Wild Wild West


How do you type the sound from the movies of a guy spitting into a spittoon? You know the one in those Westerns – Grizzled guy in big hat, well-manicured mustache big enough to make you wonder if he has an upper lip, slimy rocket of maroon tobacco juice clanging into the rusty brass of the communal spit-pot on the floor.
Phhhh-TOONG? Does that sound right?

I’m going to run with it.

You might think that it is unlikely that this sound would have any application whatsoever to riding a train. And I wish you were right.

I should tell you that I debated how to start this story. The haunting echo of chaw-dribble hitting a metal receptacle? Or a simple question –

Have you ever chewed tobacco and eaten a yogurt parfait at the same time?

Here goes…

Something seemed off from the start. She slinked onto the train, her body contorted into a torso boomerang like her hair is too heavy for her neck and now she’s developed a bizarre posture – a mix between a Charlie Brown Christmas Special dance move and a pronounced hunchback. And she was wearing a sun dress with hiking boots.

She collapsed into the first seat she could reach (my seat), her ashen and papery skin unable to muffle the unmistakable sound of her bones scraping together. But it’s okay…she’s taking care of that calcium deficiency with a sizable yogurt parfait.

Yogurt Parfait – (n.) One of those plastic cups with vanilla yogurt, out of season berries, and some little crispy bits all mixed in.

Nothing out of the ordinary. The speed at which she ate the parfait on the other hand? Alarming. She lifted the parfait to her chin so she could operate the spoon like a speed bag, a dizzying blur of blue plastic and helpful bacteria. I was staring, I’m sure of it. It was hypnotically repetitive. A series of recurring steps (made more memorable by the fact that either her eyes were watering or she was uncontrollably sobbing).
1. Shovel yogurt at breakneck speed
2. When cheeks are visibly stretched so tight around the mass of parfait that the stunned man sitting next to you can make out the exact seed count of that raspberry, swallow yogurt.
3. Gasp for air.
4. Repeat.

After the final gasp, she tossed the plastic cup on the ground and I quickly turned away to pretend I wasn’t staring. Then I heard it.


I can’t look. I won’t look.


I have to know…


I casually turn forward to see her out of the corner of my eye. She has one of those metal water bottles with the screw cap and mountain climbing clip. The lid is off.

Oh my…

She’s spitting into the bottle. Phhhh-TOONG! Every time she spits into the tiny opening, the sound echoes off of the metal and into our shared space. Phhhh-TOONG!

I’m staring again. Only this time I notice the bulge in her lower lip. Massive. Almost comical.

Chewing tobacco.

I want to impress upon you that I was listening carefully to everything that transpired when my eyes were looking elsewhere. There wasn’t time for her to insert this wad of smokeless before the Phhhh-TOONG started. And there was no sound to match. She dumped the plastic cup, unclipped her water bottle, unscrewed the cap and starting spitting.

This long-cut, wintergreen tobacco infiltrated her palate throughout the entire Parfait Experience. Like sucking on a breath-mint and eating fruit salad…only nastier.

She cleared her mouth of the minty marinade and as she pulled the bottle from her mouth a single string of brown goo stretched between the mouth of the bottle and the mouth of the woman. And in true cowboy fashion, she wiped her arm across her mouth to clear the excess. Bear in mind that she is wearing that sun dress and she has no sleeves.

For 40 minutes, every spit-take was the same. Phhhh-TOONG! The tiny rope bridge of sludge stretching between mouth and bottle, wipe the excess on her bare, brittle-skinned forearm.

She got up and I got the full image: Scoliosis, tar slick slip’n’slide on her right arm, sun dress, hiking boots, tobacco related underbite. Metallic sloshing as she shuffles out of the train. An empty parfait cup left behind. The total package for the Wild, Wild West.


We’re Sorry, Ms. Jackson

Headphones are a major tenant of most isolationist train strategies. Many of the passengers on the train are never seen them.

Headphones. Do we still use that word? Is it Earbuds now? Are earbuds an Apple trademark? Earphones? Inner ear listening devices? Beats by Dre? (I almost spelled that as Beets by Dre, which makes sense. Dr. Dre’s PhD is in gardening, after all.)

Anyway…I’ll stick with headphones.

