Sunday, October 29, 2006


This picture came from a Halloween party my wife (then girlfriend) and I attended at a friend's house way back in 1983. What made this evening so memorable, was that we kept our identities hidden from our friends for the better part of the evening. We still socialized with other guest, but we talked in coarse, old people voices. We were really surprised when others couldn't figure out who we were. We finally had to give ourselves up when friends started to become alarmed at our absence from the party:

"Where are they?" Asked Frankenstein.

"They definitely said they were coming," said Frankenstein's bride.

"Too bad, I wanted to suck their blood," said Dracula.

It was kind of fun being virtually invisible for a while. We got a rare opportunity to see how our friends acted when they didn't think we were around. Of course this was a dangerous game we were playing, and it could have backfired on us. Our friends might have said:

"Who cares where they are?"

"I never liked them anyway."

"No big loss...they aren't my blood type."

As it turned out, we weren't the only ones playing this game that night. Alone, in the corner stood a red devil pounding down drink after drink. It was assumed that like us, he too would eventually divulge his true identity...but he didn't. At the end of the evening, the party hostess finally asked him who he was.

"Oh, you don't know me," he said. "I was coming from a boring party down the road and saw your lights on. It looked like you guys were having a lot of fun, so I thought I'd drop in. Thanks for a great party."

He then dissappeared as mysteriously as he appeared.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006


My wife and I hadn’t been on a date since the Clinton administration, so she was a little surprised when I called her from work on Saturday afternoon and asked if she wanted to go out to a movie. She is usually only interested in watching romantic comedies of the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks genre, so when I read off a list of latest offerings, she was less than impressed. She deemed the current crop of comedies as too stupid, and the latest war/mobster movies as way too intense. “I go to the movies to relax and be entertained,” she said, “I don’t want to walk out of the theatre with a stress headache.” We finally decided to scrap the movie idea, and it was planned that I would pick up a pizza on my way home from work.

When I got home I discovered that my wife had put a roaring fire in the fireplace and my daughters had set paper plates out on a bedspread that lay before the fire. The TV and computer were turned off and we had a cozy family night, while eating our pizza by firelight.
Our lives have been very busy lately, so we welcomed the chance to reconnect with one another on this chilly October evening. Soon the topic of conversation turned to Halloween, and my wife and I regaled our daughters with stories of Halloweens past. We told them about the costumes we wore when we were little, and we bragged about how far we trekked while trick and treating. I told them that I used to use a pillowcase as I went from door to door, and that I wouldn’t stop till my bag was at least a ¼ of the way full. My daughters faces turned envious when my wife told them how her next-door neighbor always gave out industrial sized Hershey bars. “These were pre-fun sized candy days,” we told them, “a real dentist’s nightmare.” The subject then veered from Halloween to candy in general and my wife told us that her mother always kept pieces of Starburst candy in a milk glass jar that stood on parent's fireplace mantle.

“Stop right there,” I said.

What?” She said.

“Did you say that your mother had Starburst candy?”


“You’re telling me, that in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, your mother had Starburst candy?"


As far as I'm concerned the story was an anachronism, and I just couldn’t let it pass. It was like the famous scene in Shakespeare’s ''Julius Caesar" when the clock strikes twelve. I told my wife that I didn't remember seeing Starburst around till at least the late 70's and my wife’s mother died in 1977. It couldn't have been possible that she could have had Starburst fruit chews in her house in the late 60's/early 70's.

I' m positive that we had Starburst, because my sister Hope (3 years younger) couldn't say Starburst, so she called them 'gooeys.' In fact, my brother and I were always getting in trouble for climbing up on the mantle and trying to reach for the milk glass to get Hope some "gooeys". One time, the milk glass jar tumbled to the ground and smashed into a million pieces. We got in big trouble for that one.”

“That’s a lovely story,” I said, “but your sister’s 'gooeys' were probably 'Now and Laters' or 'Mike and Ikes.”

“No, they were Starburst. You know…just because you didn’t have Starburst around your house when you were a kid, doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist.”

“Listen,” I said. “I have always been a candy connoisseur. I know my candy. Look! (I opened my mouth wide.) I have the fillings to prove it.”

My wife was incensed because she thought I was calling her a liar. She raced to the family room and turned the computer on, (so much for the quality family time.) She quickly typed the word “Starburst” into the search engine address bar. When the official “Starburst” website popped up, she clicked onto the Behind the burst” page. Here they have listed all sorts of Starburst trivia, the most important of which is as follows:

Fact: Starburst first came to the United States in 1976 in the original blend of orange, lemon, lime and strawberry flavors.

I was standing over my wife’s shoulder when she read this, and being the mature adult that I am, I proceeded to do an imitation of an NFL end zone victory dance. I then wet my index finger, and touched her cheek while making a sizzling sound.

“Don’t you feel burnt?” I asked.

