My Week 54: Back on the Train Gang, Conversations

Friday: Back on the train gang

Recently, I started taking the train to Toronto on Sundays and back home on Fridays. This has saved me an intense amount of stress from trying to figure out how to beat a rush hour that starts at noon. The trouble with the 401 is that it’s a great highway when no one else is on it. I can make it door to door in less than an hour and a half if the roads are clear. But that NEVER happens. There’s always a slowdown, for a variety of incomprehensible reasons. Here is my list of top ten favourite circumstances which might cause traffic on the 401 to come to a complete halt:

10) It’s raining.
9) It’s windy.
8) Is that a running shoe? Slow down!!
7) Look, an airplane. Coooool.
6) There’s an accident on the OTHER side of the road.
5) What a weird-looking bird…
4) That guy is changing his tire. What do we do?
3) Are those cloud shadows on the road, or is the beginning of the alien invasion?
2) A bus is on fire.
1) (And this is absolutely true). Radio announcer: Be careful out there today, folks. That sun is really shining brightly!

While a couple of these are legitimate—like a burning bus, or slowing down to avoid hitting someone at the side of the road, the rest are stupid. If people would just drive like normal humans instead of trying to break the landspeed record, none of the other things on the list would a) come as a shock and b) force traffic to a standstill. So, yes, I started taking the train, which is a much more civilized and safer way to travel, albeit not without its own quirks. For example, VIA has a policy that you have to present your boarding pass BEFORE you board at some stations, but not others. At Union Station, you have to have it scanned before you can get on the train. At unstaffed stations, like the one I arrive at, you can get on the train and a conductor will scan it at some point during the trip. If you take a chance and sneak onto the train without paying, there’s a pretty hefty fine. It never occurred to me that anyone would actually TRY this, but on Friday, here’s what happened: I was standing in line, getting ready to board. I’d been standing there for a while, and contemplating the nonsensical nature of me and all the other hundred people standing there, because we all have assigned seating, yet as soon as one person lines up, the rest of us panic and follow like sheep. And then we stand there for half an hour. Waiting. And talking about why we’re standing in line. I said to the woman behind me, “Why are we lined up?” and she said, “I don’t know. I just saw everyone else doing it, and figured I should too.” Anyway, I was standing there like the follower that I apparently am, lacking in free will and all that sh*t, when I noticed a man out of the corner of my eye. I was close to one of the columns that holds up the roof, and pretty close to the front of the line, and he had sauntered over very casually and was now standing against the column with his wheelie bag, looking all innocent. But I knew what he was up to. “Bastard!” I thought to myself. “He’s going to try and cut in. I haven’t been waiting here for almost 40 minutes so this guy can jump the queue. At least not in FRONT of me. I don’t care if he cuts in behind me. Someone else can deal with that.” So, you see, I was equally enraged AND mercenary. Then, the line started to move, and sure enough, the odious little jerk slid in right behind me. Everyone noticed, but we were all too polite, being Canadian and everything, to tell him off. But as we were getting close to the escalator and the conductor, he kept trying to pass me. So I did what any red-blooded Canadian would do—I swung MY wheelie bag out wide to slow him down, forcing him to stay behind me. But this is where things got interesting and supremely karmic. I showed my boarding pass, and got on the escalator with him hot on my heels. Then I heard a voice—“Sir! Sir! I need to scan your boarding pass!” I turned, and a conductor was climbing up the escalator towards us. The man announced, “You did already,” but the conductor was adamant. “No, I didn’t. Let me see it now, please.” At this point, the butt-er reluctantly held out a very crumpled boarding pass. “Sir,” the conductor said with a hint of anger in his voice, “you don’t have a ticket for this train. You’ll have to come with me.” The man protested, but had no choice. As he scurried back down the escalator, I shook my fist in triumph, and actually said out loud, “HAHA! I knew it!!”, much to the delight of the couple ahead of me, who had also noticed that he was up to something. We all smiled knowingly at each other with the smugness of those who had legitimately purchased tickets.

