Superman may have been more powerful than a locomotive, but the Man of Steel never did what I did last week — single-handedly stop Amtrak.
How did I pull off this act of heroism? Was I like that mythical woman everyone always talks about who lifted a car off her son, saving his life?
Well, no. I accomplished this superhuman feat by getting into an argument with the conductor. Not quite in the same category as Superman battling Lex Luthor, but it was close.
I actually do think of myself as a superhero. I routinely get frustrated with the people who provide service to us, the retail consumer. Specifically, I get angry with the ones who are rude, incompetent or indifferent. In other words, all of them.
I’m the guy who always has to speak to the manager. In my head, I’m Consumer Man, fighting on behalf of oppressed consumers the world over (it’s a thankless job but someone has to do it). In my wife’s head, I’m crazy. But she didn’t stop an Amtrak train. I did.
I was taking a train from New York to Maryland to go on a five-day sailing trip. It was really a drinking trip with sailing thrown in. Actually, it was a getting seasick trip with sailing thrown in. I took Amtrak thinking it would be more convenient than flying. That and I wanted to arrive to my destination late.
It was a 6:20 p.m. train, the height of rush hour. I was tired. I was stressed about getting a seat (I really wanted two seats so I could spread out — and mainly so I did not have to interact with anyone). Consumer Man was fatigued from battling injustices; he did not have time for Northeast Corridor small talk.
I boarded one of the rear cars, full of anticipation and anxiety. Pay dirt! Two empty seats! I set about filling one with people repellent: backpack, food, newspapers, and a cord of firewood. I began working on my laptop.
Within minutes the conductor came through. In a tone that Consumer Man didn’t like, he announced this train was full. All empty seats would have to be cleared. I laughed. Surely a Good Samaritan such as Consumer Man would be exempt from this requirement. I ignored his request and kept working.
Several minutes later the same conductor returned and bellowed at me, “I told you five minutes ago to CLEAR THIS SEAT! Clear it RIGHT NOW or I will CLEAR IT FOR YOU!”
Where did he get the nerve to talk to me in so many capital letters? Was he empowered by his mesh, air-flow brimmed hat, comfortable yet authoritative? Or by his jaunty change belt?
I politely responded, “Excuse me?” He repeated his tirade, only louder. Others in nearby seats looked on in disbelief that he was talking to a fellow consumer this way — either that or at the fact that I had not yet cleared my seat. I like to think it was the former.
I shot back, “Excuse me, I’m a paying customer and I don’t appreciate being spoken to that way.”
He said, “Oh yeah, how would you like me to respond?”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m a six year-old child.”
He hurled more abrasive comments at which point I called him a “punk” and demanded to speak to the supervisor. He refused. Well played! This had never happened before. Refusal of the supervisor request was Consumer Man’s kryptonite.
I told the conductor I was going to report him and demanded to know his name. Again, he refused. (Note: When you plan to report someone and need his name to do so, don’t tell him the part about reporting him first.)
He walked away and returned moments later to tell me he wasn’ taking my ticket. “I’m throwing you off this train for being disruptive. I’m calling the cops in Newark.”
Is this how it would all end for Consumer Man? In a hail of bullets over an empty seat? While I could stop a train, I was pretty sure I couldn’t stop a bullet. That’s where Superman has one up on Consumer Man.
The conductor called the cops on his walkie-talkie as we were pulling into the station. Consumer Man had to think fast. I had to take the offensive. I made a beeline toward the front of the train, looking for another conductor.
As I walked through the train I hit the button for the giant electric door to open. As it slid into the wall, my ticket, which was in my hand, got caught between the door and the pocket where the door stores.
Now what? Cops are breathing down my neck and I have no ticket to prove I should even be on this train. The clock was ticking. I wait for the door to open: no ticket. I began to whine, “Oh, no, oh, no.” Consumer Man was Consumer Baby.
After what was 17 seconds but seemed like 17 years, the door emerged from its pocket again, and there was my ticket, stuck to the side of the door. I grabbed it as I heard the conductor yelling, “Where is he? He ran away!”
I kept moving. I peered out the train door onto the platform and spotted five Newark police officers, waiting for me. Five cops! Consumer Man was really shaking things up. (I felt like Belushi and Aykroyd at the end of The Blues Brothers, if they had been surrounded by five cops instead of five hundred).
Meanwhile, I overheard a woman on her cell phone say, “Hi, it’s me, I’m going to be 15 or 20 minutes late, some jerk is holding up the train, and I think the cops are here for him!”
Wow, I was the jerk! I was notorious and I hadn’t been shot — yet.
No time to revel in my celebrity. Suddenly I spotted another conductor. She was wearing a red tie, as opposed to the standard blue. Red could only mean one thing, royalty. She had to be the head conductor.
I was finally going to speak to the manager! She got onto the platform and was walking at a very fast clip. I ran after her and shouted, “I need to report a rude conductor!” She said, “Sir, I can’t help you right now, I have a problem at the back of the train with some guy.”
“I’m that guy.” She stared at me and walked with me toward the cops.
In my previous life, I was a lawyer. (My mother is still sick about my career change.) I knew I had only minutes to implement my “offense” strategy to lodge doubt in the neutral party’s mind about my accuser and perhaps win a not-guilty verdict. But it wasn’t looking good for Consumer Man.
As we approached the police officers, I spoke loudly while pointing at the conductor, “There he is! This guy is out of control. Officer, can I speak to you for a minute. This guy is abusive.”
As I began to explain the situation to the police officer, the conductor yelled at me again: “This train is leaving, do you want to get on it or not?” I looked at the cop, who shrugged his shoulders. Maybe Amtrak was his usual beat and nothing threw him anymore.
I got back on the train. My head spinning, I returned to my seat and smiled. I was right, he was wrong. If by “right” you mean inconveniencing a train full of people, being chased by a conductor, almost losing my ticket and risking arrest, all over an empty seat.
Yes, even on his day off, Consumer Man fought the good fight and won. I took off my baseball cap and wiped my brow. I looked at the seat next to me. It was empty. I took a beat and rested my cap there. Consumer Man had earned it.
During the two-hour ride that followed, the conductor finally came by and punched my ticket. My hat was still on the seat. He looked at me, looked at the hat and said nothing. Consumers everywhere rejoice! Consumer Man celebrated with an overpriced, warm ham sandwich from the snack car.
As I left the train, the conductor saw me and couldn’t resist a parting shot.
“Thank you,” he said. “I got in trouble with my supervisor. Thanks a lot.”
“No need to thank me,” I said. “Just doing my job.”
For more information, visit www.paulmecurio.com.
All photos by Brian Friedman.