Even if you aren’t listening to anything, they create a barrier between you and others. While reading a book, people assume that you don’t mind being bothered. But if I have headphones in? The train could be on fire and no one would bother me. The headphones don’t even have to be plugged into anything. It is especially convincing if you bite your lower lip and bob your head. A look of rhythmic agony. The expression is akin to what it would look like if you had to have an arrow removed from your leg in some backwoods cabin and you didn’t have any anesthetic, just a splash of cheap vodka to clean the wound. No headphones? Enduring the torture of rusty instrument surgery. Put headphones in? People think you’re “feelin’ it.” And that is exactly what you need to be left in peace.

Ultimately, you just have to wear headphones. Music is optional. The headphones are mandatory.

The problem exists when someone on the train doesn’t have headphones and still wants to listen to music. For example, if I want to listen to Taylor Swift on my own time with headphones in…perfectly acceptable. If I want to listen to Taylor Swift at regular volume without headphones in…completely unacceptable. Forcing anyone else to listen to your favorite, terrible music is a breach of the social contract.

Most perpetual riders inherently understand the social contract and do not subject others to their personal musical proclivities.

That percentage would be higher, if it weren’t for Ms. Jackson. Ms. Jackson gets her name from that amazing Outkast song that took the nation by storm. Ms. Jackson wears slacks that are too short and owns exclusively silk shirts. Ms. Jackson is exactly what you would imagine Kanye West’s deranged step-mother to be like.

  1. She loves hip hop
  2. She is completely out of her mind
  3. She doesn’t care about you. Or what you think.

If Left Eye from TLC hadn’t died, and had taken a job as a secretary at a downtown law firm once she was in her 50’s…that’s Ms. Jackson. (RIP Left Eye. Miss you, girl.)

How do I know Ms. Jackson loves hip hop? She stands in the middle of the aisle on the train and plays hip hop on her phone at an unreasonable volume. Repeating the songs that really make her move 3-5 times per morning.

How do I know Ms. Jackson doesn’t care about you or what you think? She raps aloud for all to hear, vulgarities and racial slurs reverberating the aging tin walls of the train as much as the high speeds and uneven tracks. And Ms. Jackson enunciates every rhyme from memory with perfect diction. She’s a pro.

How do I know Ms. Jackson is completely out of her mind?

It was the morning she sang Gold Digger. Uncensored. Every word. And the natives were getting restless after she started the song for the 3rd time. Something I’ve noticed about middle aged white people, they can only reasonably hear the ‘N Word’ 100 times before 7:00 am before they become confrontational.

Furtive glances were cast about the train, nominations were issued, a winner was selected. And the poor soul with the red velvet jacket spoke out against Ms. Jackson’s behavior. She just blurted it out, ripping off the communal bandaid.

“Can you please turn that music off?” She stamped her feet to emphasize the highlighted words and her slight frame vibrated, an emaciated, embittered relative of Kool-Aid Man.

With eyes opened wider than they should reasonably be able to go, Ms. Jackson turned to face her accuser and took a step toward the now trembling scarlet coat. Ms. Jackson moved the enormous whites of her eyes within one inch of the Commuter Tribe’s sacrifice. And giving a slight pause to allow terror to set in, Ms. Jackson echoed:

“Get down girl, go ‘head get down. Get down girl, go ‘head get down.”

“Get down girl, go ‘head get down. Get down girl, go ‘head.”

And no one has confronted Ms. Jackson since.

Mentholated Bottom-Feeder

Mmmmmmmmmmm mm mm mm mm mmmm

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm mmm mmm mmm mm mm mmmmmm

I wish I could say that I was enjoying some rare delicacy that enthralled me enough to make such a sound.

But this is my textual imitation of the sound that grates me for 40 minutes three times a week. A distant, sputtering chainsaw. A bubbling, mucusy gurgle lightly emanating from the throat of the man next to me.

He is The Compulsive Throat Clearer. And this is the sound he makes. One long syllable followed by no more than half a dozen very short syllables and one medium length syllable at the end.

