The Web of Fate

Occasionally, a moth makes its way onto the train.

There is no recourse. The lights can’t be turned off and there is no way to open the window and usher the frenzied insect out into the early morning air. Approximately once per week, a massive, powdered flutterer creates an uncomfortable ride to the city. And there’s no prevention plan. Luckily, the moth stays away from the back of the train because the light strips end before the last seat. And as it careens and ricochets off the plastic panels covering the florescent lighting, it dive bombs the sleepy passengers, ruining their sleep. It’s hilarious. They can’t shut an eye. Between their gravelly curses, Mothra lays waste to their dreams of napping and kamikazes towards the women that still smell of hairspray and the men with bad toupees. And I watch this nightmarish, airborne maple-leaf dip beneath the top of the seats and the arms of the startled strangers flailing like excited puppets. An eerie distortion of The Wave that you see at baseball games.

I laugh at them. Their involuntary reactions are amazing. The accelerated beating of their hearts is almost audible. Then the tables turned.

I guess I was due for some fear-of-harmless-creature karma.

I can’t tell you what I was doing on the train that day. Standard stuff, I suppose. Reading a book or responding to emails. I can’t say. But I can tell you the exact shape and size of the spider that ruined my life.

One of those off-white little guys about the shape of a dime. Not threatening. Certainly not dangerous. I’m getting upset talking about it. I planned to find a picture of the kind of spider I’m referring to, but when I googled the images I urinated a bit. The point is, it was a spider. Eight legs. Evil incarnate. Albino looking creepy thing. And it emerged from the shoulder pads of the woman in front of me and attacked me.

Its first trick was roaming around on the back of the seat. Toying with me. It could see me sweating. It heard my shallow breaths. It was taunting me. Reveling in my pain.

Then it disappeared for a minute. Back into the recesses of that lady’s overstuffed coat. Creating a false sense of security. Trying to make me feel like everything was going to be okay.

Then…BAM. There he was again. On the back of the seat. Skittering, snickering. Stopping. Stopping? He looked at me. 1,000,000 miniscule eyes challenging me. His front-most yellowy legs signing to me in perfect ASL. I couldn’t help myself. I looked closer.

I didn’t know spiders could give someone the bird. Then, he disappeared again. He’s in my head now and he knows it. It is only a matter of time before he…appears on the wall and comes at me fast. He’s almost on my arm now.

And I leapt. I had no reason to suspect I was capable of such a thing.

Neither did Scrawny Businessman. He had been uncomfortably sitting next to me the whole time. Giving me the benefit of the doubt. I’d been as unobtrusive as a companion could get. No small-talk. Little to no mouth breathing. And I only read over his shoulder in a surreptitious enough fashion to provide complete deniability. Extensive physical contact seemed unlikely to us both.

But there I was. In his arms. Our glasses transferring age old smudges. I could smell the Sensodyne. I had shrieked, apparently. I didn’t find that out until later. I could feel the tightly drawn, too-thin skin of his arms rubbing against mine. My arm hairs pulling in the gold links of his analog watch. He wanted to say something. But he didn’t. I wanted to say something. Instead, I just buried my head against his coarse, corduroy tie and hugged him tightly.

Turning sideways, he slid through my tightly clasped fingers and vanished down the center aisle. I haven’t seen those bifocals since. Haven’t smelled that pungent green after shave by Mennen that my Dad used to wear. That everyone’s Dad used to wear.

And I haven’t enjoyed a quiet, dry-thighed ride in quite some time.

Scrawny Businessman, if you are reading this (which is possible, it’s technically non-fiction), come back. I’ll be waiting with a polite, no-words smile and an analysis of the Monroe Doctrine. And I won’t sit on your lap again.


Little Round the Middle

My favorite person with which to share a seat is, undoubtedly, Scrawny Businessman. There are many other people with which I really don’t relish having to coexist. A small, but not exhaustive, list of those commuters includes: Noisy Necklace Twirler, Extremely Flexible Nail Painter, Freestyle Rapper 1, Seated Tap Dancer, Freestyle Rapper 2, Unnecessary Grunting Man of Indeterminate Age, and How Many Bananas is it Even Safe to Eat in One Ride Lady.

For obvious reasons, my ability to achieve a quiet and unremarkable trip to the city is seriously jeopardized by those people.

Scrawny Businessman, however? He’s ideal.

He’s not the most fashionable middle-aged, bespectacled man. But, neither am I. Scrawny Businessman wears a tie every single day on the train. This, in and of itself, is not uncommon. Many tie-wearers ride the train. He has uncommonly bad ties, though. You know when hipster youths raid the tie bin at Goodwill? Those cast-off ties are significantly outrank the Scrawny Businessman’s ties. There is not a paisley to be found, which results in immediate disqualification from the Semi-Monthly Train Tie Award Ceremony. His ties fall into categories:

1. Cartoon Montage Ties (31%) – These are your standard Junior’s First Tie type ties. They feature Yosemite Sam in every comically enraged state of red-face imaginable. Or that singing frog that the WB stole to use as their mascot for a while. And they never feature Hannah Barbera cartoons which would be a significant improvement. (If a Wacky Races tie exists, I would rock that in a heartbeat). But if you were hoping to see a tie featuring the short-lived Three Stooges cartoon, you are in luck – it’s the first Thursday of every month.

