Riding the Paranoia Train

Sometimes it's okay to talk to your fellow rider.

Sometimes it’s okay to talk to strangers on the train.

I got on the train, my toes needing a good thaw, and my nose a good wipe. I wedged myself between two women. The one on my left was reading a letter printed out in Spanish; I caught fragments of the content, which seemed to be a 40th birthday message. The woman to the right of me was minding her own business.

I took stock of everyone else in the car. It was so cold that most hair was hidden beneath hats, and hands were kept safely tucked into pockets and sleeves, unless they were being used to turn the pages of a book.

The man across from me was engrossed in a magazine. Because I’m not good a minding my own business I tried to guess which publication he was reading. I determined that it was not the New Yorker, or Harpers, or a glossy.

Earlier that day I had to stand outside in the freezing cold for work until my toes were so cold they were hot—like they had been stuck in the jaws of a waffle iron. When I got onto the subway the first thing I did was take my boots off and cradle them in my hands to make the burning sensation go away and to de-thaw my nerve-endings. I was glad for the subway break-dancers, the homeless people, the tourette syndrome yellers, and the drunks who made my foot-groping seem normal.

It seemed to take a while and I felt that my toes would be hot and numb forever, but I knew that eventually the sensation would be but a memory.

Except now, this train conductor seemed to want to remind everyone how cold it was.

The most the conductors ever tell us is to stand clear of the closing doors, and perhaps again to stand clear of the closing doors, and for the last time to stand clear of the goddamn closing doors. But I soon found out that this conductor was into soliloquizing.

“As I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s very cold outside,” his urgent and concerned voice began.

“I urge you to use the rail when walking up or down the stairs. You do not know what kind of ice could be on the stairs. You do not want to slip down the stairs and fall onto the tracks.”

The man across from me was momentarily distracted from his magazine, and others were dragged out of their subway-induced stupor by this touching manifestation of concern.

The train stopped at 14th Street and kept moving. As soon as people drifted back into their mindspaces, the voice came again from overhead.

“It is very cold outside. The tracks may be slippery. As you may have noticed, the cars are a bit shaky.”

The man across from me smirked incredulously as he looked up from his magazine. I take note of the train; it is rocking as gently, subtly, and loud as usual.  Maybe the conductor was drunk?

“So, please don’t walk between the cars,” he persevered . “You could fall and end up on the tracks. Not to mention, it’s illegal.”

“Wow, something must have happened,” said the woman to my right.

It was possible. Apparently every week someone is killed by the trains. Maybe today someone had slipped onto the tracks. Or maybe their feet were so numbed by the cold that they lost control of their footing and fell. Most of the time it’s not the conductor’s fault, but they’re probably mentally scarred by the experience. As part of the MTA contract, conductors who witness someone getting hit by the train get three days paid time off.

Did this man need an extra day off?

“I know, right? What is going on?” said the man across from me, who had given up on his magazine by now.

The woman with the birthday letter shrugged.

“We’re riding the paranoia train,” I said.

I usually don’t engage with strangers on the train, but I felt like I had to say something. This was a special moment, a rare, collective moment that we as riders were experiencing.

My fellow riders laughed.

The train came to a stop again, belched out some riders, and sucked others in. A woman with a stroller barely wedged her way into the car.

The crackle came again from the speakers overhead. We smiled, giddy to hear what would come next.

“Please, I urge you to hold onto your children when you are standing on the platform and entering the train. If you are standing behind the yellow line, make sure your children are standing behind you. And make sure you are holding their hands at all times. Children are impulsive and you never know what they will do next. Not to mention the fact that they are fascinated by trains. So please, hold onto your children.”

By this point, most people in the car who were not plugged into their portable electronic devices were now laughing, staring up at the speakers, wondering what new gems would flow forth, or they furrowed their brow—either in concern for the conductor, or with a newfound concern for their life now that it was apparent that their chances of falling into the tracks increased tenfold for every minute they spent on the train.

The train halted again at 42th Street and there was a new shift of riders. The train was getting more crowded and I could no longer see the man across from me, but I knew he was eagerly expecting a new message.

I knew it would be a good one, because the conductor tried to close the doors at least four times because some latecomer tried to pry their way into the car as the doors closed after sprinting down the stairs.

This angers most conductors and you know they would love to smack someone in the face if they weren’t stuck in their booth. But this conductor continued to express nothing but a dogged concern for the city’s ridership.

“Everyone’s running for something in New York City,” he began.

Yes, this was going to be the best one yet.

“Whether they’re running for mayor, or running to catch the subway. There’s such a thing as the domino effect. It begins when you have ten people packed behind you,” spoke the conductor, now with the measured but patronizing elocution of a kindergarten teacher who is explaining fire drill procedures, or at least an actor who knows how to play one. Is that it? Is he a retired actor?

“One person falls and ten people fall, including you,” he continued. “Only, by the time the first person who fell stands up and is wiping themselves off, you have fallen onto the track. Please appeal to your higher intellect and stand behind the yellow line.”

The woman to my right, who had been tight-lipped and concerned, let out a chuckle and shook her head.

“Wow,” she said.

She got off the train at the next stop. Before she did, she turned to me.

“Get home safe,” she said, and smiled.

“You too.”

Don't fall onto the tracks.

Don’t fall onto the tracks.

Was this the serial announcer?

Was this the serial announcer?

Kids are fascinated with trains.

Kids are fascinated with trains.

Stranger on the train.

Stranger on the train.



Filed under pesonal essay

11 responses to “Riding the Paranoia Train

  1. Adrian Cabreja

    Great post! Very detailed and funny.

  2. Russell Murphy

    That stranger is clearly not happy with your article. Good job tho.

  3. A Traveler

    Thanks guys! Yeah, I wouldn’t be too happy about me either if I were that guy. I tried to take that pic on the sly, but he turned at the last minute.

  4. Chris Kilmer

    Damn Kiddo, the words fly off the page and become my ticket to ride the train, You observe and we become tantalized then delightfully entangled in the screenplay. Brilliant vignettes. Thanks DAD

  5. A Traveler

    Hey Popsicle! Thanks for your support!

  6. tanja

    Loved it. Brought me right back to the time of riding NYC trains. Love from Zagreb!

  7. love it – such a warm story – ❤ to NYC always

  8. sounds like this guy transferred from Chicago. I once had a conductor say “may the force be with you!” great story Robin!

  9. Rob Williams

    “Children are impulsive and you never know what they will do next. Not to mention the fact that they are fascinated by trains.”

    Oh man, that’s gold.

  10. david

    Hi. The guy in the blue shirt sitting down is an M/S 1 {supervisor) with emergency response (my old dept.) We went to RCI school together. Hope you’re well. Nice article, but the one with me was better, ‘cuz it had me.

  11. A Traveler

    Hey David! I’m glad you liked the piece. Indeed, I don’t know how I’ll ever top your interview, which I do plan on putting here some day. That was a favorite.

    And Rob–yeah, I couldn’t make this stuff up. I started scribbling his commentary when I realized this was a once-in-a-lifetime subway trip.

    And El-Bell, wow, I can’t wait until the day I hear a conductor say “May the force be with you.”

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