Then there are the “regulars”. Seriously, it’s like Cheers, when Norm walks into the bar. “Hey, Norm”, everyone yells, and all the non-regulars are confused, and a little jealous that they aren’t part of the gang. The first time I took the train, this happened to me. I was sitting near a group of the regulars, and it was like homecoming weekend. The conductor was supremely pleased to see them, and they were all laughing and high-fiving and sh*t. Then she asked if there was anyone who was unfamiliar with train safety procedures, because I guess it’s a requirement of the job, and they were all like “Haha, safety requirements! Right, Ellen!! HAHA.” But you know me, and my need to figure out the worst case scenario, so I was like, “Excuse me. I am unfamiliar with the safety procedures and I would like to hear more about it.” So she started telling me about what to do in case of an emergency, but the gang kept interrupting her, and she would giggle and be like “Oh, you guys!” until finally I said very sternly, “I’d actually appreciate being able to hear what you have to say.” At which point, she realized that maybe she needed to stop being flirty and do her job. So she explained to me that in case of an emergency, there was a little green hammer located next to the rear window, and that I would have to hit one corner of the window with the hammer, then hit another corner to get it to break out of the frame, then use a cushion from one of the seats to push the glass out. How is this even a PLAN, VIA Rail? The train derails, and I’m tossing bodies out of the way, looking for a seat cushion to push out the window with? The window I broke with a LITTLE GREEN HAMMER?! I have the exact same plan at home in case of fire, but it doesn’t involve pillows as much as me shattering things like The Hulk using a much bigger Thor-like hammer (there’s your random Avengers reference for the week), and not caring so much about glass cuts than SAVING MY FAMILY.  Then she was like, “Don’t worry—it’ll never happen. It’s just a precaution.” Oh really, conductor lady?! It’s called a ‘worst case scenario’ for a reason. From now on, I’m bringing my own damn hammer.

But you meet all kinds on the train. There’s the girl who walks down the aisle on her cell phone, loudly alerting all of us to her weekend party plans and spends the next hour calling friend after friend to let them know she’s “on the train but can’t wait to get smashed at Kyle’s house later”, the drunk Blue Jays fans who yell out the names of all the stops, the business men and women whose companies are too cheap to spring for anything more than “economy class”…. Me, I don’t care where I sit, as long as it’s quiet, I can have a glass of wine (hells yeah—they serve wine on the train, which is why I referred to it earlier as a civilized way to travel), read my book, and think my thoughts. This, however, did NOT happen on Friday. I was seated behind a woman and her 6 year-old daughter, who was quite possibly the most obnoxious child I’ve come across. Mainly because the mother seemed to have no idea that children can actually be taught, through patient care and a lot of work, to NOT be f*cking obnoxious. Don’t get me wrong—I LOVE kids, I really do. I have a charming and well-behaved one of my own, and I’ve been successfully working with kids of all ages for over 30 years, so I have a pretty good idea of how to deal with them. The first sign of trouble came about 20 seconds into boarding, when “Cathy” began yelling, “SING SING LALA SING LALALA” over and over again. And to clarify—she wasn’t actually singing—she was yelling the words Sing and LaLa. Finally, the mother admonished her with “Shhhhhh.” “NO!!” came the reply, with a continuation of the racket, until Mom distracted her with the menu. Things went downhill from there. “I want THIS and THIS and THIS!”

Mom: You can only have one thing. You have to choose.
Cathy: NO!! I WANT EVERYTHING. EVERYTHING!
Mom: You can’t have everything. Only one. Which one do you want?
Cathy: I WANT EVERYTHING. I’m going to kick this seat until you get me EVERYTHING! (kick kick kick kick)
Conductor: Can I get you anything?
Mom: Yes, I’ll take this and this and this….

Good work, lady.

