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The view from the controls of the Houston METRO train.

Voices / Dispatch

Train stories

Notes and observations from a rookie passenger train operator

Neringa Atkinson, an artist with a degree in physics from Marlboro College who has a number of friends in the region, worked as a train operator several years ago for a number of months now and posted her observations on work and life from the perspective of this new job as “#TrainStories” for her friends on Facebook.

Houston

Might as well get out of bed and start preparing for my first practice train run on the mainline tonight from 1900 to 0300. I’ll be honest and admit that this job wasn’t my first choice, or even second or third. Right now, it is a means to paying the bills.

I had another train dream.

In this one, I committed every grievous sin short of running an interlocking signal. I was horsing around in the train cab with a pool cue and not keeping my eyes on the track. I left the train without keying off and putting it into max service brake.

When I returned to where I left my train, it was nowhere on the track. Did it roll away? Did someone come to take it away?

* * *

Who would have thought that I’d need sunscreen while driving a train? Apparently, the large train windshield serves as a magnifier.

I now keep 70 SPF sunscreen in my safety vest at all times and constantly reapply it during my shift.

Thank God the sun blisters are healing, even though they do look rather ugly.

* * *

When I worked the night shift, the thing I hated — had difficulty with — was watching the clock and waiting until it was time to go in. My entire day, from when I woke up until I was leaving to go to work, was one long countdown.

All new operators get put on what’s called an “extra board” — where you fill in where you have to.

Now my whole day is spent counting down until 4 every day to find out what time I have to report in the next day. This will be a fact of life until bids open up for the various runs, and until I move up in the seniority ladder.

Unlike my night-shift job, which at least had consistency, there is no schedule. This job takes things to a whole other level. Every day will leave me not knowing whether I have to be at work in 10 hours or 30.

My crazy work schedule can do a number on my no longer knowing what time of day or night it is. I had to look at the time several times to realize that it was evening and not morning and that I wasn’t going to be getting in trouble for sleeping through work.

Such is the nature of the beast when working transportation.

* * *

The worst thing about getting dressed for work is putting on my heavy Herman Munster work boots, especially since my feet like to be free and unconfined.

* * *

I was grateful to find out that switching tracks — going into a “diverging route,” in train-speak — at 27 mph does not necessarily derail a train.

But it sure as hell wakes you up.

* * *

I got done with flying solo for the first time. Talk about a baptism of fire! The train that I was operating was fraught with technical difficulties. Circuit breakers kept tripping and setting off alarms. Signals weren’t coming up.

And I’ll get to do it again tomorrow — this time operating the train during downtown rush-hour traffic.

In that section of downtown are shared lanes, where cars can get in the same lane as the train in order to make a left hand turn.

Fortunately, because this is a newer train line, drivers are still a bit intimidated by the train — especially when there is a big-ass train right on their back bumper.

The drivers in the medical center, where there are also shared lanes, are a lot more brazen and idiotic.

It’s totally amazing how people don’t respect trains and try to outrun them while making illegal left turns.

* * *

Overhead on the train:

“Wayne? This is Jennifer. Please call me. I want to come home.”

* * *

As I was sitting at a misbehaving signal at downtown rush hour, this buff-looking fellow wearing a black ironworkers t-shirt, an orange construction worker’s hardhat covered with lots of colorful stickers, and a black bandanna covering his nose and mouth, got out of his black Mercedes convertible to fetch something from the back.

Then he started taking selfies — standing beside the car, sitting inside the car behind the wheel, and draping something that looked like a long, braided, black leather belt across himself.

There two Houston police vans on either side, and I wondered if the cops were going to check him out.

But then I saw him, farther up the road, talking to one of the cops while sitting at the light.

Surely, there must be an interesting story behind all this.

* * *

While operating the train, I like to count the number of dogs I see. It kind of adds some variety and interest to what often can be a tedious job.

Today, I spotted doggie #4 — a red and white pit bull, a tad bit overdue for a bath, standing next to what could be his human. He’s not on a leash.

As the people file into the train, I wonder if the dog will come on the train, too. I remembered the time when a dog got on and just rode the train without an accompanying human. (I guess the dog just wanted to chill on the train.)

Anyhow, as the human filed into the train, the dog took a few steps forward, and then stopped halfway across the platform. He looked rather forlorn, in a confused sort of manner, staring at the train as its doors closed.

As the train starts pulling away, the sad pit bull slowly turned and started walking away.

He wasn’t there when I made my next trip.

* * *

I see scores of homeless people camped out on sidewalks, under bridges and overpasses, and train platforms while operating the train during the still dark hours of night. When I drive to work, I see them panhandling at intersections and under highway overpasses.

Just today, while driving to work, I saw a little person in orange shorts and a grey t-shirt holding up a sign with shiny multi-colored letters. The letter were hard to read. And as curious as I was about the message — wondering if it was going to be something more original and catchy than “Will Work for Food” — I kept my eyes averted while waiting for the light. That little voice in my head kept saying, “Don’t make eye contact.”

