Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A cautionary tale of how a teddy bear killed my grandfather...and eventually led to my existence.

A teddy bear killed my grandfather...at least that's the story I was told.
The truth is a little more complicated.

It was an unseasonably cold evening in early October, 1918 when Emmett McDonough (my grandfather) stood before his orchestra at a Wallingford, Connecticut dance hall for his clarinet solo. He was well known in the area as a musical virtuoso and everyone was eager to hear him play. The crowd was in especially good spirits that night, since newspaper headlines shouted that World War I would soon be at an end.

A group of teen-aged girls began to foxtrot in front of the bandstand and one girl (I'll call her Mary) began tossing a teddy bear to her friends. Teddy bears were all the rage in 1918, so it was no surprise that she'd bring one to a dance. After several tosses, Mary lost her grip and the bear tumbled airborne toward the bandstand. Emmett, now finishing his solo, was hit square in the face. He picked up the teddy bear and handed it back to young Mary.

Just two days after the dance Emmett began to cough and felt a general malaise. By mid-week he was bedridden. Jimmy, his three year old son, was sent to stay with relatives. Emmett's wife Nellie (my grandmother) could do little more than drape him with cold compresses and put Vick's VapoRub on his chest (yes, it was around then). By week's end he'd taken a turn for the worse.

The flu was now wide spread and people were dropping left and right. Young Mary, the teen-aged teddy bear owner, was one such victim. Speculation says that Mary must have sneezed into her teddy bear's fur, leaving droplets of live virus that my grandfather inhaled.

*The Spanish Influenza started as an avian virus which spread from bird to man, then horribly mutated and spread from human to human. It was an especially virulent strain. The dead included not only the elderly and infants but also robust adults in the prime of life. It's estimated that this pandemic killed 675,000 in the United States and as many as 100 million world-wide.

The country was now in panic mode, and all of the area hospitals were full. Sister Winifred, my grandmother's sister, was a nurse/nun at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford and was able to pull some strings to get Emmett admitted. It was too late though, by now his lungs had filled with fluid and he was essentially drowning. He died from pneumonia on October 10th 1918. He had just celebrated his 29th birthday.

Nellie never remarried, which left their son Jimmy (my father) an only child. Without any substantial means of support, they shuffled from house to house living with a series of Nellie's sisters and family in Wallingford. My father would later say that it was a lonely existence and that he hated being an only child. That, in part, is why he had nine children. The youngest being me.

So when you think about it, I guess I owe my existence to...a teddy bear.

*New York Times -04/28/09

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Paris Hilton

As all my fellow conductors know, my alter ego is "The Conductor to the Stars"; A near legendary railroad phenom, with an uncanny knack for spotting rail- riding celebrities. Because of this, coworkers are eager to share anecdotal stories of their brushes with fame with me. Mark and Bob, two Danbury Branch conductors, told me a whopper of a story in Grand Central last night:

"Hey Conductor to the Stars" Bob yelled from the platform on track 16. "You're not going to believe who we had on train Friday night."

I've been in a big celebrity sighting drought lately, and I felt an immediate pang of jealousy.

"I assume it was a celebrity?"

"A BIG celebrity," Mark said.

I didn't have time to play 20 questions, so I cut to the chase.

"Okay...Who was it?"

Mark and Bob shouted in unison:

"Paris Hilton!"

"NO WAY!" I yelled back. Now I was really jealous.

"Not only that," Mark said. "But she didn't have any money and I had to bill her,"(now he paused for dramatic effect,) "and then I had the cops take her off the train in Stamford."

"Get out of here," I said incredulously.

"No really," Bob said.

Bob then had Mark show me the "pink slip"(a billing form used when passengers have neither ticket or money). Sure enough, there on the form was written:

Name: Paris Hilton

Address: 200 Main St.

City: Hyannis, Ma 02530

Paris's signature was emblazoned across the bottom in big girlish loops. She'd even placed hearts over the "i" in Paris and Hilton.

"That's HOT!" I said, doing my best Paris Hilton impression.

'Not really," Mark said. He then 'fessed up' saying the story was only partially true. As it turns out, truth was much sadder than fiction:

"I was collecting tickets on my train, when I came across an old white haired lady, who was about 70 years old. I asked for her ticket, but she said she didn't have time to buy one, and that she didn't have any money."

"No problem," Mark said while handing her a pink slip, "Do you have any form of identification?"

The woman reached into her over sized purse and pulled out a clear laminated ID pouch. In the lower right hand corner was a photo of Paris Hilton lounging in a skin tight dress. In the middle of the pouch was an aluminum lid from a Jello pudding container. This lid was in place of an official seal or hologram.

"The woman looked clean," Mark said. "I thought she was putting me on."

When the woman finished filling out the pink slip, she handed it to Mark.

"M'am," Mark questioned patiently. "You're telling me that your name is
Paris Hilton?"

"Yes!" The old woman answered matter of factly.

"THE Paris Hilton?"


(surrounding passengers began to roll their eyes.)

"And this is your picture on the ID?"

"Yes!" She was starting to get annoyed. "I used to be a model."

There were a few moments of uncomfortable silence then, and Mark and Paris stared at each other down.

"Okay Paris," Mark finally said. "I'm going to have the police talk to you in Stamford."(Mark was concerned about the woman's mental stability and thought that maybe she was suffering from Alzheimer's or dementia.)

