Saturday, June 20, 2009

Life on the Waterbury Branch

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Naugatuck River Valley was one of the main manufacturing communities of New England. Brick factories dotted the landscape and straddled the banks of the twisting Naugatuck River. The Waterbury Branch of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad weaved the river like a ribbon and supported the area's burgeoning manufacturing base. The 28 mile long line provided raw materials for the brass, plastic, latex and rubber plants that lay between Bridgeport and Waterbury.

Sometime during the 1970's the valley's factories slowly began to disappear. Most relocated overseas or "down south" where labor and operating costs were much cheaper. The final death knell came with the explosion of the Sponge Rubber Products Plant in Shelton in 1975. The fire that ensued is one of the largest arson fires in U.S. history. Thousands of valley residents lost their jobs and much of the valley became a economic wasteland.

The once mighty freight trains that rumbled up and down the Waterbury Branch have now been replaced with sparse commuter service provided by Metro North Railroad. This is where I come in; for the past couple of months I've been working the night shift on the Waterbury line. Here's a portion of my conductor's log:

6/1: A distraught woman boards the train in Seymour wreaking of booze. Her skin is pale white but her eyes are vibrant red and bloodshot. She tells me that her boyfriend just threw her out of the house and she needs to get to her sister's place in Naugatuck. I say "no problem" and tell her that I can bill her for the fare. I hand her the billing pad book and she sits down. She begins sobbing uncontrollably, so much so, she can't fill the billing form out. I take the pad from her shaking hands and I begin filling the form out. I ask for her name and address, but instead she gives me her life story.

She says her name is Penny and she's 46 years old. She has a son and two daughters but they're all crack-heads. The daughters each have two children, but the state has taken the babies away from them. She goes on and on like this for ten minutes until we reach Naugatuck (her stop). As she gets off the train gently touches my hand and thanks me for understanding and the free ride. I look down at the blank pad in my hands and realize that I've been duped.


6/2: When we pull into Waterbury Station I notice an older African American gentleman waiting on the platform. I assume he's there to pick up a passenger, but instead he walks up to me and begins telling me a tale of woe. He says he just got a call from the Torrington police department and they have his son locked up. He says he needs gas money to drive up to Torrington to bail him out.

" I know my son is wrong," he says. "But I have an empty gas tank and I got to get up there ."

I reluctantly reach into my pocket and give him a five dollar bill. He looks down at the bill in disappointment. His face brightens when he sees my engineer climbing down from the locomotive. Screaming over the engine's roar he repeats his well rehearsed story and again pleads for "gas money." My engineer looks him square in the eye... and tells him to "get lost".

Why didn't I think of that?

6/3: There's a methadone clinic in Bridgeport and several of their patients travel from Waterbury to Bridgeport to get their daily fix. Later in the day these pale and lethargic patients return to Waterbury. I notice that one of the patients, a woman with Don King hair, is staring at me. It isn't till I collect her ticket that I find out why..

"Baby" says the woman. "You got you-self a cute little mouth."

"My mouth isn't really little" I say. "It's just that I have no lips...I'm lipless."

"Ohh baby...You lucky."

"Well, I guess I do save on Chapstick."
6/5: Penny is standing at Seymour Station again. She gives me that "deer caught in the headlights" look, and she cautiously says that she doesn't have any money again. I begin to reject her... but she starts to cry. "Okay," I say, "get on." Once aboard her tears begin to dry and she apologizes for all the drama. She says she suffers from depression, but can't take anti-depressants because they make her suicidal.

"A few months back," she says, "I laid down on the tracks, but someone saw me and called the cops."

I try to counsel and tell her to go see a doctor and find the right meds. She admits that she's a horrible alcoholic and that she'd have to quit booze in order to take anti-depressants. She says her doctor told her that liver is shutting down and if she doesn't stop drinking...she'll soon be dead. It's hard to tell if this news makes her happy or sad.

I tell her it doesn't have to be that way and she should go into rehab.

Penny says that she used to be a crackhead, but she quit cold turkey. It happened after she saw her drug dealer's luxury condo. "My habit paid for that condo" she says. "It really pissed me I quit...just like that."

6/5: I walk to the north end of the train in Waterbury to perform a brake test before departure. It's pitch black out and I use a flashlight to find my way. The path is littered with old brake shoes and railroad ties, so I have to be very careful and watch my step. Suddenly, I hear a loud grumble to my right. I quickly spin and the flashlight beam catches three homeless guys sleeping alongside the track.

The Waterbury Branch is beginning to depress me.

6/8: A young man hands me his prison release papers and asks me to bill him for the $2.25 fare. It seems that most of the males up here are somehow involved with the criminal justice system. They've either just been released from jail, or they're on their way to visit their probation officer. They all seem to be short money, and the fare is only $2.25.

Former Governor John Rowland once said that it would be cheaper to buy all the commuters on the Waterbury Branch their own minivan than to continue funding it's operation. I'm beginning to think he was right.
6/9: I've seen a lot of "quick turners" on this line. Young guys travel south to Bridgeport then, 20 minutes later, return to Waterbury. Just long enough to make a transaction with their dealer.