Much closer to work, I saw a woman in a wheelchair at the intersection whom I had seen many times. Her sign was different. Instead of the typical “Hungry” or “Will Work for Food,” her sign informed onlookers that she was in a wheelchair due to a drunken driver. She would greet every car stopped at the traffic light with an animated, cheerful smile and a hearty hoisting of her water bottle.

Once again, that little voice would say “Don’t make eye contact.”

Eye contact can be a scary thing. It implies possible commitment.

And what kind of commitment can I make when, as a rule, I don’t carry cash with me? The only cash I have is some spare change in my car. And what kind of good help would that be?

How do I deal with the conflicting, contradictory, and disturbing emotions that arise from the hypocrisy of wanting to believe that I’m a compassionate person, while at the same time trying to avoid being a captive audience at an intersection? Why do I feel guilty for avoiding eye contact?

I can rationalize all that I want. I can say that I don’t carry cash, that my being only one person is not going to have any impact on the homelessness situation, that even if I did help out with money, it’s only going to be used to buy booze or drugs.

But all the rationalizing in the world isn’t going to change the fact that there are thousands and thousands of people who are genuinely having a hard time and who did not ask to be thrust in such unimaginable circumstances.

* * *

I saw him crossing the street at Travis and Capitol while heading westbound to Theater District.

He was an older man who looked more like he was more dressed for a chilly Houston winter than a warm subtropical autumn day. His white sneakers were the only light-colored thing he wore.

He was schlepping multiple full bags, while dragging a leopard-print rolling suitcase from which dangled a pair of black boots.

His every leadened step was painfully slow, as though bearing the inexorable weight of much suffering and struggle.

* * *

Extra effort has its rewards.

If I see you running from half a block away — and even more so if you’re wearing high heels — I will wait for you, even if I may be running late.

But if you decide to wait until the very last minute — as I’m all set to pull out — to drag your pathetic butt 6 feet to the door, don’t expect me to hold up the train for you.

* * *

This isn’t so much a story of what I recently experienced, but more of a recollection of a story I heard a train operator tell me, when I was still in training. And it’s a story that bears repeating.

The train operator shared with me an encounter he had when he was in California, where he was approached by a homeless person asking for a cigarette.

Noticing that this person was quite articulate, the train operator asked him for his story. And the tale that he received was one to make him pause in consideration.

You see, this particular homeless man was not a druggie or a junkie. He wasn’t a war veteran appallingly abandoned by the country he so proudly served. He wasn’t even someone who lost his job and fell on hard times.

Rather, he was a successful physician who lost his wife and kids — his entire family — in a major car wreck.

He was so devastated by his loss, that he lost all desire to live. He walked away from his practice, his home and possessions, and all that he had going for him by becoming homeless. What good was his life if he did not have his loved ones with which to share it?

I’ve often wondered about this doctor-turned-mendicant-homeless.

Did someone intervene?

Did he find redemption?

* * *

While riding the eastbound train to relieve an operator doing a burn-in on a new train, I heard over the radio to use caution between McGowen and Elgin, as there were many people on the trackway due to heavy police activity.

Considering the neighborhood, police activity in the Third Ward is not an unusual thing. It is, after all, the hood.

But what I was not expecting was the vast number of police cars. There must have been at least 20 — maybe 30 — cluttering two side streets and spilling out onto the main drag.

Upon seeing the extreme number of cop cars — more than I’ve seen in a police department parking lot — some women on the train started hollering, jumping up and down, and beating on the doors of the train with their fists, impatient to get off the train. They hurried off as the train arrived at the platform, not too far from the action.

When the train finally got to Robertson, I asked the train operator what was going on. He said that it was a high-speed police chase. Not only was Houston PD present, so was Pearland PD. In addition, there were helicopters in the area.

Surely, such an event would have made breaking news. But no; nary a news story covering this significant police activity was to be found online.

* * *

As I was departing the Theater District, I saw four cops, two police horses, and one cop car across the street.

Upon further inspection, I saw a man lying on the sidewalk up against the side of the building, with his arm draped across his abdomen.

But none of the cops were making a fuss about this man. In fact, they seemed as though they were chitchatting among one another, perhaps even discussing their favorite sports teams.

Were they waiting for someone — EMS or the coroner — to arrive?

It was interesting to note that this curious sight did not draw any onlookers.

* * *

My trip started off with a young man in a blue t-shirt singing on the train.

Are you familiar with the saying, “Dance as though no one is watching?”

Well, this fellow was singing as though no one was listening.

It was quite awful, and he was quite out of tune. But none of that mattered. What really mattered was the joy with which he was belting out his songs.

* * *

I see two young men and a very large mattress in the back of a black pickup truck as I am heading westbound.

The dark-haired one gestures to me to blow the horn. I happily oblige with two toots of the high whistle.

* * *

A small group of young men were free-styling rap on the train. They were trying to figure out how to include “R.I.P” — “rest in peace.” One of them suggested that “R.I.P.” should stand for “resurrection in progress,” much to the rest of the young men’s excitement and approval.

* * *

Sometimes the line between not respecting the train and sheer ignorance is very thin.

If there is fencing along side of the trackway, wouldn’t one stop to think why it’s there?