"Is it because I'm Jewish?" The woman asked. "Is that what this is all about?"

Mark said that he called the rail traffic controller and asked for police assistance. He explained that he had an old woman on board who claimed to be Paris Hilton and unless the hard partying had finally caught up with her...the last he knew, Paris Hilton didn't look like a 70 year old woman.

When the train arrived in Stamford, two MTA police officers were waiting.

"Is there a problem officers?" Paris asked.

"We'd just like to speak with you m'am. Maybe get your name and address."

"I already told the conductor...My name is Paris....Paris Hilton."

"Okay m'am...Can you please come with us?"

The officers each grabbed an arm and escorted Paris off the train.

Before stepping on the platform, Paris turned around and addressed the
entire car:

"See ya later...bitches!"

(Okay, I made that last part up...but wouldn't that have been a great exit line?)

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Centraal Station-Antwerp, Belgium

Found this video on Sandi Kahn Shelton's blog (which I highly recommend).

How long before this breaks out in Grand Central?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

What we have here...Is a failure to communicate

"Conductor," said the woman in a thick southern drawl, "Could ya' please tell me when we get to Grand Central? I can't make heads nor tails of that man on the loud speaker."

"That Man!" I said indignantly. THAT MAN...happens to be ME."

The woman and her four friends burst out laughing. "No it ain't" one of the women said (I guess she thought I was teasing).

"No, really." I said.

I was a little hurt since I pride myself on my clear and concise announcements. Passengers compliment me all the time.

"Sorry Darlin," another said, "But we're visitin' from Alabama and we can't understand a lick of what you was sayin'."

"Would it help if I slowed my speech?" I asked.

They nodded their heads in agreement.

"Maybe make the announcements in a s-l-o-w southern drawl?"

"Go fer it!" They said.

The next station stop was rapidly approaching. I quickly raced to the cab and made this announcement:

"This here," I drawled, trying to sound like the prison warden in Cool Hand Luke. "This here...is Mt. V-e-r-n-o-n East."

I heard a loud cheer come from the other end of the car. Looking down the aisle, I could see my new friends giving me the thumbs up sign.

"The next station stop," I took a pregnant pause here..."The next stash-i-u-n is fixin' to be Fordham."

The cheers were even louder now and they were interspersed with guffaws of laughter.

They were egging me on now. After Fordham :

" I a-reckon that Harlem 125th Street is gonna be next."

They were actually clapping now... wavin' and a hootin' and a hollerin'.

One of the woman waved me over. "Darlin, where'd ya learn to talk like that? I mean ....Fixin'?"

"We watch a lot of 'Reba' reruns in my house." I said matter of factly.

"Reba!" That's our favorite show. (no surprise there)

We were almost to Grand Central when one of the ladies thanked me for giving them a good laugh. Another said I made their night. I thanked them as well, saying they were good sports. They could have just as easily been offended.

"So. You think we Yankees speak too fast?" I asked.

They all nodded their heads in agreement.

"Then you should be happy that you didn't have a New York conductor. I'm from Connecticut, and even I can't understand them."

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Biohazards Please!

"Sorry dude!" Said the passenger, now showing me his thumb which was dripping with blood. "I sliced it at work today and it won't stop bleeding." I looked down at the ticket he'd just handed me, still not comprehending his apology. There, between my index finger and thumb, lay a crimson colored piece of paper. It was the size and shape of a powder blue Metro North ticket, but streaks of plasma had left it unrecognizable.

"Where are you going today?" I asked curtly, not trying to mask my annoyance.

"New Rochelle." He answered with a shrug of his shoulders.

"Ugggh!" I grumbled in disgust.
I ran for the bottle of Purell hand sanitizer that I keep in my railroad bag and squirted several droplets into my palms. While vigorously rubbing my hands together, I thought about Bill, a germaphobic coworker who collects tickets in latex gloves, a practice I once thought of as eccentric, but now think of as ingenious.

I wish I could say that this disgusting episode was unique, but I can't. For example; I frequently catch passengers holding tickets in their mouths. Sometimes they'll go as far as using them as dental floss, spending the better part of the ride mining molars for forgotten bits of a $200 business lunch and then handing me a ticket covered in spit and shreds of steak tartar.

Frequently, I spy someone coughing or sneezing into their ticket. They act as if nothing untoward has happened and try to pass their mucus covered ticket to me. I'll usually hold up my hand and say something like: "Today's your lucky day...you get to keep that ticket as a souvenir."

A passenger on my morning train passes his time by picking his nose and then eating it. Every morning it's the same thing, picking...eating, eating...picking, picking...eating. Luckily, he has a monthly commutation ticket and there's no hand to ticket contact between us. If he ever forgets his pass...he gets a free ride.

A few years back, on a hot August afternoon, a young man boarded my train in his high school basketball uniform. "Tickets please!" I asked, as I watched droplets of sweat pour down his face. "One minute" he said. He then reached down for his size 13 Air Jordans. I waited as he slowly untied his shoe, took it off and reached inside for his ticket. Once retrieved he proudly displayed a sweat soaked ticket. It drooped in his fingers, looking as soggy and limp as a cornflake left in day old milk. "You can't be serious" I said. "Sorry man," he said with a smile, "Ain't got no pockets."

There is an upside to this story. Because of all this bacterial exposure, I believe I've built up immunity and I rarely get sick. I guess that's what happens when you work in a Petri dish.