2. Floral Print Ties (10%) – Big, pastel flowers. Tasteful greenery. Always some amount of pink in those petals. A dream.

3. Cordury or Square Ties (8%) – While not necessarily related, there are enough of both of these ties to warrant their own category.

4. Cordury AND Square Ties (11%) – In case you were wondering what would happen if he had a square-tipped tie that was also made of brown corduroy, wonder no more. Those ties get their own category.

5. Skinny Ties – (19%) – You might think that these would be cool again, since they are rearing their skinny heads. But, you’d be wrong. You just know that these are first-run skinny ties. Also, Scrawny Businessman doesn’t have facial hair, so it doesn’t really work.

6. Geometry Ties – (21%) – I don’t mean patterned ties. I’m talking about ties that ask you to solve for X. Ties with rhombuses. Rhombi? I prefer rhombuses. One of them has a diagram, including appropriate angles, for tying a double Windsor knot.

Coincidentally, Scrawny Businessman ties a terrific double Windsor. Enough about ties.

So, what’s great about Scrawny Businessman?

He’s tiny. And all business.

Scrawny Businessman has a strange proportion to him. He probably weighs 140 pounds, and most of that is Adam’s apple. That wouldn’t be remarkable in any way, if he weren’t well over 7 feet tall. The man is the tiniest of giants. Or maybe some kind of famished troll. A famished troll with a briefcase. One time, when he sat with me, another person asked if they could sit down. When he objected, they screamed and ran away, raving about a “talking cardboard cutout with a vintage floral tie”.

I had to know just how mini he was, so I checked his waistband. He wears size 26. If you turned a 7’ 2” rake upside down and then it started reading non-fiction. That’s him. He’s my ideal companion. My own personal Stan Laurel. And just as talkative. I’m observing other weirdos on the train. He’s reading about the naval victories of Oliver Hazard Perry on Lake Erie during the War of 1812. (Look it up…amazing stuff)

It was perfection. But, it’s over now. We had a good run, Scrawny Businessman and I. For two glorious weeks he was my every day seatmate. And because of his size, my leg never got all sweaty from rubbing into his leg. It was that kind of magic. Dry-leg style magic.

Now…Scrawny Businessman doesn’t minimally take up space in my seat anymore. I don’t even know if he is still alive (Although I suspect he is. With a frame like that, his heart will probably beat forever.) Ever since the day that I accidentally embraced him while he was reading about the Westward migration of organized crime throughout the 20th century in the United States, I haven’t seen him. Or his ties.

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!”

Peruvian Kiss

The train is a lonely place. And those who ride it would rather shun their unintentional neighbor than open themselves to human contact. Packed like sardines in mime’s makeup, the train becomes a perfect, albeit unlikely, fortress of solitude.
Normally, I wouldn’t have any interest in what people do in their “Alone Time”. I mean, I’ve done a lot of things when no one was watching that don’t make me proud. Like binge watching Gilmore Girls and crying. Or cross-stitching a to-scale bag of Ore Ida Golden Crinkles and then eating it because it is so lifelike.
Now, I’ve never done my “Alone Time” stuff on the train. Only when I’m physically alone. And while being metaphorically alone is just as lonely, it doesn’t authorize commuters to commit acts of supreme weirdness in public. Yet, they do it anyway.
And I watch them.
There is no way to make that sound less creepy.
It’s true. Like a boldly colored pair of argyle socks, I can’t look away. Making it all the more difficult when the scenario necessitates that I avert my gaze.
I’m riding the train home, a time of mass jubilee. Half of these bedraggled passengers are drinking large cans of intoxicating beverage and everyone has loosened his or her tie. Everyone on the train wears a necktie. I carry one just for the train.
As the train begins to thin out, I notice a lovely couple speaking Spanish to one another. Adoring one another in a rare and elusive three-seater, rarely seen in captivity. There is an alarming amount of reciprocating shoulder massage that evokes a glistening mixture of a middle school dance and some mutually beneficial light choking.
Their eyes lock, a pistol is fired, and they passionately kiss. That frenzied type that you only see in romantic comedies, where the plausible explanation must be fire ants in their clothing. This is full-fledged, unabashed making out. A shoulder is bared (his shoulder) and I can’t help but stare. No one else is seeing this, but I’m incredulous. It is really escalating. And then…they catch me staring. Both of them.
How did they catch me? They didn’t suddenly become aware of their surroundings and become self-conscious, reluctantly releasing their hold on the throes of passion. It wasn’t even that one of them wanted to peek to ensure that the embrace was being fully enjoyed. I got caught because I failed to notice that both of their eyes were wide open. The whole time. All four eyes just open to the world, all googly.
Tongues snaking, teeth clacking, eyes staring blankly. Like horny, Spanish-speaking zombies. They didn’t stop. But they looked at me with condescension and judgment. And I looked away, ashamed.
I have since come to call this Peruvian Kissing. Like the French do it, only creepier. I assume it is a cultural thing. If anyone can provide more insight into Peruvian kissing custom, I would be happy to amend as necessary.
I’ve been thinking about this couple. So loving. So unashamed. So damp. I want to try it. Others insist it is a terrible choice. But, maybe it’s terrific. Maybe I’ll never want to engage in bare-shouldered kiss-choking with my eyes open again. Maybe it’ll revolutionize the way I view intimacy. Maybe this is the true gift of the Inca.

