Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Geronimo!!!" A Roller Coaster week in review.

October 16th:  A guy boards my train in New Haven and when he opens his wallet, I see a yellow "Post It" note glued to his credit cards.  It reads; "New Haven Taxi 777-7777".  I find this funny. I don't always remember phone numbers...but I'm pretty sure I could remember this one.

On my go- home train, the emergency window in the "quiet car" is making a racket.  The weatherstripping around the glass is loose and the pane is rattling like crazy.  My passengers look annoyed.  Like MacGyver, I quickly grab seat checks out of my pocket and shim the small pieces of cardboard between the glass and the rubber gasket that surrounds it.  The window goes silent and the passengers cheer. I'm the hero of quiet car.

October 17th:  I meet up with author/journalist Sandi Kahn Shelton at Starbucks.  She is interviewing me for an article in The New Haven Register .  The story is about my father's participation in the famous "Obedience to Authority" experiments by Dr. Stanley Milgram.  Milgram conducted these experiments at Yale in 1961-1962 to observe how obedient people were when following orders from an authority figure.

Between sips of her iced tea and my Grande Vanilla Chai Latte, Sandi tells me how much she loves my blog and writing style.  She is one of my favorite writers, so this is a HUGE compliment.  It's a wonder that my big head fits through the door of the coffee shop. We agree to meet at Yale's Linsley-Chittenden Hall (where the experiments were conducted) the next day for a photo shoot to accompany the newspaper article.

Wednesday evening- October 17: My train hits a trespasser and I have to go out and search for the body... And that's all I have to say about that.

October 18th:  I wake up with a knot in my stomach, remembering the previous evening's activities.  I get a call from a counselor from the railroad's employee assistance program.  She says she's sorry that I had to go through the trauma and asks if I want to come in and discuss my feelings.  I thank her for the offer, but tell her that this is my third fatality in my 26 years on the railroad...and that I think I'll be okay.  She encourages me to take three days off (regular procedure whenever crews are involved in a fatality) and I tell her that I will. 

They say that railroaders average three fatalities in their career.  This was my third and hopefully last fatality. I'm done.

After breakfast, I drive to New Haven and get stuck behind a Connecticut Transit Bus, then spend the next 10 minutes staring into the eyes of Attorney Jonathan Perkins, a personal injury lawyer whose giant face is plastered on the back of the bus in an advertisement for his law firm.

Attorney Perkins was on my train one day this past summer, and I told him that his head was much smaller than the buses advertise.  He laughed...well he kind of laughed.

I search for Linsley-Chittenden Hall and find it right smack dab in the middle of Yale's old campus.  It's a beautiful Gothic looking building, all brownstone, decorative spires and Tiffany windows.  I've never been here before, but know that my father's experiment was done somewhere in the basement of the building.  I walk down a set of dimly lit steps to the basement which befits a medieval castle.  I open heavy wooden doors but can't find a room that looks like the experiment lab.  There are no plaques on the wall  designating it as the site of the Milgram experiments (due to the unethical nature of the experiments, Yale is not exceedingly proud of it). I find an office upstairs and ask a secretary if she knows exactly where the experiments were conducted.  She says she thinks they were done "at Berkeley...out in California".  I tell her that, "no...the experiments were done somewhere right beneath your desk."

  "Really?" She says.

I go back outside to wait for Sandi and the Register photographer and I hear someone shouting "GERONIMO!!!.....GERONIMO!!!"  I instinctively start looking up at the tops of nearby buildings waiting for someone to jump (when I was a kid, we always yelled "Geronimo!" before jumping off of something...I'm not sure why.)

 "GERONIMO!!!"  I look across the street toward the sound of the shouts and notice a drunken Native American standing in front of a brownstone building that I recognize to be "The Skull and Bones" tomb. "GERONIMO!!!" he shouts again, now shaking his fists.

 I recently read that the notorious Skull and Bones Society (a secret Yale fraternity that counts several U.S. presidents and Supreme Court justices among its members),  has the famous Native American warrior's skull deposited somewhere inside this tomb.  Understandably, Native Americans want the skull back to give it a proper burial.  

I meet Sandi and Arnie (The Register photographer) and Arnie takes several shots of me somewhere near where the experiment was conducted (I never found the exact location). He keeps having me look up toward the ceiling light and I don't understand why. A few days later, I see this spooky...but very cool picture plastered on the cover of The New Haven Register. Photography is all about shadows and light.