My wife did feel burnt… burnt with anger. She was bound and determined to prove me wrong, so she Googled other Starburst sites until she found one in which the author waxed nostalgic about his days growing up in California during the 1960’s. On this site the man went on and on, fondly remembering eating Starburst candy in his school cafeteria.”

“Obviously he’s mistaken,” I said. “They were probably ‘Necco Wafers’ or ‘Good and Plenty,’ but they couldn’t have been Starburst.”


"Okay, I think I’ll go to bed now.”

Yesterday, while making sandwiches, I told my wife that I planned on writing a story about the "Starburst incident."

“You just can’t admit you were wrong…can you?” She asked.

We continued our conversation while we piled liverwurst and cheese on two slices of Weight Watchers bread. I prefer to eat my liverwurst by the slice, and up until yesterday had never had a liverwurst sandwich. I asked my wife what kind of condiment one puts on a liverwurst sandwich. She told me that while growing up, she always put Guldens' Spicy Brown mustard on her liverwurst. “In fact” she said, “I never liked French’s yellow mustard.”

“Guldens'?” I said. “I didn’t know that Guldens' was around when we were kids.”

It was then that I got the look.

Uh oh! I thought. Here we go again!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

You are a Conductor

This video does a pretty good job of portraying what life on the spare board (on call) is like, and it reminds me of why I usually work nights.

All coductors have spent at least some time on the spare board, and we all remember getting the dreaded middle of the night phone call from the crew dispatcher. I'm usually half comatose when they call me, and I have to fumble around to find a pen and piece a paper to write down the run number. Sometimes I set the alarm clock and try to sneak in an extra hour sleep before getting out of bed and taking a shower. I then drive to work at some ungodly hour in the pitch dark while the rest of the world is fast asleep.

The conductor in this video works for a freight railroad somewhere in the midwest, but the scenery they show is pretty similar to what we see on Metro North. Thanks to conductor Rich Simon and Tom Finn for bringing this video to my attention.


Sunday, October 15, 2006

Smoke in the Wood Pile

I recently read a David Sedaris story, about how his mother revived a puppy that was born the runt of the litter by placing it in a casserole dish and putting it in a warm oven. The oven acted as a makeshift incubator, and the heat revived the pup. This story reminded me of a tale my mother once told me.

When I started tracing my family tree some 15 years ago, people advised me to be careful. “Some stones are better left unturned,” they said. Others warned that I might find “horse thieves” while still others cautioned that I might discover “smoke in the wood pile.” I had no idea what this meant, so I started asking around. I found out that “smoke in the wood pile,” is a crude phrase, meaning that a researcher has discovered African ancestors in their family tree.

I never did find African ancestors in my tree, (as anyone who has seen me dance might have guessed), but I delighted in the idea that I might:

In my mind, I envision a St. Patrick’s Day gathering at the local K of C hall, and all of my white-haired, red-faced relatives are there. Everyone is full of drink and dressed in kilts and cable knit sweaters. I interrupt a Riverdance jig with news of my latest genealogical discovery. I pull out an old, yellowed photo of our sharecropper great-grandparents standing wide-eyed in a Mississippi cotton field. I’d point and say: “Here, on the left, is Grandpa Porgy, and, in the kerchief next to him, that’s Grandma Bess.” The party would abruptly end as the EMS workers arrive to administer the oxygen.

Although I never found “smoke" in my genealogical wood pile, it doesn’t mean that my search was free of scandal. After looking up vital records, I discovered that my father was born (February 1915), just two months after his parent’s wedding day, (December of 1914.) My father and paternal grandparents were long dead by this time, leaving my mother to defend her in-laws honor. When I told her about my findings, she was incredulous. “Oh that can’t be!” she said. When I produced birth and marriage certificates to back up my accusations, she said, “Oh, there must have been a clerical error at the town clerk’s office.” When I told her that I had already double-checked the dates with the church my grandparents were married in, she said, “Well, your father was born premature.”

“SEVEN MONTHS premature?” I asked.

“All I know,” she said, “is that when your father was born, he was so tiny that the midwife placed him in a cigar box and then placed it next to the pot belly stove in the kitchen.”

“WHAT?!” I said.

My mother explained that back in the day, everyone was born at home. If a baby was born too small or premature, the doctor or midwife would place it in a cigar box, carry it to the kitchen and place it near the stove. This worked like an incubator, and it saved the life of many a newborn child.

My mother’s story sounded a like something out of a fable written by the Brothers Grimm, and I couldn’t help but picture a haggard looking midwife calling out for boiled water, clean sheets and a box of Dutch Masters. Perhaps, I thought, this is where the tradition of fathers passing out cigars began. Maybe they just wanted an empty box.

“You probably didn’t know this,” my mother said, “but my brother Billy was born a twin. He was much smaller than his brother, and my grandmother, thinking he was a lost cause, put him in a cigar box and slid it under the pot-bellied stove. This way she could turn her attention to the bigger, healthier twin. Unfortunately, the bigger twin didn’t make it, but when they opened the cigar box, Uncle Billy had rallied and was doing just fine.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll buy the Uncle Billy story, but even if daddy was conceived on his parent's wedding night, he would have been like . . . seven months premature when he was born! What did they do, slide his cigar box in . . . a microwave!”

