Nobody on the 6.23 a.m. out of New Haven looks quite pleased to be there. The sky is still dark, winter is beginning to drop hints, and somehow it seems distasteful to be bright-eyed at this hour. My companions in the third car from the back are a well-dressed Indian cut off by an iPod, a jowly businessman either asleep or permanently heavy-lidded, a pretty black woman in the opposite corner from me, and across from her a sad-looking lady wrapped in a tender embrace with a golden retriever. The train leaves the platform quietly, as though reluctant to wake us.
Yellow streaks collect in the sky, and slowly the car fills up. The Milford crowd is somber also, but by Stratford pleasantries have begun to fly over seatbacks and across the aisle. Two women near me discuss salad dressings until they notice the dog, then talk about that. At Stamford, I switch for the 7.24 express to Grand Central, which fills with shined shoes and monogrammed cuffs and grim eyes behind morning newspapers. My seatmate flips attentively through Kitchens & Baths, the annual supplement to Fine Home Building. Nobody speaks all the way to New York.
Metro-North trains are not comfortable. The newest cars in the fleet are 13 years old now, the oldest 33—older, technically, than the company itself. The lighting is unfriendly; the state seals of New York and Connecticut line the wood-paneled trim like brown daffodils on beige wallpaper. The seats, dark red or bitter blue, pitch you forward just enough to keep you from settling in unless you keep your spine perfectly straight. To lean back, you’re more or less compelled to slump down and press your knees against the hard plastic backing of the seat in front of you.
In defense, you tune it out. On the New Haven line, as on most any other, the train ride stands as little more than an interlude of suspended animation between points A and B. Somewhere between the thrill of westward expansion and that of the automobile era the passenger rail had its giddy moment as the transit of the people, but now those people work or sleep or stare out murky windows at rolling fields and static cityscapes until they can get off to get on with their days and nights. Everyone does: double-breasted businessmen and supercilious secretaries, wizened drug dealers and aspiring thugs, fretful debutantes and high-society wives, rowdy technical school students and lecherous Wall Street traders, drunken college girls and drunken college boys, intrepid suburbanites and flighty city slickers. The train has a strange way of uniting people in anonymity; it is for everyone, so nobody pays it much mind. As long as the trains run on time, as they say.
The only person in sight this morning who is really awake and really paying attention is Sharon Carlquist, a small woman with a sly smile and a quietly regal bearing. She appears from time to time to punch tickets and check passes, then disappears again for a few stops; she announces her presence with a calm “all tickets please, all tickets,” rather than the imperious puncher-clicking favored by colder conductors. Around Stratford, I hear her wish a passenger a happy Monday. When we get off at Stamford to switch to the express, she waves goodbye to the 6.23, then explains her morning schedule to me while effortlessly fielding complex questions from harried passengers. No, this doesn’t stop at White Plains, take the 7.42; no, this doesn’t go to Fordham, take the 7.42 and switch twice; yes, this does stop at Riverside; yes, this does stop at Riverside; yes, I’ve told you twice that it does and I’ll tell you once more: stay on this train.
“They do this every day, just to get to work,” Sharon says as we watch the businessmen file off at Grand Central, something in her voice suggesting that they are, in a sense, crazy. “Four hours—they gotta go back, too.” This is not observed carelessly: 13 of her 27 years with Metro-North have been in management, working for but not on the railroad. After six years of conducting on the New Haven line (and a year and a half in the café car of the Amtrak from Boston to New York), Sharon hired into the training department; five years later she took a position supervising ticket sellers and custodians, then moved up to passenger revenue accounting for four. In 1994 downsizing closed the New Haven revenue office, so she began to ride into New York from her home in Branford daily, like the suits bustling past us now. “It did take a toll on me, that commute,” she recalls. “I didn’t see daylight very much.” So she returned to train service a year later, where she collected tickets, helped update the company manual, and mediated between management and the employee union. Cutbacks eliminated that position too, about a year and a half ago, so she’s back to T-314, the assistant conductor job, which suits her fine.
Sharon, 55, is older than she sounds and looks. Her hair is highlighted, just redder than blonde, and her turquoise-framed glasses match her eyes and her nail polish. She is trim, energetic and attractive, and very subtly gilded. Seven of her fingers have gold rings on them. Her seniority at Metro-North allows her to work the schedule she chooses: Monday through Friday, she takes the 6.23 out of New Haven and switches to the 7.24 from Stamford to New York (which gets in at 8.22), then returns on the 2.07 p.m. from Grand Central. Newer conductors resign themselves to even earlier trains or brutally late ones or both, several runs back and forth per day, and usually work on weekends; or they take their chances working the lists, accepting spots whenever they may be open from week to week. It’s a long day from when Sharon reports for work (5.53 a.m.) to when she heads home (about 4.15 p.m.), but she has five hours in New York to herself, to read or knit or visit friends or work out, and she appreciates the consistency. She knows what to expect from her passengers on the whole, even if the exchange is minimal. “People are creatures of habit,” she says. “I know I am.”