Mmmmmmmmmmmmm mm mm mm mm mm mm mmmmmmmm

You know that sound? When a person won’t just cough and get it over with, so he constricts his airway and squeezes air over the vocal chords to scrape the mucus off like a spatula on a hand-mixer (it doesn’t matter how many times you scrape, it isn’t all gonna make it in the cake). That’s the sound.

I’m glad I typed it out, because it is painful to replicate. Try it. As gritty as possible. I bet it hurts. Unless “you” happens to be The Compulsive Throat Clearer, in which case…thanks for reading. And seriously stop doing this.

Let me back up. The Compulsive Throat Clearer is unfazed by other people. Or maybe unaware. Entirely. He gets on at the final stop before the train approaches the city. He is always last on the train and he takes whatever seat is available. And he never speaks. Never. I sit my backpack on the seat next to me as a matter of custom. But, when someone approaches to sit down, I voluntarily move it. I do so quickly. The first time he sat with me, I didn’t see him approach, and he sat on my backpack. Then he stared at me and lifted up just enough for me to move it. Then he stared some more.

The Compulsive Throat Clearer has a face like large-mouth bass, if it were deep in thought. He wears an Oakland Raiders cap, but I am confident that he has no interest in football as he appears to have no interests at all. Other than the obvious.

On this particular day, he turned to face the front, and closed his eyes. Then he ate a cough drop. His first of three.

And I soon found out that he is a man of habit. Who isn’t? Fish-face to the front, sucking on cherry menthol, revving like a minute Harley Davidson at a stop light. The guys with something to prove that rev as loudly as possible through each stop light until the light turns green. Exactly like that, only muffled. And phlegmier.

And it never stops. 40 minutes, this guy. Every day. He pauses for 3-5 seconds to suck on his cough drop and to continue looking like a sleepy trophy fish, but after that, he clears his throat again.

I’m not typically a violent man, but I have almost throttled him on more than one occasion. I tolerated him at first, maybe he has a cold. Maybe it is a lingering cough? Maybe it is something to do with the shape of his piscine face. Maybe it is the only way for an aging merman with faded black jeans and a baseball cap to survive on land.

My ability to tolerate this gravelly habit is almost at an end. I have tried to ignore him. But I can see his gills rhythmically pulsing even when I am listening to music. And when I close my eyes, I can hear the crinkly wrapper and smell his lozenge (Smell his lozenge? That sounds dirty…) And sometimes he thrashes from being outside of the water for too long.

I’ve tried to out-throat-clear him, but that is impossible. He is a grizzled veteran. And he is too oblivious to the world around him to dissuade him in any other ways. Loud hip-hop music with my ear phones suspiciously close to his scaly bald head goes completely unnoticed. I’ve even acted crazy, but he never cracks open an eye. Or opens that impressive bass mouth.

Meanwhile, he keeps on clearing his throat. And my bag smells like cherry-flavored snot. I seriously don’t know what to do. He may be a fish, but it isn’t legal to filet him. Not regulation size, maybe. Or immoral. I’m not sure.

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm mm mmm mm mmm mm mmmmmmmmmm



Seat etiquette is of utmost importance. The rule is similar to bathroom etiquette for men.


For those of you not familiar with Male Public Restroom Etiquette, the rules are fairly simple. And no one ever tells you the rules, you just get the idea from casual observation. Also, casual observation is all that is typically approved of when hanging out with strangers in the bathroom, so that works out. Too much observation in the public restroom can lead to all sorts of things, danger among them.


Where were we? Ah…yes. It becomes clear at an early age, you don’t stand next to someone at a urinal if you can avoid it. If you are the first to claim a urinal, you have an obligation to allow for maximum urinators. If there are 3, you can take 1 or 3. Taking number 2 is unacceptable. You have to allow a buffer if another needs to relieve himself. If there are 4 urinals, you can take any of the four and the buffer remains intact. Once the precedent has been set, the 2nd reliever must uphold the preexisting structure. If there are 3 urinals and the 1st reliever has taken number 3, the 2nd must take number 1. Taking number 2 is unsavory and frowned upon. If there are 4 urinals and the 1st takes an odd number, the 2nd must take the other odd number. The same is applicable for even numbers. You get the pattern. If not, let me break it down.