This would give a whole new meaning to “smoke in the woodpile.”

Monday, October 02, 2006

Stupid Questions

The only stupid question is the one left unasked…”

Whoever came up with this saying was obviously never a railroad conductor. We get stupid questions all the time. One of our favorite pastimes is to gather in the crewroom in Grand Central and complain about these questions and the passengers who ask them. We usually start our stories with, “You’re never gonna believe this one...” In celebration of “Ask a stupid question day” (September 30th,) I recently surveyed my coworkers and collected a sampling of some of the stupid questions we field on a daily basis.

Which way does the train go?

This is an understandable question when poised at a station where two direction of travel is possible, but this query becomes a stupid question when asked at the bumping block in Grand Central Terminal. Here only one direction of travel is possible, and it should be quite evident to the passenger as he/she is boarding the train. When asked, "Which way does the train go?" a conductor will point to the bumping block at the end of the track, and say something like... “It would be a little difficult to go that way.” The passenger then walks away, leaving the conductor to shake his head and ask... “How stupid can these people be?”

What time does the 4:07 train leave?

Believe it or not, we get this question all the time. The departure time of the train may vary, but the stupidity of the question never does. When I was first asked this question, I thought the commuter was joking.

You’re kidding…right?” I asked.

When the passenger remained stone faced and stoic, I began looking around for a hidden camera, half thinking that maybe Allen Funt or Ashton Kutcher would pop out from behind a curtain. After realizing that I wasn’t being Punk’d, I said something sarcastic like: “Oh, I don’t know…maybe the 4:07 train leaves at 4:07?

The passenger (not seeming the least bit embarrassed) thanked me and walked away.


John, a rookie conductor, told me that a few months back his train struck a giant oak tree that had fallen across all four tracks in a fierce mid-summer thunder and lightning storm. Apparently, the train ran over several branches which caused a lot of damage to the train’s undercarriage. When it looked doubtful that they could continue north, John got on the public address system and apprised his passengers of the situation. He announced that they had suffered damage to the train and that there would be an indefinite delay. No sooner had John finished making the announcement, when an angry old woman stopped him and screamed:

“Why would they plant a tree in the middle of the railroad tracks?”

John couldn’t believe his ears. He said he briefly contemplated making up a story…“It’s part of the new rail reforestization program that the railroad started a few years back. Everything was fine when they were saplings, but now they’ve grown and we can’t help but run into them.”

John bit his tonque and walked away from the old woman. He then came across an exasperated businessman whose patience had run out, evidenced by the foam coming from his mouth. “Conductor,” he asked. “How long will the indefinite delay be?”

John said he felt a headache coming on.

No. White Plains

One of the Harlem Line conductors told me the following story: It seems that he was boarding the North White Plains train in Grand Central one day, when a passenger came forward with a question.

Does this train go to White Plains?”

The conductor said that yes, this was the train to White Plains.

The passenger looked confused.

Then why does the sign out front read No White Plains?”

The conductor told the passenger that if he had looked closer at the sign, he would have noticed a period after the No, (as in an abbreviation for North.) The conductor said that amazingly, he has fielded this same question several times over the years.

Confused Stairs

Mark, a Danbury conductor, told me that he once had a woman ask him how to get to the lower level in Grand Central. Mark escorted her to the Terminal's main concourse and he pointed out the two large marble staircases that flank either end of the Terminal.

"Do those stairs go up or down?” She asked.

You can’t make this stuff up folks.

Fuzzy Logic

Conductors aren't the only ones who get stupid questions. Bill, an engineer friend of mine, told me he was making a station stop in Stamford one morning, when a woman pounded on his cab window.

"Why are the head two cars of this train always so crowded?" She screamed.

Bill explained that these cars were crowded because they're closest to the exit in Grand Central and that everyone wants to be the first off the train. He told her that if she wanted a seat, there was plenty of room in the back of the train.

"Well then," said the woman, "you better tell your bosses to add more cars to the front of the train."

Bill said he debated explaining that these cars would then be the front of the train and would still be overcrowded. He ultimately decided that this woman was a lost cause and told her that he'd pass her recommendation along. He then slammed his cab window shut, and shook his head in disgust.

Stupid Answers

I know that a lot of my readers are passengers, and they’re probably thinking: “Ha! What makes these conductors think they're so smart. I should write a blog listing all the stupid answers that they've given me over the years.”

Well if you do decide to write such a blog, here’s a gem of a story for you.

A veteran conductor told me that when he first hired out as a trainman some 30 plus years ago, a passenger asked him for a ticket to Manhattan. Puzzled, he pulled out his crisp schedule and started running his index finger up and down the list of station stops. He finally gave up and told the passenger, “Sorry sir, this train doesn't go to Manhattan. We're headed for New York City."

For some reason, he asked that I not publish his name.