October 19:   I drive up to the Connecticut State Library in Hartford to do genealogy research.  One of those big car carrier trucks catches fire just ahead of me on I-91, and I see giant plumes of smoke about a quarter mile up the road.  The conflagration shuts down the highway and I sit in traffic for 90 minutes.  I finally make it to the library, and find that keeping busy takes my mind off of the Wednesday evening's activities.  Searching for dead people in files, microfilm, and computers is fun.  Searching for real dead people is not.  The irony isn't lost on me.

October 21Sandi's article appears on the front page of The New Haven Register.  I'm exceedingly pleased with how it turned out, so I link the article to my facebook page.  I then spend the better part of the day checking my status updates waiting for people to comment.  I laugh at how narcissistic this behavior is...and ask my wife if she thinks me a narcissist.

 "You think?" She answers sarcastically.

October 21:  I'm finally back to work, and they have me covering the 1:15AM train out of Grand Central.  This train is always entertaining...and so dysfunctional that it should have its own blog.

When I start collecting tickets, I notice a 20-something African American couple making out in the middle of the train.  By the time I approach to get their tickets, the man is standing in front of his girlfriend and his belt is unbuckled.  His pants are riding down around his thighs and they're about to commence a sex act.

"WHOA!!!" I say. "Pull those pants up...You can't do that here."

The guy pulls his pants up and buckles his belt.  He and his mate apologize and they assure me it won't happen again, but as soon as I turn my back, I hear the belt unbuckle and he's standing up in front of her again.

"What did I just tell you?" I shout.  "Pull your pants up or I'm going to have you arrested." 

Now the woman apologizes, saying they just got engaged and they can't help themselves.  By now the surrounding passengers are shaking their heads in disbelief.  

Halfway through the ride, I notice the amorous couple have moved their seats to the head car of the train, which is now devoid of passengers.  I contemplate confronting them again (I assume they were back at it)...but it's 2AM, and there's no one else around. It's been a tough week, so I decide a "don't ask-don't tell" policy is the best way to go.

Ahhh!....Young love.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

SHOCKING!!! (Again)

Due to the recent article in the New Haven Register, I am rerunning this post which originally appeared in March of 2006:

Something shocking happened to my brother John one Sunday night in 1974. He was at his girlfriend’s house watching the CBS news show 60 Minutes and half paying attention to the screen when correspondent Morley Safir started a segment titled “Following Orders.” Safir introduced the piece by showing black and white footage of a psychological experiment that was conducted at Yale University. John was about to turn the channel when he noticed that one of the men in the film looked exactly like my father. My father had died nine years previous to this broadcast, so he was perplexed. He jumped off the couch in order to get a closer look.

As Safir narrated, the film showed a short, stocky and bespectacled man. He was middle-aged and wore suspenders. He was seated in a stark white room while a man in a long white lab coat attached electrodes to his arms. When he finished connecting the wires he asked the man if he had any questions or concerns.

Man in suspenders: About two years ago I was at the Veteran’s Hospital in West Haven.
While there, they diagnosed me with a heart condition…nothing serious, but as long as I’m having these shocks…how strong are they? How dangerous are they?

Man in lab coat: No, although the shocks may be painful, they are not dangerous.

THAT GUY IN THE SUSPENDERS IS MY FATHER! John shouted. He called home and my mother answered the phone.

Mom: Helllooo!

John: Mom, quick turn on 60 minutes. Daddy is on there…and they’re electrocuting him.

Mom: What are you talking about?

John: It’s some kind of psychological experiment and every time he gets a word association question wrong… they shock him.

Mom: Oh THAT experiment (as if my father had been in several experiments.) Yes, I vaguely remember him doing an experiment at Yale about 12 years ago.

The shocking truth is that in 1961 through 1962, my father, who worked as head auditor for The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad,(predecessor to the railroad I work for) took a part time job with a Yale professor named Dr. Stanley Milgram. The railroad did not like their management employees taking part time jobs but my father had nine mouths to feed and was employed at Yale for about a year.

Milgram, a social psychologist, took out an ad in the New Haven Register that offered to pay volunteers $4.00 for one hour's work, to participate in a psychological experiment at Yale University in a study to investigate memory and learning. Participants were told that the study would look at the relationship of punishment and learning. Volunteers would work in pairs; one would be the teacher, the other a learner. The two men would draw straws but it was fixed that my father (a confederate) would always draw the short straw and be the learner.

My father was strapped to a chair and electrodes were attached to his arms. It was explained to the teacher that the electrodes were connected to an electric shock generator and that the teacher was to shock my father for every wrong answer he gave in a series of word association questions.

