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Surviving Caltrain

Caltrain would be great if it wasn't for the passengers.

Running is not my thing, especially going full speed, first thing in the morning, but if I miss this train, I’m late for work.  That’s why I’m sprinting my unlimber body, laden with a backpack full of laptop and technical books, cursing my over-use of the snooze bar.

While my lungs feel the burn of the brisk morning air, the sting is lessened by the relief of boarding just before the doors close.

Instinctively, I should love the train.  Coming from Los Angeles, I’m giddy at the thought of clean, practical public transportation that spares me agonizing traffic jams.  From childhood men are reared on trains as the most fun thing to ride on with the exception of fire engines and dinosaurs. 

The train would be great if it wasn’t for the passengers. 

Upon boarding I hit a wall of amateur riders lacking the etiquette to clear away from the entry door.  I squeeze through their ranks on my quest for an open seat, which doesn’t exist on the commuter train.  Even in the absence of a person there’s always a bag, purse, newspaper or whatever the Seat Hog places there to ward off other passengers.  There’ s a chance of finding such a seat in the rear of the train, but today my nick-of-time boarding placed me in the very front car.  To get to seat territory I have to wade through three cars of Aisle Dwellers, a mix of Type A’s hovering by the door to secure pole position as the first ones off and the meek, too timid to ask Seat Hogs to move their things.  A crowded train car is one of the few places that it’s socially acceptable to physically crowd a stranger.  Passing someone in the aisle reaches an intimacy level akin to a fourth date.  Two cars back I reach the oasis of elbow room, the Bike Car.  My rookie mistake was riding here, preferring the company of bikes over people.  There are no rules forbidding non-cyclists, just vigilante justice where wild-eyed people wearing helmets and their right pant leg rolled up, harass you into sitting somewhere else. 

The commuter train accommodates more passengers by having knee-to-knee groups of four seats.  It’s extra seating at the cost of making strangers sit uncomfortably close together.  Aside from belongings taking a seat, some people can practically take up four by themselves with outstretched legs or reclining sideways.  Another example is obesity.  Overweight can fit.  I’m talking morbidly obese, spilling over one seat to at least half of the next.  The airlines industry penalizes such passengers by making them purchase a second ticket, but Caltrain says “whatever.” 

My new pet-peeve is large baggage.  People get a pass if they’re going to the airport, otherwise, boarding the train with a Samsonite should not reward them with a complimentary seat.  Oddly as technology makes things like phones and laptops smaller, our carrying cases grow larger.  Briefcases are being replaced by miniature suitcases that grow with each year’s model.  If the bag you take to work has wheels, a handle and airlines reject it as a carry-on, it’s luggage that you should stand next to in the Bike Car. 

When searching for a seat, traffic unofficially flows front to back as reversing means going upstream of other Seat Seekers or re-crossing Aisle Dwellers who tolerate one fly-by per person.    This ratchets the pressure to narrow down my search as I step into the rear car.  On either side are candidates, one holding a man’s laptop case, the other blocked by the outstretched legs of a guy mistaking the train seat for his living room sofa.  He’s sleeping (or pretending to sleep), a classic move as most are too timid to wake them.  I opt for the laptop case based on its East-facing window.  In spite of the sun glare, the view of the graffiti is better in both penmanship and relevance.  The West side still has “Bush Step Down” scribbled from the senior’s  administration. 

Rather than ask the man to move his bag, I first put my own backpack in the overhead, giving fair warning that I’m coming in.  Most will start to make way at this point, but when he doesn’t budge I use my standard line delivered in an overly-polite high pitch “mind if I squeeze in?”

He takes me at my word by barely budging, moving his bag to the floor in our shared leg space despite the empty overhead rack above.   “Do you mind giving me some space?” sits in the back of my throat, but I take the passive aggressive route of inadvertently using his bag as a footrest.

Still uncomfortably cramped, I up the ante by adjusting positions to play a game of chicken with our legs touching, a game of brinksmanship I’ll play with the exception of when both of us are wearing shorts.  My maneuver prompts his retreat as he moves his bag, conceding my hard-fought square foot. 

I am among the majority of passengers whose workday begins on the train via smartphone and laptop.  Some go as far as to conduct conference calls at a volume that makes me question if the rest of the train should not be under a non-disclosure agreement.  Caltrain policy discourages use of cell phones, but these are hardly the cause of loud talker abuse with some passengers talking to their neighbors with the projection of a Broadway performance.   These same people support my theory that the decibel level of the speaking voice is 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 cover criticisms of people’s politics and religion. 

No such loud talkers are in earshot today, but I am bombarded by my neighbors MP3 player which bleeds out of his pointless headphones at an amplitude stronger than my home stereo system.  I discover the MP3 player is also a phone when it begins ringing (ringing is the wrong word as this starts playing a Jay Z song in high-def stereo that not only signals the incoming call, but tells everyone in earshot that he’s really into Hip-Hop).  I ponder how the advent of status symbol ringtones has increased the time it takes for someone to answer a phone glued to their hand.  After all, who spends $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? 

