What happened that evening in 1996 was surreal and like something out of a Martin Scorsese movie.
The opening shot shows a deserted, dimly lit train platform in New Haven, CT:
Sunday, Memorial Day Weekend, 1996, 2 AM
Flashes across the screen.
My tale begins 12 years ago on Memorial Day weekend. I was working the 11:22 train home from New York to New Haven on a Saturday night. This train has a Waterbury Branch connection, meaning that we had several branch passengers, or “Naugatuck Valley Mutants” as my coworkers call them. Most of these people are hard working, God fearing individuals, but there are also several ne’er do wells, many fresh from serving prison terms, returning from stints in a half way houses, rehab facilities or methadone clinics. Most are on the low end of society’s economic scale. Some are dirty; others missing teeth, and many have a hard time coming up with a ticket or train fare.
On this particular night, I collected a Waterbury ticket from a thin glassy-eyed Puerto Rican man in his mid twenties. He spent most of the ride taking nips from a bottle of whiskey he had wrapped in a paper bag. He looked a little inebriated, so I warned him to stay awake or he’d miss his connection in Bridgeport. He grunted something unintelligible to me and then closed his eyes. Somewhere around Milford (two stops beyond Bridgeport) I heard a loud pounding on my train cab door. It was my drunken amigo.
“Where’s the Waterbury train?” He asked.
I looked at my watch and said, “Half way to Waterbury by now. You must have slept past your stop.”
“How am I going to get to Waterbury?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “That was the last connection of the night. Maybe you can get a cab in New Haven.”
“NO,” he screamed. “YOU have to get me to Waterbury!”
I assumed he meant “you” as in Metro North and I told him that the railroad couldn’t be held responsible for people who fall asleep and miss their station stops.
“Yo man,” he said. “You think this is funny or something? You better get that smirk off your face.”
I didn’t realize I had a smirk on my face, but his threatening manner was making me a little nervous, so maybe I flashed a defensive grin.
“You better get me to Waterbury.”
“We’re done here,” I said, and I slammed the cab door in his face. He then spent the next five minutes pounding on my cab door, calling me names and threatening to kick my ass. Thankfully, we were almost to New Haven, so I didn’t bother calling for the cops.
Suddenly, as if to break the eerie silence, a silver and red striped train streaks across the picture, Clickety-Clack, Clickety-Clack, C-l-i-c-k-e-t-y-C-l-a... The train slows to rumble and then makes an abrupt stop.
The muffled sound of a conductor’s announcement can be heard:
“This is New Haven, our final station stop. Don’t forget your personal belongings and watch your step when leaving the train.”
The doors slide open and the commuters groggily spill out onto the platform and then descend down the stairs and into the station. One passenger, a thin Hispanic man in his mid 20’s, steps out onto the platform and then hides in the shadows.
The camera angle shifts and we see a balding, disheveled conductor, stepping off his train and slowly walking down the platform towards his car in the employee parking lot. The Hispanic man steps out of the shadows, reaches into a blue knapsack and quickly stuffs a shiny metal object into his right hand coat pocket. The conductor turns and sees the man and recognizes him as his disgruntled passenger.
“Hey conductor! Remember me?”
“Yeah, I said. “I remember.”
“Let’s see how funny you think I am now.”
He then brandished an outstretched pocket, as if he were hiding a gun, and dug a hard metal object into the middle of my back.
“Let’s see who’s laughing now,” he asked.
An aerial shot shows the wide expanse of the New Haven rail yard. A conductor is shown crossing the tracks, followed closely by a thin black haired man. The pair disappear into a white trailer at the edge of the tracks.
“Bill” I said as we entered the Stationmaster’s trailer. “There’s a guy here with a gun at my back.”
Bill, the Stationmaster, knows that I have a strange sense of humor, and he must have thought I was joking.
“I’m not kidding,” I said. “Can you find a train to take this guy to Waterbury?”
Bill, quickly assessed the situation and pushed past my new friend and I. He then walked out of the trailer and into his pick up truck that was parked outside. Seconds later, he returned with a fanny pack in his hand.
“You want to see a real gun?” Bill asked the passenger. “I’ll show you a real gun.”
Bill unzipped his fanny pack and displayed a small metal handgun.
“You think I’m afraid of you?” My passenger asked. “You think I’m afraid of getting shot? You think I’m afraid to die?”
Seeing that Bill had a gun, I suddenly got brave and found my voice again. “Listen pal” I said. “Someone might get hurt here. Why don’t you do us all a favor and get lost.”
Surprisingly, my passenger heeded my advice and removed the object he’d jabbed into my back and walked out of the trailer. Bill and I watched as he crossed the tracks and into Union Station.
A Hispanic man is on a pay phone in Union Station in New Haven. An MTA police officer cautiously approaches him and takes the phone from his hand. The cop then throws the man against a wall and begins frisking him.
“Where’s the gun?” Demands the cop.
The passenger says there is no gun, only a small metal camera tripod that he carries in the front pocket of his coat. The cop asks why the man carries a camera tripod in his pocket.
“I had a complaint against the conductor,” he says. I just wanted to take his picture.”
I promised Bill (not his real name) that I wouldn’t tell this story until he died or retired.