Caltrain’s Seat Hogs, Aisle Dwellers and Condescending Conductors

courtesy of ABC News…or ABC Cruise…whoever 411 connected me to was very friendly and said “yes”

Running is not my thing, especially going full speed, first thing in the morning wearing dress shoes. Since childhood I revered trains as the most fun thing to ride on with the exception of fire engines and dinosaurs, but today its not excitement, but fear of work tardiness that has me sprinting my unlimber body, laden with a backpack full of laptop, cursing my over-use of the snooze bar in pursuit of the Caltrain Baby Bullet.

My lungs burn from the brisk morning air as I jump on just before he doors close. Fighting for oxygen, I try not to pant my morning breath into the faces of the amateur riders clogging the entry door. My nick-of-time boarding placed me in the very front car and to reach open-seat territory in the rear I have to wade through three cars of Aisle Dwellers: a mix of type As hovering by the door to secure first-ones-off pole position and the meek, too timid to ask Seat Hogs to move their crap. A crowded train car is one of the few places that it’s socially acceptable to rub against strangers as passing someone in the aisle reaches an intimacy level akin to a fourth date.

courtesy of

On my journey to the rear I must pass the Bike Car: an oasis of elbow room unwelcome to non-cyclists, patrolled by people wearing helmets and rolled up pant legs, who are crazy enough to ride bicycles in the City.

courtesy of

Upon reaching the last car, I scout vacant seats on the east-facing window where the view of graffiti is better in both penmanship and relevance (the west featuring scribbles of “Bush Step Down” from the senior’s administration). My choices narrow to a seat occupied by the make-shift “do not disturb” of a man’s laptop case and another blocked by the outstretched legs of a guy mistaking the train for his sofa. I serve notice by putting my own backpack in the overhead prompting laptop guy to move his bag to the floor in our shared leg space followed by my passive-aggressive use of his bag as a footrest. Next, I up the ante with a brinksmanship game of chicken with our legs touching that prompts him to finally scoot over.

Caltrain encourages phone etiquette, but this does not deter the impolite few from conducting conference calls at a Broadway-performance volume that should require the car to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Decibel levels of the speaker are typically in direct proportion to the inappropriateness of the subject matter. High enough for the whole car to hear is annoying tales of co-workers while deafening levels make off-color remarks spanning politics and religion.

courtesy The Good, the Bad, the Ugly Caltrain

Today I can only hear my neighbor’s MP3 player which bleeds out of his ineffective headphones at an amplitude stronger than my home stereo system. I discover the MP3 player is also a phone when it begins ringing, or more specifically, playing a Jay Z song which makes me ponder how the advent of status symbol ringtones has increased the time it takes for someone to answer a phone glued to their hand. Would anyone spend $6.99 on the Medal Ceremony Theme from Star Wars to answer a call in less than the first ten seconds of the brass instrumental?


I next hear a booming “Tickets, please” request booming from an entering Conductor in a tone that says he woke up much earlier than the rest of us, followed by the Ch-ling sound of his ticket reader scanning Clipper Cards. It grows louder as he walks up the aisle. Ch-ling, Ch-ling, Chling, then…

“Ticket’s, please.”

Uh oh. We have a troublemaker. Tink, Tink, Tink, Tink. Without turning around I recognize the sound of the Conductor banging his keys on the over-head rack above a sleeping or headphone-wearing passenger. Roused from his slumber the passenger produces a card that elicits the positive Chi-Ling and the Conductor continues his harmonious Ch-linging trek until I hear the dreaded, record-scratching “Invalid” sound.

Heads peak up from smartphones in anticipation of the courtroom drama of the People of Caltrain vs the Interloper. Will the presiding Conductor find the accused guilty of free-riding or acquit her as an innocent victim of a Clipper Card system more complex than Federal Tax Codes? The female, middle-aged, professional gets off with a warning, setting an example that if you’re going to ride the Caltrain without a valid ticket, wear nothing less than office casual. She avoids the $250 citation, but must endure public shaming with a condescending lecture on proof of purchase from the booming-voiced Conductor.

The drama ends as we approach our final destination and people start leaving their seats to join the Aisle Dwellers by the door. As everyone exits I take a moment to recline and bask in the queit of my comfortable, spacious seat.