Grand Central Station, where 550 trains stop to change human freight daily, where shocked-and-awed tourists swirl with put-upon business types under a zodiac mural on a lovely green marble ceiling, where couples kiss out prolonged goodbyes and then kiss again as New York policemen watch stoically and light wafts in from vaulted windows, only seems serene. True, it is magnificently unconcerned with the hordes of commuters and consumers flowing through it, but there is a heartbeat, away from the price-gouging newsstands and the gourmet fudge shoppes and that atrium on the lower level where you can whisper into a corner and hear it across the room, that really makes it run. The rooms I follow Sharon into are without exception rooms I did not know existed, and they have neither the overall opulence of Grand Central nor the frenetic sprawl of the people hurrying through it. They are simple, utilitarian places that don’t buzz with life or strut with spectacle. They are, after the grandeur of the landmark and the romance of the railroad, places where people do their jobs and then go home.
These places are small, and strangely inconspicuous. As soon as we get in, Sharon goes to the remittance office to turn in Friday’s money and get change for the afternoon. I wait in a narrow hallway and listen while she banters with other conductors, about condos in Florida and the course of Hurricane Rita and costumes for the upcoming Halloween party. Two or three trainmen have to squeeze past me on the way in or out before Sharon comes back. From the remittance office we go halfway down a crowded corridor, through a door with a small grey keypad lock, down an austere flight of stairs, and into the conductors’ rest area. She points out the men’s lounge, a scene of conductors in blue pinstripes playing cards or reading or watching television—in any case, not being conductors for the moment. The walls in the women’s lounge are sparsely decorated with route maps, baby photos, union memos, and a horrifying pencil caricature of three or four women with the legend “The Metroettes.” Next to the television at the far end of the room is a stack of books—I gather from their size and thickness, and the titles I can make out, that they are romance novels: Wild Embers, Palo Verde, In Danger’s Path. Sharon gives a young assistant conductor named Lillian a photocopied obedience class handout about clipping dogs’ nails, and excuses herself to the locker room. “Isn’t she nice?” says Lillian to someone else.
The language of conductors is just like ours, except for the occasional curiosity. The acronyms are reasonable, and everywhere—you might need to call the RTC, say, if the TCS causes your OTP to go awry, or in the event of a particularly suspicious FOT—but then efficiency has no apparent relation to why highball means to run express, or why off-duty conductors commuting free of charge are deadheading. The folded ticket sheets you buy on the train (when you don’t have time to visit the TVM) are called duplexes; the thin cardstock receipt you get, with a hole punched in a numbered square, is called a seat check. Seat checks used to be called hat checks because they would stick out of a passenger’s hat rather than the seat in front of him, but these days the hatted commuter is something of a relic, a throwback to a time when there were smoking cars and women had no reason to commute anyway.
Sharon’s rank means more to her than a familiar routine among quiet businessmen; she remembers those days, or something like them, when there was no women’s lounge and the T in T-314 stood for trainman with no qualification needed. She was the seventh female Metro-North employee, and is the second in seniority now. “I feel like a true pioneer, and I’m proud of that,” she says without fanfare. “Believe me, it wasn’t easy. When I first got here we didn’t have bathrooms for the women; we didn’t have locker rooms; we didn’t have lockers. We had to have somebody guard the door so we could go in and pee. It’s really amazing to see how the company has really grown with the times, and thank God that they have.” Later I will meet Annie Kelly, a conductor one year behind Sharon in seniority, who tells me matter-of-factly that it’s still a man’s job in too many ways, but Sharon is genuinely proud of Metro-North, and happy to do her job for them. “We now say trainperson, or assistant conductor. A lot of those old terms have changed,” she says with satisfaction. “Thank you, God,” she adds with her eyes turned skyward.