The teacher was then brought to a separate room and sat in front of the shock generator. The machine had about 30 switches. The switch farthest to the left read 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 volts (severe shock). The switch farthest to the right was simply marked XXX. Every time my father got a question wrong, the learner had to give him a shock that increased in severity with every wrong answer (in reality, my father never received any shocks). My father’s groans and screams were pre-recorded and played each time the teacher gave him a shock. Many of these teachers expressed concern for my father’s well being, some even protesting about continuing, but the researcher in the lab coat urged them on.

Milgram’s results were shocking. He found that 65% of participants, even after hearing my father’s screams, zapped him all the way to the last switch. This study proved that everyday normal people could cause pain and suffering to another person under the right set of circumstances (think Nazi Germany). This experiment is still talked and written about today. Just last year The New York Times ran a piece on it, after US soldier Lynndie England said that she was innocent of Iraqi prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, because, she said, “I was just following orders.”

Shortly after the 60 Minutes broadcast, Dr. Milgram, who then chaired the Psychology Department at City University of New York (CUNY), appeared on the Phil Donahue Show. He had finally released the findings of the experiment and had written a book about it. It was titled, “Obedience to Authority.”

As we watched the show, we were all in a state of shock. They ran the footage of my father being strapped to the chair and we could hear his protests when the teacher started flipping switches and doling out discipline.

“Let me out of here!” He cried, “You can’t keep me here! Let me out!”

We still weren’t certain if my father was really getting shocked or not. We wondered if this might have had something to do with the fatal heart attack he suffered less than three years later at the young age of 49. After the show, my mother contacted CUNY and asked to speak with Dr. Milgram.

The next day our phone rang and I answered it. The man on the other line said, “Hello, this is Stanley Milgram, is Mrs. McDonough in.”

Dr. Milgram could not have been more pleasant. He told my mother how much he enjoyed working with my dad and he reassured her that he was unharmed in the experiments. He sent my mom an autographed copy of the book that was inscribed:

To Mrs. James McDonough,
I thought you might like to have a copy of this book.
As you know, your late husband was part of the
research team at Yale University. It was a pleasure
to work with him, and he was a very fine man.

Stanley Milgram
April 1974

After her conversation with Dr. Milgram, my mother rented the 8mm reel to reel version of the “Obedience to Authority” movie so we could all watch it at home. We gathered in our living room as my brother Jimmy set up the projector and hung a white bed sheet from our living room wall. I really didn’t remember much about the movie, probably because the quality of the projector was so poor. It had no audio and the picture was grainy (perhaps the sheet just needed washing.) I do remember making some great shadow puppets on the wall though.

My father had died just two weeks prior to my third birthday and I have no recollection of him. We used to have an 8x10 picture of him that hung over the TV in the den of my mother’s house. This picture was an icon for me, a photo of someone from the past, not known but idolized. Much like the pictures of Jesus, Pope Paul and John F. Kennedy that my grandfather had hanging on the walls in his house next door. When anybody spoke of my father this was the picture I had in my mind’s eye.

In 1994, I read in the newspaper that Yale's Sterling Library acquired Milgram's Obedience experiment archives from Alexandra Milgram, Dr. Milgram's widow (he died in 1984 at 51 years of age).   I wanted to get a video of the “Obedience to Authority" movie, so I contacted the archive librarian at Yale who in turn referred me to Penn State University since they now own the rights to the film. The librarian at Penn State told me that they normally only sell the video to institutions of higher learning and that they never had an individual request a copy for home use before. He said he could sell me a copy, but the going price was $1000.

I explained to the librarian that I was the son of one of the experiment’s main participants and I just wanted a copy for the family archives.

The librarian told me that under the circumstances, he would talk to Mrs. Milgram, and see if they could give me a break on the price of the video.

I was shocked, when a few days later I received a call from the librarian at Penn State. Mrs. Milgram said that I could have a copy of the movie for free, as long as I paid shipping and handling. The video arrived in the mail a few weeks later.

Unlike the 8mm home movie we had watched, this video was crystal clear. The hair stood up on my neck as I heard my father speak for the first time (he sounded nothing like I suspected). I had never seen his picture taken from behind before and I inspected his bald spot. I had to laugh when I saw that we had the same smile and mannerism. I pushed the play button over and over again as I wiped the tears from my eyes.