Seat’s Taken

Twice per day, I witness desperate strangers employ strategies to keep their two-person seat free from invaders. It’s illogical, to be sure, as the rush hour trains are always packed. And, inevitably, the bulk of train riders end up sharing their seat with someone. But that doesn’t stop commuters from trying to bogart all the legroom.

Adults don’t respond to bullying the same way Forrest Gump does. Sliding over and saying, “Seat’s taken” (Southern drawl optional) isn’t as effective as it was on the bus to elementary school. So, they resort to more passive-aggressive techniques. You know, like real adults.

Some simply sit in the outside seat, hoping that the seeker will move on by in search of an easy plop down.

Pssh. Amateurs. Might as well wear a sign that says, “I don’t often get what I want.”

Level 1 tactics are not enough to guarantee solitude. There are those, however, that have cultivated more extreme measures to ride solo. It rarely works. But their yearning to be left alone trumps their ability to reason.

The Preoccupied:

The stratagem of The Preoccupied is to appear busy so that someone looking for a seat will not want to inconvenience him/her. The larger the preoccupation, the greater the perceived inconvenience. The most common form of The Preoccupied is The Reader. Newspaper, magazine, Kindle (seriously, who owns a Nook?), as long as they are fully immersed, it doesn’t matter. Another common form of The Preoccupied is a relative of The Reader. I like to call him/her “The Candy Crusher.” Really, any activity that necessitates frantic swiping will do. Although, it is preferred that the activity requires inviting your Facebook friends who STILL DO NOT WANT TO PLAY CANDY CRUSH SO SERIOUSLY STOP INVITING ME.

The most specialized and theatrical subset of The Preoccupied is The Narcoleptic. After all, is there any greater inconvenience than being jarred awake by a sweaty guy in a skinny tie? A few sympathetic riders will steer clear. While still largely ineffective, The Narcoleptic has a higher rate of success than the others.

NOTE: I once made eye contact with someone on my way up the aisle and watched her suddenly pretend to be unconscious. I didn’t stop and take a seat, but I did mention aloud, “You aren’t fooling anyone.”

The Intimidator:

The Intimidator has a moderate success rate. He/She doesn’t ignore those coming down the aisle. The Intimidator meets the challenge head-on. Donning a scowl, The Intimidator forces you into being a reluctant participant in a high stakes staring contest. If you lose…you die.

Or at least miss out on that seat.

The problem with this approach is that too many weary travelers don’t have the heart to make eye contact in the first place, rendering The Intimidator’s powers completely useless.

There are no subgroups of The Intimidator, but there is a close relative. The Crazy-Eye. The Crazy-Eye looks so clearly out of their gourd that no right-thinking American would risk sitting down. I mean, you might get sniffed, or bitten, or engaged in a lively chat about Doctor Who. The success rate of The Crazy-Eye is near-perfect. But you only get one shot to sell it. And most people don’t have what it takes to pull it off.

Any failure for The Intimidator or The Crazy-Eye results in automatic double occupancy. High risk, high reward.

The M.I.M.O.S.A.: (Messy Individual with Myriad Objects Strewn About)

This is my personal favorite. The M.I.M.O.S.A. recklessly dumps out the entire contents of briefcase or purse, turning the seat into a mobile rummage sale. Beat-up board games and dingy glassware are cast about like the aftermath of a tiny, suburban tornado.

And my favorite M.I.M.O.S.A. is The Cartographer. The Cartographer treats the train seat like a map table. He rolls out scale drawings on vellum and mercantile maps on the way to what I assume must be a super-important job. All the world’s problems are no match for The Cartographer. World Peace, Cure for Cancer, an end to using “feels” instead of “feelings”? All in a day’s work.

Each morning, when I see him, poring over manuscripts and studying period drawings, I think to myself, “Seriously, Cartographer, why do you have a map of Bolivia? Also, the train is breezeless. Is that paperweight necessary?”