After Sharon makes a brief call to ask someone to pick up Dawn, Skippy, and something else she can’t remember from Sam’s Club, we go up to the Metro-North office on the sixth floor, a faux-marble foyer that, apart from the handful of workmen making bursts of noise by an elevator, could be any corporate lobby anywhere. We talk about the job and the company, how she loves both; how she befriended an old Amtrak conductor while working at a bar in Boston and how he urged her to get out of there and come work for the railroad; how she’s requalifying as of tomorrow to be a full conductor, in case she decides to seek a position on the Shoreline East service that Metro-North is taking over from Amtrak in April. She tells me that nothing surprises her anymore, not pink hair nor drunken passengers nor ticket forgers and their subsequent arrests, but that interesting things still happen.
“There was a person on Friday, when I was loading the train with Annie, and I said, ‘Oh, Annie, I love that lady’s hair.’ It was like that Barbara Streisand style. I said, ‘I love your hair!’ And she comes up to us and goes, ‘I’m bald. I’m going through chemo. This is a wig, I bought it in Stamford.’” Sharon smiles. “My mouth kind of fell to the floor, I felt like such an idiot, and she says, ‘No, it’s okay! Isn’t it a great wig?’ I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s gorgeous, it looks great on you, you never would have known!’ But she didn’t feel bad telling us, and we just took it in stride, because of course cancer is everywhere now.” At times, Sharon’s speech moves like a train between stations: she starts anecdotes slowly, gathers speed and certainty, then slows down again and lurches forward just a little, one last declaration, before stopping completely.
She tells me about her parents and her three younger siblings, who have all remained in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, between St. Louis and Memphis. She tells me about the Amtrak conductor named George, who died suddenly in 1978 while he and she were planning their wedding, and about Moe, her ex-husband whom she’s dating again, who rides a motorcycle and is an Amtrak conductor also. She tells me about their last vacation, to a Sioux reservation in South Dakota, and an irrepressible refinement shines in her eyes when she describes using an outhouse and eating buffalo stew out of a garbage can as “quite interesting.” She tells me about her three dogs (Pooky, poodle, 16; Rex, chihuahua, 7; Harley, Yorkshire terrier, 8 months), and how she makes a point of spending at least an hour on the couch with them each night.
She tells me that she never sits still, that she can knit a scarf in two days’ swing time, that she writes everything down because the old noggin doesn’t remember things like it used to. She answers most of my questions without my asking, and speaks with the unconscious repetitiveness of the naturally instructive: “You see husbands and wives commute together. You see boyfriends and girlfriends commute together. You see a guy get on at this station and a woman get on a different station, but they sit together—they kiss when they get on the train and they kiss and say goodbye in Grand Central. You wonder!” I wondered, initially, if she was being so friendly to reflect well on the company; now I wonder whether I am the passenger she never gets to sit down and tell about herself.
But all the time we are walking through the station, Sharon is explaining variables and protocols to me, indicating which way to turn or where to get off the elevator. I realize, although I don’t think of the word until later, that she is conducting me. Some things she points out are obvious, others fascinatingly mundane, but they all seem designed to make me understand better, remember easier, be safer. My suspicions that Sharon is on her best behavior for me fade; this compassionate professionalism, I decide, like her abiding faith in the company, is just a part of who she is, and what makes her so good at her job. Metro-North retains 800 conductors to pay attention to what most of us won’t, to keep the trains running on time, but it can’t pay them to care any more than we do. The public face of the company, if there is one, is a remote-controlled robot named Metro-Man, who teaches school children about railroad safety by playing videos and leading conga lines and who, according to the MTA public affairs office, “interacts with everyone on a very human level.” I remind myself that I’m spending the day with Sharon, not that trainwoman who sounded only half-kidding when she told me she’d have to start charging me ten dollars per question, or the one who told me when I said I’d like to speak to a conductor that “this one’s much too busy” and scuttled away clicking his ticket punch—and that, even for a good company, this service is exceptional.
We leave the sixth floor on one of the working elevators, talking about peanut butter. Two burly men get on at five, and she motions to me not to get off. We go down again and the elevator stops at two. “Two,” she murmurs to nobody in particular. “This is becoming a local.”
On track 105, loading the 2.07 back to New Haven, Sharon answers 24 questions about where the train stops and does not stop before I lose count. She does so cordially and patiently, firmly when necessary. “You have a question asked to you so many times that you don’t want to make the person feel like a moron. You just let it go,” she says. “If I was in Japan, I would not know how to get from one stop to another either. I mean, put me on a Long Island train, I wouldn’t know where the hell I was going. I understand. My heart goes out to these people.” At one point she smiles and waves to a woman passing by. She follows the woman with her eyes, and whispers to me, “That’s the lady I told you about, with the chemotherapy.”