Recently, I had a middle-aged woman on my train, a Yale name tag hung from her neck. We began talking and she told me that she was a psychology professor at the University. I asked her if she was familiar with the Milgram experiment.

“Of course,” she said.

I then launched into the story I’ve just told here and how I received a copy of the video from Milgram’s widow.

“How strange,” the psychologist said, “ that the only memory you have of your father is that of him being a victim.”

“Shocking really,” I said.

For more information on the “Obedience to Authority” experiment, please visit: or

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"So...Where are you going tonight?"

"So....Where are you going tonight?"

Sometimes the question doesn't even need to be asked. Take the hoards of people dressed head to toe in Yankees or Rangers uniforms who board my train for example. Groups of young ladies going to bachelorette parties are also pretty easy to spot (they're the ones huddled in the five seaters, sipping margaritas from penis shaped straws). Most of the time though, passenger's evening plans are not so obvious, so I ask...

"So...Where are you going tonight?"

Most people simply answer "New York."  That's when I  roll my eyes and say; "Yeah, I know that!!!  But what do you intend to do once you get there?... Are you going out to dinner?... Maybe going to see a Broadway show...?

People seem to be a little put off by my intrusive questioning, but they want to be nice to the prying conductor, so they'll avoid eye contact, and say something like..."Just going to meet some friends for dinner and drinks."

Sometimes my customers surprise me though, and they give me very candid answers. (Flashback scene; "Initiate super-wavy flashback effect!".)

One afternoon this past summer, a lovely, fit, dark haired woman in her mid-30's was on my train.  She was very stylish, dressed casually in black clothing (the required New York uniform). 

"So...what are your plans for this evening?"  ( Sometimes I like to mix up my Inquisitions.)

"I'm going to an Intervention." She answered without hesitation.

"Come again?" I thought I'd misheard her.

"My old college roommate is in an abusive relationship, and my friends and I can't standby and watch it happen we're staging an intervention."

"Wow!" I said.  "That takes a lot of guts. You do realize this whole thing could blow up in your faces, and you might lose a friend tonight."

"Yeah," she said.  "I know... but it's a risk we're willing to take.

I congratulated she and her friends on their courage and concern, and I wished them, and her abused friend the best of luck.

Sometime back in July, I had a pale, frail looking man on my train who looked relatively young to be in such tough shape...I'm guessing he was in his mid 50's . The emblem on his dark blue sweatshirt said he was from a firehouse in Massachusetts, though I don't remember which town it was now. He had a portable oxygen tank at his feet, which was tethered to plastic tubing that ran the length of his torso. The tube then ran behind his head, split into two sections, folded over his ears like eyeglasses, and reconnected again under his nose on a nasal cannula that supplied his nostrils with oxygen.

"So...Where are you going today?" I asked, anticipating that he might need the assistance of a wheelchair in Grand Central.

The man said he was going to Manhattan to meet up with a group of disabled rescue workers from Ground Zero.  He explained that he was a retired fireman from Massachusetts who had volunteered as a rescue worker at the site of the former Twin Towers buildings in the days after the terrorist attacks.  Years later he developed "lung problems" like so many of his fellow rescue workers.  He now volunteered his time on the board of a 9/11 disabled rescue worker's group...a group that was getting smaller and smaller by the day due to all the illnesses that had befallen the membership.


Recently I had a cute freckled- faced blond girl on my train.  I thought she was a college co-ed, since she looked not unlike the uber-chic teens in the pages of the Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue .

"So..." I asked..."What's on the agenda tonight?"

She looked so young, I half expected her to say ...I'm going to a sorority party, or maybe,  I'm going to a Taylor Swift  concert. 

 "I'm going out to dinner with some friends." She answered.

I told her that I was writing a post for my blog, and that if she wanted to appear in the pages of "Derailed" she'd better come up with a better answer than that.

"Well how's this? (She really seemed to want to be in this story.)

 "It's my first day off in three years!"

"Three years?" (And I thought I worked a lot.)

"Yeah, I'm a surgical resident at Yale, and we never get days off."

"You can't be a doctor!" I said. "You look like you're 18."

"I wish! She laughed, now pulling her work ID out of her back pocket.  Sure enough, her name was prefaced with "Dr."

"Wow" I said.  "The older I get, the younger you doctors look."

Speaking of being old...When did I become "That Guy?"  Remember when you were in your twenties and you and your friends would go to a concert, and inevitably,  some middle age guy would stop you outside of the concert hall and ask who your were going to see?  You and your friends didn't want to be rude, so you'd tell the guy the name of the band, and without fail he'd say..."Never heard of 'em." Fast forward 30 years and I've become THAT GUY?  For reasons I can't explain, I insist on asking my young concert going passengers what band they're going to see, only to end up commenting.... "Never heard of 'em."