Now, there are those that insist that you should wait if you cannot leave the extra space if the others are taken. Those rules are simply absurd. Those men have larger bladders and more spare time than I have. The only rule that makes sense: Leave a buffer if possible and keep your eyes on the white tiled wall. We’re all adults here. But, be advised, if for ANY reason you are left at the middle urinal alone (even if 2 guys just left while you were mid-stream) and someone else comes in, you are out of luck. They will never believe that there were two others there “just a second ago, [you] swear.”


Also, it is not really accepted to speak to strangers while unzipped, so offering an explanation at all is not recommended. All you can do is finish and leave, head hung in shame. And please wash your hands.


Why are we talking about bathrooms so much? Well, there is a similar etiquette that holds sway over public train seats. The rule is similar to the broken down rule from above.




It’s clearly posted within the collective commuter consciousness.


Like urinals at the zoo post dolphin show, full capacity is inevitable. Regardless, maintaining the rule is a requirement. Sitting with another person when there is an empty seat is an offense punishable by excommunication and assured wandering in purgatory. A purgatory with trains that never run on time and filled with kamikaze moths and people talking on cell phones. Or a purgatory with only middle urinals with broad shouldered men on either side. Depending on the applicable situation.


Lately, a transgressor has emerged. A female sexagenarian (that’s a person that is 60+, not the other thing that it could potentially be, at least not that I’m aware of), with a drab collection of cargo pants and Marty McFly hair that would be snow-white if it weren’t for the yellowing of consistent tobacco use over time. The encroachment begins before the final three stops, when the train crowds with the weary and the rules laid out above are acceptably broken due to the mass of people.


First time I saw her, she smiled while coming up the aisle. I thought she was being nice. But she knew what she planned. And she smushed in next to me. The fleshy part of my thigh inside her unbuttoned cargo pocket. I thought it was a joke. It wasn’t. I hoped it was a one-time breach of Seatiquette.


It wasn’t. And now I’m obsessed, like 30-somethings with Mad Men. I know it won’t go anywhere, but I have to know why.


Why me? There are other open seats. And I am not remotely enticing.


Why me?

The Proactivity Coordinator

When you are on an early morning train, nothing’s more sacred than quiet. And threats to this ideal abound. There are always a handful of people that want to chat with their neighbors, or say hello as they come down the aisle. Camaraderie with the conductor is a particularly popular method of gaining some sense of ownership over the commute. Most don’t take it too far.

For the most part, the early morning riders avoid riling up under-caffeinated passengers with too much chit-chat or inane observations about TV or weather.

There are exceptions to every rule. And exceptions to this rule deserve to have their legs broken.

I feel compelled to interject with a very personal feeling that has been weighing on me for some time. People that consistently do work before 6:00 am (when they are not specifically scheduled to do so) have mental problems. I mean, keep ‘em tied to a tree or in a room in your attic type problems. Just don’t let them burn down your house. You might end up blind.

The only thing worse than people that feel the need to water-down the potent malaise of a 5:18 train with over-achievement, are the ones that do it at a distracting volume. Mental illness meets a lack of consideration. It’s sets off a chemical reaction…as indicated by my face turning bright red and other riders foaming at the mouth.

(I just proudly executed a Chemistry joke. Between that and the Jane Eyre reference, this is a nerd’s paradise.)

Some of these over-zealous workers just type loudly. I call them Angry Typers. Not typist…that requires typing skill. Angry Typers wear their hearts on their keyboards. If it is an emotional response to an email, they have to punish the keys while they type. If they want to increase emphasis, they don’t use italics or all caps. That would be uncouth. They just let their fatty knockwurst-fingers mash on the keys and hope that their syntax’ll carry that emphasis through.

I typed that paragraph as angrily as possible. I’m not sure if you can tell the difference.

I give Angry Typers a pass. I can usually ignore typing. And maybe their stubby fingers weigh an inordinate amount as far as fingers go and it is too tiring to type quietly, especially at that time of the morning. It’s an irritant. But I can get past it.

Some people, I can’t get past. Enter: The Proactivity Coordinator.

