Punching My Ticket

I ran down the platform in Grand Central Station, my book bag in one hand and lunchbox in the other. There were no people to look out for because the train was in motion and accelerating.  I saw a still open door five cars from the end and put on an extra burst of speed and hopped into the vestibule with only twenty feet of platform left. It was a hot summer afternoon and in New York City that meant sweltering heat and high humidity. I stood by the interior door into the car, bent at the waist and trying to catch my breath. My clothes were damp from perspiration, my collar and underarms were soaked. The first ten minutes of the train ride out to Darien, Connecticut was in tunnel, and while the air reeked of diesel exhaust and soot, the air flowing through the open door felt good. A conductor came out from the car behind, making his way forward and closing up the doors. He would work his way to the front of the train, only to turn around and work his way back collecting tickets. He smiled at me as he dropped a hinged platform that covered the steps down and out and then closed the door. Glancing at me again, he opened the top part of the dutch door, letting the blast of air continue. “You need to get a seat by the time I come back through,” he said, not unkindly. “It’s not real safe for you to be out here.” Still trying to regain my breath I nodded to him and he moved off to continue his work.

It was a lot quieter inside the car and I saw right away that there were a lot of open seats, unfortunately, none of them were window seats. The next few trains to leave Grand Central would be packed to standing room by commuters headed out to the suburbs. My father would be on the next train, part of the reason I ran so hard to catch this one. My dad and I rode into town each weekday morning and he would use the time to explain how it was important for me to go to summer school. I didn’t want to hear it. I was an ‘A’ student, far enough advanced that with summer school I would be allowed to skip a grade. I didn’t like this idea one bit; not only did it cramp my time with my friends in summer, it would separate me from them by pushing me ahead and out of their classes. As a result, I was “not working up to my potential,” as the summer school teachers put it. Thus I started each and every day listening to my old man grouse about my lackadaisical performance. I would think about his expressions of disappointment while I sketched pictures of my father being eaten by sharks, forced to walk the plank by pirates, and being assaulted by jet airplanes with blazing machine guns. There was no way I wanted to have to listen to him as I rode back out in the evening.

I found a seat and pulled a comic book from my book bag and settled in to read a story of Superman on the 40 minute ride. Darien was the third stop. The noise of the train was suddenly amplified as the conductor opened the door on his return. He moved from seat to seat punching the tickets of riders. I fished in my book bag for my ticket, a monthly that allowed me 20 rides in and 20 rides out on the New Haven Railroad commuter trains. I was still rooting through the bag when the conductor reached me. He stood a minute as I grew more frantic in my search, then chuckled and reached over me to punch the ticket of the window seat occupant.  He moved along then, continuing to deal with the rest of the riders, leaving me to hunt down my elusive ticket. We recognized one another and he knew that I had a multi-pass. He was the one who punched it that morning. When he finished the car he came back to my seat where I sat embarrassed and still ticketless. He smiled and told me not to worry about it, that he would just punch my ticket twice in the morning, assuming I found it.

This got the attention of the woman who was in the window seat. “Now wait just a minute!” she barked. “The rest of us have to pay so this young man shouldn’t be an exception.”

“It’s alright, ma’am,” he replied. “I know the boy and I know he has a commuter ticket.”

“It’s not right!” she continued. “You must put him off the train at the first stop.”

“Lady,” said the conductor, “I’m not going to put a kid off the train in a town he doesn’t know when I am fully aware of who he is, that he’s a paying passenger I see every day, and this isn’t the first time a commuter has misplaced their ticket. Further, as the conductor of this train it’s in my power to let someone ride for free if I think the situation warrants it. Now, I’m not letting the boy ride for free. Both he and his father are daily riders on my route and I know as fact that one of them will make this ride good tomorrow.  I’m going to ask you to please tend to your own affairs and allow the people of the New Haven Railroad to operate their trains as they see fit.”

She reacted as if he’d slapped her. “I’ll have you know my husband has friends at the railroad. Friends in high places. I can assure you that he will be contacting those friends during business hours tomorrow.” She opened her purse and pulled out a small pad and a pen. “What is your name, Conductor?”

“You called it. You may call me Conductor.” he said with a shake of his head. With that, he moved off to finish collecting and punching tickets.

The woman stared daggers at me and then started to tell me that I was a filthy little urchin who shouldn’t be allowed on the trains in the first place. She went on for a couple of minutes until another woman stepped to the seats and inserted herself in the seat between us. She had a beautiful smile and turned it to full wattage and looked at the woman by the window. “If you say one more word to this boy, I will have you put off the train yourself.”

“This is none of your business!” snarled the window seat lady.

“Oh, but it is!” said the pretty woman. She reached in her purse and pulled out a leather case and opened it to show the irritated woman a badge. “I’m with New Haven Railroad security. You will please stand up and accompany me to a different car, away from this child. I think you’ve made him feel badly enough for one day.”

“I don’t care to move.” said the woman, somewhat less self-assured.

“If you don’t, I will have the conductor put you off the train in White Plains, our first stop. It’s coming right up so you should decide quickly.” She stood and gestured for the woman to walk ahead of her. Reluctantly, the woman rose, shot me a withering look, and walked huffily down the aisle. The lady from security gave my shoulder a squeeze and gave me another beautiful smile, then followed the woman, seeing her into the next car. I immediately moved to the window seat. I Put my book bag and my lunch box on the seats next to me.

Some people are naturally nice and have kind dispositions. On the other hand, some people are just dicks. Unhappy people who can only try to feel better by making others feel worse. I never saw the security lady again, but I saw the conductor on the ride into town the next morning. I presented him my ticket –which had been stuck between the pages of one of my books– and he winked at me and punched it twice.