“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.
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.
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.
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.