Sharon works the middle three cars on this train; a young man named Chris works the front, and Annie, the head conductor, stays at the back. Annie is picking her teeth with a seat check when I enter her compartment; she motions to me to sit down, disappears into the conductor’s booth, and rattles off our stops—Harlem-125th Street, Stamford, Noroton Heights, Darien, Rowayton, South Norwalk, East Norwalk, Westport, Green’s Farms, Southport, Fairfield, Bridgeport, Stratford, Milford, New Haven—over the PA. Before we leave Grand Central, a door somewhere doesn’t close all the way. “We need new trains,” says someone behind me. “When I’m dead,” Annie replies, hustling off.
The 2.07 is sparse and smooth, and lacks the Monday-morning charge of Sharon’s earlier trains. The back car is mostly filled with off-duty Metro-North employees, including a sober-looking trainman named Jamie, who wears a denim collar shirt with a Taz logo and “hot head” sewn under the breast pocket, and peers at me over the top of a book about Attention Deficit Disorder. Like Sharon, Jamie tells me more than I would have thought to ask about the railroad: that the New Haven line switches between alternating and direct current at Pelham, or that conductors have to wear digital watches synchronized to the second with Grand Central time. He says Metro-North is a phenomenal company to work for, and that like any other job it’s about keeping customers happy—although, he admits, in this case “they’re stuck with you.”
Annie, who sits down once we start to highball between Harlem and Stamford, agrees. “I feel like a bartender sometimes,” she says dryly, “but this is my office. Yours stays in one place, mine moves back and forth.” She has a dull quick cynicism about her, and she wears it well; where Sharon waved as the 6.23 from New Haven pulled out of Stamford, Annie yells “traitors!” at the Amtrak passengers on the platform when we pass by at 2.51. Later I hear her wish somebody a “happy depressing Monday.” She and Jamie don’t radiate the exuberance that Sharon does, but their relative dispassion seems more natural, more modern. Sharon mentioned to me earlier that some crew members tease her for being so gung-ho, but these two don’t; they talk about her as a pleasure to work with and an excellent employee, just not a mythical one.
While she talks, Annie absently punches a folded seat check. After ten minutes, she presents me with what looks like a very thin bear standing on its hind legs. Her punch mark is shaped like an X—actually the club suit, or else a shamrock, since she’s Irish—which makes the bear kind of creepy, since its eyes look crossed out, its mouth sewn together, and its arms gnarled and stitchy. Only its nose, two punches right through the aqua-green Friday square, looks perfectly accurate. I ask her if it is in fact a bear, and she says she prefers to think of it as Bart Simpson. Kids love these, she says; a conductor named Timmy McDermott can make a boy-and-girl duo on a single seat check, and has made her a cheat sheet with lines traced out in red Sharpie, but she loses patience after a while.
Every conductor on a given line has a different punch shape. Metro-North orders them once a year, from a company in Port Orange, Florida (who, in addition to numbers and letters, offers 242 designs exclusively for “railway ticket punches,” including the star of David and at least three decidedly phallic shapes). Sharon used to have a heart, about the size of Annie’s club, but it broke so they got her a much bigger one—before I can even scowl sympathetically at this, she explains that she loved that one even more. But that one broke too, so she’s borrowing a star until the next order gets placed. She tells me the heart is a popular request, but that the man in charge of the transaction has already promised to set it aside for her. She winks conspiratorially when she tells me this, not for the first time.
By Milford, the rear car is empty save a few last deadheads. Chris and Sharon come back with their coats and bags; the conversation flows light and free. Everyone here knows what the view is like from the front of the train rather than the sides; they can tell where they are by the scenery or the poles along the track, and hardly ever think about how uncomfortable the seats are. The anonymity is gone. I want this to be a momentous gathering, but it’s just the end of the work day, and everyone is too pleased to be arriving in New Haven, even though they all live a town or two away, for ceremony. Annie and Chris trade stories about embarrassing encounters with transvestites and androgynous children; Jamie recalls asking a passenger if the information he had taken down looked correct before realizing the passenger was blind. Sharon smiles and laughs, but has nothing provocative to say.
The sky is almost dark again when we get into New Haven. The doors open with a breath of exhaust and a few passengers trickle out to the platform, down the stairs and through the silver tunnel and up the escalator, out to the street or their buses or cabs or cars and their homes. The conductors file out shortly after, and walk briskly in the opposite direction toward theirs. Nobody doubts for a second that the line will go on forever, moving everyone-and-nobody forward and back to the railroad’s thrillingly familiar rhythm of liberation and loneliness—not Sharon, not me. For once, though, in parting ways I am sorry to arrive only to depart again.