversation between two people sitting to the left of me – I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but it was so unbelievable that I had to keep listening.

A man, maybe in his late twenties or early thirties, was working on his laptop, typing away furiously while juggling calls on his cell phone. It didn’t really bother me, and he wasn’t being loud, but it was certainly noticeable.

After one of his phone calls ended, a middle-aged woman to his left looked at him. Might I ask what you do?

The man looked to his left – he was caught off-guard. Oh, I work on the mayoral campaign for Christine Quinn (editor’s note: she’s a Democrat).

Interesting, the woman said. Let me preface by saying that I am not a Democrat, ok? Do you know who I am?

The man didn’t know what to say. The woman repeated herself, a little louder. Do you know who I am??

Again, silence. I work for Blah Blah (editor’s note: I didn’t hear the name, but it was very clearly a Republican that is also running for mayor). And for the past twenty minutes, I’ve been overhearing your phone calls and reading your emails that you have displayed on your laptop. I’ll be sure to let my office know tomorrow morning.

The man was clearly flustered. Y-y-you’ve been reading my emails?

Yes, you’ve been very loud and you’ve had your work displayed publicly, and I am within my rights to read anything in public.

The man closed his laptop. I thought he was going to get up and leave, but he didn’t.

Let me ask you a question, the woman said. Why do you feel the need to be loud and do work on the train? That is such a Democrat thing to do. Everyone in this generation feels the need to plugged in and connected 24/7 – everyone is always in a rush.* Clearly, this woman was going too far.

*This comment made me smile, because yesterday XKCD posted a comic related to this very phenomenon. The gist is that people have been saying this for centuries – something along the lines of “Back in my day, things moved slower, people were nicer, etc. etc.”

But the fact is that people have remained remarkably similar. Sure, technology has evolved. The way we consume information is very different. There have been many cultural shifts. But human nature is about the same. I think back to the old French saying: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

This was written in 1886, but sounds like it could be written today:

“With the advent of cheap newspapers and superior means of locomotion… the dreamy quiet old days are over… for men now live think and work at express speed. They have their Mercury or Post laid on their breakfast table in the early morning, and if they are too hurried to snatch from it the news during that meal, they carry it off, to be sulkily read as they travel… leaving them no time to talk with the friend who may share the compartment with them… the hurry and bustle of modern life… lacks the quiet and repose of the period when our forefathers, the day’s work done, took their ease…”

I have found that older people tend to say these things – things like “People are in such a rush these days. Back in my day, we could leave our doors unlocked. Crime is so much worse today.” When I hear this, I usually just sit there and smile – I have a hard time disagreeing with anyone over 70. But you know what? In 2013, crime is at its lowest point in all of human history. Here are just a few examples.  And people have always been in a hurry. I think these remarks are not necessarily bound in truth, but more in a longing for something that is no longer here. People tend to remember the past as being better than it actually was. 

This might be my longest tangent yet. Back to the story.

The man was really flustered, almost cowering in fear. I-I-I’ve got to pay the bills. And my job requires me to be connected at all times. I don’t appreciate you reading my emails. I have a lot of work to do. Have I offended you?

The woman responded – No, you haven’t offended me, but it feels like today everyone is always working, working, working, and I don’t like when others are being loud on the train. It’s disrespectful.

The man didn’t say much after that. I was left with a bunch of questions. What did the emails say? Whose campaign did this woman work for? And, above all, what are the odds that two people on two opposing mayoral campaigns happen to sit right next to each other?

A train story

(this happened a few weeks ago, but I’ve been thinking about it for quite some time)

It’s 10:30 PM, and I am on the train home after a Yankee game. A boy walks into the train car, with a look of desperation on his face. Well, he wasn’t a boy, really – he was on the cusp of manhood. Tall, black, maybe 16 or 17 years old. He looks around the car frantically, unsure of what to do. I look up from my seat, curiously, to see him pace back and forth before finally sitting down.

Moments later, the conductor walks through the car. Tickets please. It’s the same old fanfare we train-dwellers are accustomed to. The boy stands and walks up to the conductor.

I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t have a ticket on me.

The boy is clearly not from New York – he has a long Southern drawl.

The conductor stares at him for a few seconds. Oh. Where are you going? Do you have any cash on you?

The boy responds: I’m going to Poughkeepsie, but I only have five dollars. It’s not nearly enough.

Now the conductor really starts to get angry. We made an announcement earlier that all on-board transactions are cash-only. You should have left the train and bought a ticket when you had the chance. And now you are putting me on the spot, in front of all these customers. Maybe if you had pulled me over in private, I would have been able to assist you.

The boy looks horrified. I’m sorry, sir. I have my driver’s license if you need that. Please, I’m just trying to get to a friend’s house.

The conductor stares at the boy for another few seconds. Look, I need to attend to the other passengers first. Don’t move, I’ll be back shortly.

As the conductor leaves the car, a woman sitting a seat over gives the boy some cash. Here you go. Just like that. And they say New Yorkers aren’t nice.

Moments later the conductor is back with a binder and a walkie-talkie.

You said you had a license on you?

Yes, sir.

Please hand it over to me.

The boy hands the conductor his license. Even with the donated cash, he still doesn’t have enough to pay the fare. The conductor starts jotting down a few notes, and the boy is just sitting there, watching. And then, suddenly, the conductor stops writing. He wipes his face, takes off his glasses, and shuts the binder.

You said you were going to Poughkeepsie?

Yes, sir.

You have a place to stay there?

Yes, sir.

Alright. Look, you’re a young kid, so I’ll let you off the hook this time. But I will ask you one favor – when you get some cash on you, buy an extra train ticket and throw it away.

Thank you, sir. I really appreciate that.

The conductor stands up, gives the boy back his license, and the two shake hands. Get home safe, kid.

After the conductor leaves the car, the boy stands up, gives the woman back her money, and walks away.

I’ll never know whether the boy bought an extra ticket. But, for the sake of all that is right with the world, I will choose to believe he did.