Apparently that thought never crossed the mind of the couple who squeezed in between the fencing so that they could have a quicker route to the train platform than — heaven forbid! — walking all the way to the end of the fencing.

I see this limbo dance to get to the platform every day.

And while witnessing this limbo dance — once again — I also witnessed another dance move.

A couple was squeezing in between the chain fencing, when the woman slipped and fell in the trackway — the same trackway on which my train was approaching the train platform. One of her shoes flew off her foot.

It was a good thing that I was already going slow, as I was approaching the train platform — slow enough that I did not have to throw the master controller into max brake to make a full stop. However, I made sure to sound the horn, which is used in situations of imminent danger.

The man helped the woman up. She scrambled to retrieve her lost shoe. Then they quickly made their way to the train platform.

I made sure to stop the train where they were standing. I opened my cab window. and said to them, “Don’t you ever do that again! You could have been killed!”

The couple was obviously shaken.

Here’s hoping that they decided to drop out of the Darwin Awards competition.

* * *

There was a group of people gathered together outside shooting the breeze — pretty much what you would expect to see on someone’s front porch or around a campfire. But this was no porch or campfire. It was a homeless camp under the State Highway 6 overpass.

This camp caught my eye as I had noticed two small white dogs there before.

I had brought a baggie of dog food with me in hopes of seeing the couple that had the dogs. And they were there.

I called out to the crowd gathered under the overpass. “Hey! I have some food for your dogs.”

A big guy in a sloppy t-shirt and shirt stepped out to my car to collect the dog food. He expressed his thanks as he takes the bag.

* * *

He was a big fellow that I picked up at the westbound Convention District platform. He had a blanket draped around him, toga style, like Socrates.

He was talking very loudly on the train, telling whoever would listen to him about the two sugar mamas he has. One lives in Paris and has $100,000 in the bank. The other lives in New York and will be putting $10,000 in his bank account. By Thanksgiving he’ll be having both of them living in the house that he plans on getting.

He gets off at Central Station/Capital. And then he gets back on again at Central Rusk. But this time, his blanket is folded in a neat square. He gets off at the eastbound Convention District platform, and starts walking toward the westbound platform.

On my trip back to downtown, he’s already wrapped in his blanket and fast asleep with his eyeglasses still on his face.

* * *

I was all set to pull out from Palm Center when this woman with a bicycle went to board the train.

What a fashion plate she was in her black gaucho hat, oversize white shirt, long red skirt, and a pair of tan shortie ankle boots with kitten heels.

I would have more expected to see someone who looks like that bicycling along the banks of the Seine River than through the hood.

* * *

I was already done with my run and going to ride the train back to the station office.

As I got on the train, I noticed a scattering of rose petals on the floor of the train. (That sure beat the drops of blood that I’ve seen there before.)

A young man with wild black hair and earbuds leans over to pick up a petal. He puts it to his nose to sniff, and then dreamily rolls it with his fingers.

A romantic emo.

* * *

Two young Asian dudes must think they’re quite on fire in their screaming yellow Honda sports coupe with the tall spoiler. They pull up alongside of my train at Convention District and start revving the engine.

Seriously, dudes?

My train may not go from 0 to 60 in 7 seconds, but my choo-choo’s toot-toot is much louder than your car’s vroom-vroom.

* * *

While waiting for my signal to come up at the eastbound Convention District platform, I looked up and spied what looked like a dried-out Christmas tree at the very top of the new convention center under construction.

It was so interesting to see this ancient Scandinavian tradition — usually observed in the erection of a timber structure — on this nascent edifice. I also thought of the post- and-beam constructions in Vermont. In fact, it was at Marlboro where I first learned of the custom.

It’s not the tree-dwelling spirits that are being appeased here, but rather those of steel, concrete, and glass.

* * *

Having to get up at 1 in the morning is not the sort of thing of which I care to make a habit. But that’s the time I need to get up when I am assigned to do a pull-out train.

But as much as I hate having to get up that early and have to commute to work at the time when the drunks are finishing up last call at their favorite watering holes, there is something that I enjoy operating a train this early in the morning.

This is a peaceful time.

The streets are empty. The druggies, drunkards, and other disreputable sorts have already gone to sleep.

I can operate my train in peace, not having to share the road and trackway with anyone. Predictive priority is so sweet that it’s nearly sinful.

By 5:30 the spell is broken.

People are already starting to gather on the train platforms. There are cars in the street that I need to be mindful of, especially since many of them will be attempting to make an illegal turn in front of the train.

* * *

It was my last trip, and I was bringing my train back to the train yard.

There weren’t that many passengers as it was was around 10:30 on a Sunday night. Plus the pelting rain from Tropical Storm Patricia kept most people tucked away inside that day.

There were three young people, and their bikes, on the train. And as I was approaching Coffee Plant/Second Ward, I heard music playing in the train.

It was “Jumping Jack Flash,” by the Rolling Stones.

God! I haven’t heard that song in ages! That was one of the songs I cut my teeth on way, way back in the day.

I don’t know which had a greater impact: grooving on that blast from the past, or being stunned that people that young knew of, let alone appreciated, the Rolling Stones.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #517 (Wednesday, July 3, 2019). This story appeared on page E1.

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