Halfway through the trip, I finally had to put my headphones on and drown out Cathy with loud music after this particular conversation:

Cathy: What does ‘technically’ mean? Mommy, what does ‘technically’ mean? MOMMY! Don’t you know? Are you stupid? Mommy, what does ‘technically’ mean? MOMMY!!

You know, I get that people are tired, and it’s really easy to let kids get away with a little cheekiness at the end of a long day, but kicking seats and calling names are a certain sign that little Cathy is going to have BIG trouble if she thinks the rest of the world is going to treat her like Mommy does. She’ll be the one trying to cut into a line, and she’ll be shocked when people like me won’t let her. That’s karma, Cathy.

But I have met some really great people on the train. There’s the kid who’s in Pre-Law at U of T, but who would give it all up to be a rock star with his band–he was visiting his girlfriend at Western and had never taken the train before so we helped each other figure out where the subway was in relation to the train station…The girl who finished a Security course and did a practicum at a northern men’s penitentiary, which taught her that she really didn’t want to be a prison guard and was now working with a pharmaceutical company…The Kinesiology student whose 8 year-old sister lives with her and goes to school in Toronto all week, then goes to London on the weekends to stay with “relatives”–she’s 18 years old but pretty much a surrogate mother, and a very good one at that, judging by the way she cares for little Hailey…The man who’s an accountant by day, but races short track with his classic car on the weekends down in Windsor in a full firesuit and helmet–his brother is his pit crew…the list goes on, and for every annoying Cathy, there are three different people with fascinating stories and lives that you can glimpse into for a brief moment, and realize that the world can be a pretty decent place if you let it. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Best elevator conversation of the week:

Guy in Elevator: Has anyone ever told you that you look like a young Carol Burnett?
Me: Uh, thanks—it must be the haircut.
Guy: Kids today have no appreciation for Carol Burnett. The other night I was at a bar and I was being hit on by someone a LOT younger than me. So I said to him, “Sorry, honey—I’m Carol Burnett and you’re Lady Gaga. It will NEVER work.”

Worst elevator conversation of the week:

Guy in Elevator: Ungghh—I could sure use a big cup of coffee!
Me: Um…ok.
Guy: Wow! Look at all your rings! I really like the big one you have on!!
Me: I got that one in Spain—oh look, here’s my floor. Bye.

Best conversations with street people this week:

Me: I’m going into Loblaws. Can I get you anything?
Homeless Guy: Can I get some smoked oysters?
Me: Uh….ok…
Homeless Guy: And a Coke? Thanks.

Me: I’m going into Loblaws. Can I get you anything? Maybe some juice?
Dan: Oh…could I have a jar of Cheez Whiz? I love Cheez Whiz but I can never afford to buy it.
Me: Sure thing.
Dan: Thanks, dear.

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3 thoughts on “My Week 54: Back on the Train Gang, Conversations

  1. You’ve reminded me why I miss taking the train. It’s not the convenience or the ease with which one can lie back and watch the countryside go by. It’s not the fact that food and beverages are offered, unlike the bus where a cartoon of a guy drooling on a sandwich and splashing coffee from a ceramic mug daily reminds me in both English and Spanish that eating and drinking aren’t allowed.
    It’s the people.
    Granted most of my train experiences were in Britain, and the British are kind of like 401 drivers. I was once on a train that was stopped for half an hour because there were leaves on the track.

  2. Tanya says:

    I’m in the process of reading your entire blog lol. I love your sense of humor and style of writing and I can certainly relate to all thing Canadian. I live in the east end of Toronto, east of Oshawa and commute to Yorkville from time to time. I wanted to add another reason the 401 slows down – there is a bend in the road OMG. EVERYONE SLOW DOWN, THE ROAD IS BENDING TO THE LEFT. Does it disappear? What is around that bend??? Who knows – better slow down to a crawl. Sigh.

    • Thanks so much! You’re right–I’d totally forgot about the disappearing road, like the way people used to believe that the horizon was the end of the earth. There be dragons, so don’t drive too fast.

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