The next sound I hear gets everyone’s attention, the chimes of the Conductor’s handheld Ticket Reader.  A few people start going through purses and pockets to fetch their tickets and Clipper cards when “Tickets, please” booms from the voice of an entering Conductor in a tone that says he’s been awake several hours longer than our bleary-eyed car.

My Clipper Card is in the wallet of my front pocket, but wedged between a window and over-sized neighbor, requires a Houdini- like maneuver to extract it.  As the Conductor makes his way down the aisle, the chimes grow louder.  They remind me of the coin-collection sound effect from Sonic the Hedgehog.  Chi-ling, Chi-ling, Chi-ling then a pause in the rhythm and the loud voice returns, “Ticket’s, please.” 

Uh oh.  We have a trouble maker.  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 trek.  I hold my card in one hand and laptop in the other waiting for him to scan it when two rows back I hear the dreaded, record-scratching “No” sound. 

Heads peak up from their smartphones, loud talkers quiet and even passengers wearing headphones shift their attention to the middle of the train car for the courtroom-like drama about to unfold. 

No one ever fesses up “you got me” so it’s up to the Conductor to play Judge and Jury to decide if the person gets off with a warning, is asked to exit at the next stop or is issued a citation.      

Passengers typically acknowledge making an unknowing mistake or point the finger at the ticketing system.  In their defense the new Clipper card system is complicated.  Months ago paper tickets where you can explicitly read what zones and dates your ticket covered were replaced with a plastic card where you had to take the word of the faceless agency as to what you were holding and the only way to confirm if it worked was to get on a train and let a Conductor’s ticket reader tell you “Yes” you got lucky or “No” you’re guilty of an honest mistake and thereby subject to a $250 fine.  Beyond pleading ignorance, some passengers resort to stalling, but only once have I ever seen a ten minute search of every pocket in the jacket, pants and carry-on ever produce a legitimate ticket.  Perhaps the passenger legitimately misplaced their ticket or is just buying time as they contemplate making a run for it at the next stop where the Conductor is powerless to hold up the train to pursue a TJ Hooker-like chase scene.  The citation cost is certainly steep enough to make even a middle-class woman in heels consider making a run for it from an unarmed Conductor.   There may be a lesson to be learned from the Eurail in Europe where they also have an honor system, but back it up with Conductors wearing a side-arm.  As a young back-packer, the fear of what happens when I am in on the wrong side of a dispute where I don’t speak the language, they’re armed and we’re in a godless Eastern block country, certainly motivated me to make an extra effort to have my fare purchase in order. 

The passenger is a woman in a business suit, whose professional appearance looks less dead-beat than honest, tax-payer, whose secretary botched the Clipper card.  Suffice to say if you ride without a ticket, make sure you’re at least dressed nicely.  Time of day is also in this passenger’s favor as I’ve seen many more infractions on evening compared to morning trains.  Conductors seem to know that if someone is truly trying to beat the system, they hate rising early to do so.   

The Conductor lets her off with a warning, but first shames her with a condescending lecture in his loud voice, so the woman is publicly humiliated in front of the entire train car.  I would prefer the European Conductor to shoot me. 

The drama ends about ten minutes from our final destination and people start leaving their seats to join the Aisle Dwellers by the exit.  Aside from the first-mover advantage people at the door, most are shaving less than a minute from their arrival time, but the majority succumb to the migration impulse.  I only join the herd if it’s not the final destination and there’s risk of being a straggler caught in the onrush of boarding passengers, where you must literally fight through the crowd to avoid missing your stop.  Today I remain in my seat, grateful it’s on the window, so I don’t have to move for the guy sitting to my left to stand to my right.  All but a couple of sleepers have left the car, but I remain in my seat, enjoying space and silence, reflecting on whether to pay a fortune for gas or take another ride on the train.  

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Phillip Bailey September 17, 2012 at 08:05 PM
Another terrible experience is CalTrains refusal to consider banning alcohol riding any train to the Giants games. There are hundreds of young males and females that ride up with large OPEN containers who do not even go into the game. They meet up at the Plaza and carry on. The language is vulgar. I contacted Jerry Hills office but one of his interns shined me on. Cal Train NOW tells riders that NO open containers are allowed after 9pm on the return ride but that does not stop the going to the game ride to be one of the worst experiences ever.
Sue Wells November 16, 2012 at 05:16 AM
Yes, the bike car is akin to the Wild West. Caltrain is responsible for creating this environment, however. Caltrain refuses to help give cyclists get seats in the bike cars. The conductors are too busy chatting to ask non cyclists to sit elsewhere. As a result cyclists need to sit on the floor, stand, or go to another car. Meanwhile, non cyclists get first access to the seats as cyclists are forced to board last. This creates a lot of resentment and the rules are ambiguous.

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