Unbelievably, there are some passengers who just don't seem to want to get questioned by their conductor.  Take the guy I had on the train yesterday for example.  He left his ticket out on the seat, his eyes were closed,  he was wearing headphones, and a tee shirts that read "F#@K YOU! I HAVE ENOUGH FRIENDS." Yeah...I have no idea where this guy was going.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Note to Self

Note to self:  Sometimes I'm naive.

Whenever I'm walking along the tracks, I notice copious amounts of plastic water bottles filled with yellow liquid.  I always assumed these bottles were filled with sports drinks like Gatorade or Powerade, and I thought it careless that so many of my railroad brethren would litter and be so wasteful.  I mentioned my concern to an engineer one day...and he gave me one of those, how stupid can you be? looks.  He explained that engineers don't always have time to run to the lavatory when they're running a train and sometimes they have to make do. A lot of them keep an empty plastic water bottle in their railroad bag for such emergencies. I won't go into all the disgusting details here, but let's just say,  it's not like they can flush in the engineer's cab, so any open window will do. After gagging,  I thought of all the times I sat in these cabs eating my lunch. I guess I need to start carrying an industrial size bottle of Purell.  

Note to self:  Some people are lazy.

One of my passengers got off the train in Noroton Heights shaking his head in disgust.  He came up to my cab window and grumbled, "Your engineer pulls down too far on the platform."  I wanted to respond; Well, the people who parked toward the head of the train think my engineer spotted the train perfectly.  It was obvious though, this guy didn't care about them...he only cared that he had to walk an extra 170 feet further than he expected to his BMW in the parking lot.  I'm sure in Manhattan this blowhard treks three city blocks for a dirty water dog, but ask him to walk an extra couple of train car lengths and he gets all bent out of shape.

Note to self: Drunks are stupid.

I had two drunk Yankee fans returning home from the stadium last night.  I noticed that their tickets were emblazoned "Yankee Stadium E 153rd / Brewster" in Brewster, New York.   "Gentleman," I said, "We have a problem here.  Stamford, CONNECTICUT is the next stop for this train."  The younger of the two drunks looked up at me with one eye open and said "Bullshiiiiit!!!" His friend agreed, and he deemed me "full of  shit." Obviously they thought I was playing with them.  "No...Really!" I said... and then I thought; Why am I arguing with these drunk idiots?  Normally I try to accommodate my wayward passengers and see if I can possibly get them off on the nearest platform, but there was something about the way the younger drunk said "Bullshiiiiit!" that annoyed me.  I guess they finally believed me when we pulled into Stamford Station, as evidenced by the pounding they gave the garbage cans on the platform.

Note to Self:  Some people are rude.

Yesterday, a woman got on my train and immediately plugged the cord of her smart phone into the power outlet. Apparently only the phone was smart, since she sat across the aisle from the outlet, leaving the cord to dangle like a trip wire just inches off the ground blocking my, and everyone else's, well worn path.   I approached her and told her that the cord was blocking the aisle and she'd either have to move her seat or unplug the cord.  That's when she sighed, looked up and gave me an annoyed look...a look that said; Why are you hassling me?

On this same train I had a guy wearing headphones who missed his stop. He hadn't heard my several announcements for passengers in the rear two cars to walk forward because he was blasting Jay Z into his ears.

These headphone wearers are my new pet peeve.  Especially since they ask me questions without removing their ear buds or headphones.  Inevitably,  I'll answer their question and they'll say "What happened?"   They never think to take their headphones off, and say "Excuse me sir?"  It's always "What happened?"  I motion for them to take their headphones off, and when they do, I say, "What happened is that you were in the wrong car and now you've missed your stop."

Note to Self: Some people are still honest in this world.

A family from India was visiting on my train this week. The thirty-something year old son handed me tickets for he, his wife and his parents. I noticed he seemed a little unsure about something, then he spoke in broken English; "I bought my father a senior citizen ticket...but I'm not sure what the railroad considers a senior citizen." I told him that the railroad considers 65 and over a senior. He told me that his father was only 64 1/2, and he quickly pulled out his wallet and paid the difference. This was a refreshing change from the bearded, balding men who regularly hand me tickets marked "Child."

Note to Self: My faith in humanity has been restored.