The Proactivity Coordinator holds full volume conference calls on the train. At 5:30 AM. She’s even experimented with speaker phone so she could “enjoy [her] coffee”. Thankfully, the train’s belabored chugging was too “obnoxious” to adequately hear the minutia of Sheila’s report on ‘Emerging Geological Phenomena’. The Proactivity Coordinator’s presumed importance is only exceeded by the number of accessories she wears. A watch, and a bracelet with one staunch charm, and horror-film nails, and a pocket square in her power suit, and two scarves. The cherry on top of this overwrought, body-tchochke sundae: A brooch of a panda, with a Peridot for an eye, doing yoga.  She has so many articles of clothing, she gets caught on herself. Once, she had to drop her phone because the dangly on her bracelet was strangling Lim-Lim while he was doing Warrior 2, his green, gemstone eyeball popping out of his brassy skull. They’re endangered already. This is just cruelty.

Worst of all, The Proactivity Coordinator isn’t just a participant in these conference calls. She leads them. The train is her boardroom.

For 20-30 minutes, depending on how long the think-tank takes to become profitable, The Proactivity Coordinator serenades a few lucky commuters with a litany of business-themed buzzwords and agitated requests for confirmation.

“I copied you on the metrics!”

“Barry. Confirm!”

“Outside the box!”

“Susan. Confirm!”

“Robust Synergy!”

“Brad. Confirm!”

“Brad. You must confirm.”

“We aren’t moving to the next action item until Brad confirms the robustness of our synergy.”

Denying The Proactivity Coordinator’s robustness does not seem to be an option.

And if someone confronts The Proactivity Coordinator? That someone is beaten into submission by a heavily perfumed scoff and stale-coffee scented seething. Even her pocket square agitatedly shakes. And any petition for increased thoughtfulness is regrettably shelved.

The Proactivity Coordinator’s joyless seatmate is wholly incapable of standing against her and her army of flowcharts. And, to date, the conference call has faced no adversity.

But someday, I’ll be in that seat. And she’ll see how robust my synergy can be.

Protein Shake

I’m still surprised when a person engages in the deeply personal while his thigh is nestled with mine. Even that slight physical contact is enough to keep me mindful of the fact that I am currently occupying a public space. Sure, it can’t always be avoided. I take phone calls from my wife on the train, from time to time. I try to keep it short. I keep my voice down. No matter what, I avoid personal topics like the regularity of my bowel movements and how much money I spend per month on exotic mustards which are frequently terrible and rarely taste like mustard. (It’s significantly higher than the per capita.)
My neighbor with the surprisingly muscular quads doesn’t want to know about the intimate details. Keeping this information to myself isn’t easy. But I do it. It’s a public service.

It appears, however, that privacy is less important to him.

You might be anticipating the lurid details of a spicy conversation that he had with his mistress on a Samsung phone. Or some bro-heavy discussion about how many reps he may or may not have done with some unfathomable weight. (***NOTE: This may not be ultra-personal, but I am equally not interested in hearing the details.) His breach of the social contract didn’t come in the form of a phone call. Let’s say, Mr. Leg Press shared some of his other personal habits.

Let me start from the beginning.

I ride a rush hour train heading home. While I board at the point of origin, the seats always fill long before we are out of the city. I’m resigned to sharing. I place my bag on my lap and take the window seat as we make the first stop. On this particular day, the flood of people clears and, miraculously, I am still alone.

As the smoke clears, the wildlife begins to scatter and I hear a rumbling. BOOM. BOOM. Coming closer. The glass of water on the dashboard of the Jeep is shaking with each impending crash and Jeff Goldblum is talking about Chaos. Or maybe that’s from a movie I saw. Either way, I hesitate to move as the rumbling approaches in case it can’t see me. The pounding footsteps suddenly stop. Right next to me.
As I turn, I see what could only be described as The Shaggy Hulk. You’ve heard of the Incredible Hulk? Just like that. With a mop of curly hair covering his eyes. But he definitely had torn purple shorts that were too tight and too short. And did I mention those quadriceps?
As is my custom, I press myself toward the window to make room, when a meek voice tugs on my ear.

“Mind if I take the window?”

I turn. He smiles. His biceps audibly tighten as a reminder that this man could crush my skull if he wasn’t so amicable. I oblige him.
It is atypical, to say the least, that someone prefers the inside of the seat. Less legroom and you have to get permission to use the perilous Bouncing Toilet. But, I figured he was being nice since he knew he was imposing. We resume our commute home in silence. No small talk. Just two dudes with their thighs touching.