6/10: A woman in a motorized wheel chair boards the train in Bridgeport and asks me to plug her chair's battery into the AC outlet. I do this, but find that the electrical outlets are dead in that car. I then check the electrical cabinet and find that someone has broken the circuit breaker that feeds juice to the outlet. I tell the woman about my findings and she begins cursing me out. She says that she has to drive herself home and she "sure ain't gonna push herself up the hills of Waterbury." She tells me that I'd better figure something out. I try to wheel her to another car, but the chair is too wide for the aisle, instead I help lift her out of her chair and place her in a seat. I then disassemble her chair and roll it to another car, reassemble it and plug it into an electrical outlet. Another passenger tries to help me, but she yells at him when he turns the wheel chair seat in the wrong direction. Just another example of "No good deed goes unpunished."

I'm one of the most absent-minded guys around and I'm forever forgetting to charge my cell phone and hand held radio battery, but if my mobility depended on it...I'm pretty sure my wheel chair battery would be charged.

6/9: Penny and a younger woman are running for the train in Seymour. Penny is hyperventilating and sobbing uncontrollably. The younger woman, one of her daughters it turns out, tries to calm her down. Penny's hands are shaking as she takes a prescription tablet from a brown bottle in her purse. She pops an anti-anxiety pill and takes a swig from a water bottle. She says she spent all day in court with her 19 year old son who has been arrested on 3rd degree burglary charges. She spent her last $5 on a Subway sandwich and neither she nor her daughter have the fare.
6/10: The methadone patient with the Don King hair is back. We reach Waterbury and she fails to get off the train. She says it's too cold out and asks if she can stay on the train and go back to Bridgeport. I tell her it's the last train of the night and that we don't go back to Bridgeport, unfortunately she has to get off. "But it's cold out there" she says. I tell her that I'm sorry, but we have to yard the train in New Haven.

After she leaves the train I go into the garage at the Waterbury Republican newspaper building and call the rail traffic controller in New York for my train orders. I return to the train some 10 minutes later and find "Don King" sleeping in the dark against the side the building.

On the way back to New Haven I stand in the engineer's cab, looking out the front window at a turbulent Naugatuck River. A hard rain begins to fall and my thoughts turn to Don King huddled against the building. The train's headlight catches a lone fawn in the distance. "Run Bambi..Run!" I shout, but Bambi doesn't hear me, and steps right into the gauge of the rail. I close my eyes and hear the crush of bones beneath my feet...It makes me think of Penny.

11 comments: said...

The plant in Shelton was a big loss to the NHRR, but the biggest hit was when the Uniroyal plant in Naugatuck closed, it was one of the biggest customers on the NHRR, there was a switcher that worked the plant for 16 hours a day (NX-15). Certainly, there are many more factors that led to the decline of the Naugy, and the freight business in general. Also, the next time you see a deer in the track, turn off the headlight and lean on the horn. Years ago, there was not a lot of wildlife on that part of the railroad ( not counting the train crews)

FX Keane, retired Engineer NH,PC,CR,MN (looks like a degree)

Bobby said...

F X Keane and I worked together several times on the Waterbury Branch. I haven't seen or heard from him in years.

He was a terrific engineer with a very dry/funny sense of humor. It was always a pleasure to work with him.

Sandi Shelton said...

Bobby, these are unbelievable stories you well told and so compassionate. It's amazing when you hear how some people have to live. Thank you for opening our eyes to these stories. They don't come to the public's attention very much, but they're very real.

Tony Alva said...

Bobby, Great post sir. You've got to get off that line though. Does the railroad allow you to carry? If not, you've got no business walking that brake yard alone after dark. Our boys don't walk the streets of Falluja alone and unarmed and neither should you. I'm surprised your wife doesn't give you a rash over that particular task of your job.

Alright, I'll stop nagging now...

Jamie said...

Bobby a great sampling of the Waterbury branch. I work it every Sat & Sun night. Have had a regular guy (Barry) take train from Naugatuck to Ansonia to feed the ferile cats left around the brass factory. Regular riders from Waterbury to Bridgeport with only an id fresh out of jail headed home to Bridgeport and the police said it would be alright to take the train. Tootless guy from Waterbury to Beacon Falls who I let ride once because he had no way home and no money. Now he tries to get on every Sat without money. Do we see a familiar tendency with our clientele. Reminds me of the old line from The Naked City very old tv series." There are over a million stories in the Naked City and this is one of them." Nothing will ever surprise me about the Waterbury. I tell my wife (Dian) that whenever I work the Waterbury I can see Rod Sterling on the platform at Bridgeport saying "Jamie be careful, Your about to enter the Twilight Zone!"

Anonymous said...

wow, and i thought working the Ronkonkoma branch on the LIRR was bad, you may have me beat!

NG said...

Any particular reason you chose this assignment given how much seniority you have? :)

Bobby said...


It's all about the Benjamins!

little kelly said...

wow, im now depressed... thank you... come back to days and the main line !!!!

Andrew said...

Oh my goodness Bobby. Life as a conductor on the Waterbury Branch is very depressing. I knew that it was bad I did not know how bad it was. Thanks for sharing this.


(Regular Waterbury Branch Rider)

Andrew said...

In addition I wanted to add that on the Waterbury Branch you see it all. One of the morning Conductors in Jan. told me that this is like a soap opera "As the Train Turns." Me I would call this the Railway from Hell. Conductor like you Bobby and also Jaime I give a lot of credit braving the WATERBURY BRANCH. It was funny what Jaime said "he sees Rod Sterling Bridgeport Platform saying you're about to enter the Twilight Zone." Well if you want a breath of Fresh air work the Harlem or Hudson, nice people. Well thank you very much for all your service Bobby, and keep up the good work and hope to see you again, after they fix the Waterbury Line.