I’m reading a book and he’s watching pornography on his iPad. Just two dudes…

Wait. Pornography? In plain sight? Seriously, Protein Shake? Can’t this wait?

I glance again. He’s engrossed. Apparently, it can’t.

Now, I’m in a silent frenzy. The rhythmic flexing of his leg is keeping time with the bad music that must be aligned with the…um…motions. I can’t react too strongly, either. If I interrupt this guy during “private time”, he is liable tear my arms out of socket and stash them in the luggage rack, which normally wouldn’t be a problem, but would be difficult to retrieve with no arms. And I’ve heard about ‘roid rage and I am fairly certain that would be in full effect if I prevent him from enjoying the plot of the film he is apparently so mired in that he doesn’t notice that I am desperately looking for a way out of the seat and keenly aware of the fact that I am thigh to thigh with an aroused Adonis. Now I’m breathing heavy.

“Excuse me.” An exhausted (and suspiciously satisfied) murmur.

I stare straight ahead.

“This is my stop.” A breathy squeak.

I squeak back, “I guess you better get off, then.”

The Tracks of My Tears

If ever you are fortunate enough to be an audience to a break up while riding on the train, your life will be forever changed. It overwhelms the senses. The sounds of a train-based break-up enter your subconscious the same as a humming speaker or a buzzing insect. Unconsciously at first. Then someone asks if you can hear that sound or if it is just them. Then, you can’t shake it. Expanding inside your head. A ceaseless merry-go-round of recognizable tropes.

Breakee:              What do you mean you don’t want to be with me anymore?

Breaker:               I just can’t do it anymore


Breaker:               Don’t make a scene.

Breakee:              (Incoherent moaning. Pitiful and loud)


Breakee:              Why did you tell me this here?

Breaker:               I just…had to get it out.

And these bits of dialogue repeat in varying patterns. A wave of half-hearted assurances that “We can still be friends” accompany them. The overall scene is one that is familiar and irresistible.

It is a serious struggle for couples to fight quietly. The participants try to keep the volume to a level that will maintain their privacy, but heightened emotions increase the volume and cloud the judgment. Moreso for the Breakee. I can’t say for sure why, but I assume it is the fact that graciously accepting that the love of your life thought a train filled with people was the proper place to tell you that “she abhors every part of you, your face most of all” is apparently difficult beyond measure. Between the weepy gasping for air and whisper-shouting between clenched teeth, drawing a sell-out crowd is all but guaranteed.

***NOTE: I use “she” as the pronoun representing the Breaker because each time I have witnessed this event, that has been the case. The Breakee in these scenarios was male. What, if any, differences there would be if the roles were in any ways changed, I cannot verify and wouldn’t dare speculate.***

These break ups are never well planned. The Breaker doesn’t adhere to the Train Break-Up Formula for Minimal Outburst. The formula is clear:

T = Estimated Time Needed to Break this Leech’s Heart (in minutes)

M = Current Length of Time Before the Breaker can Abandon this Miserable Mass of Sobbing at Dune Park Station without a Ride Home and Not Even Think Twice About It (in minutes)

IF % Chance of Ugly Meltdown NOTES
M = T <15% Particularly aware Breakee preempts Breaker, unavoidable risk regardless of location or time.
M > T 100% Scientific impossibility that eruption of tears and false promises can be avoided. Dropping below this threshold equates to one hour plus of a snot-faucet ex-boyfriend asking you “Why?” in a voice much higher in pitch than even seems possible.
M < T 0% While this number is attractive, it is indicative of an incomplete Break-Up. The Breaker would have to arrange a 2nd trip to Chicago and allot more time for sufficient severance.

There are no exceptions. This is science.

Scientists also have been unable to explain the fact that The Breaker never leaves her seat. She sticks it out. Everyone is staring. The Breakee is a quivering heap, incapable of moving. And there are plenty of open seats. While unproven, I suspect the Breaker knows that if this unfeeling act is documented on Facebook, one of her old high school teachers will know that she crushed a man’s bones to dust on a train from Chicago in the same three hour period as “Ice Cream with my Besties!”