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Big Leagues

My subway train conductor bit.

Published onJul 21, 2022
Big Leagues

When I first moved to New York I lived in Astoria, Queens, and I used to take the BMT Broadway Line train every day from the end of the line at Astoria-Ditmars to 49th Street in Midtown, Manhattan. The Queens portion of the train is elevated, and about midway through the journey, just before approaching Queensborough Plaza, the train makes a wide, banked turn, delivering stunning views of the Manhattan skyline and, if the driver pulls in a little too fast, a brief, stomach-churning sensation of being on a roller coaster.

One day I was taking the train all the way to the other end, to go to the beach at Coney Island, when my happily distracted subconscious train brain, taking in the view for the umpteenth time, delivered to the conscious part of me the following realization: roller coaster operators at theme parks, like Coney’s Cyclone at Luna Park, must be the “minor leagues” from whence big-city train operators like the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) source, develop, and promotes their conductors.

You can imagine the scene now: a young, pimpled, exhausted rollercoaster operator at a local fair gets called into their middle-aged manager’s office, expecting yet another grilling. Instead, their manager’s eyes gleam with a strange softness they’ve never shown before, the corners filling with…are those tears?

“Kid, you got the call,” they say, a proud grin forcing its way onto their thin, permanently lined mouth, as if against their will.

“The call?” the shocked kid asks, staring blankly at the wall behind their manager.

“Remember that weird single rider the other day? That wasn’t some loser. That was a scout.”

“From Six Flags?” the kid says, voice breaking.

“Six Flags!” guffaws the manager, and for a moment the employee’s shoulders slump. “No, the MTA. The big leagues. Franklin Ave Shuttle, kid. Only four stops but everyone starts somewhere. We all knew you could do it. Just promise me you won’t forget about us and where you got your start when you make it on the big city tracks, okay?”

A moment of stunned silence fills the room and the unpracticed grin spreads on the manager’s wide face.

“But, but…who will take my place on the Whirly Bird?” the kid finally manages to ask.

“Don’t you worry about that. Alex has been on the kiddie train for six months now and needs a change of pace. You’ve taught them well.”

On a call today, a colleague completely upended the bit by suggesting that perhaps it’s the other way around, and roller coaster operators are more like elite test pilots who do the crazy stunts while subway operators just do the routine work of go back and forth. I’ll have to think on that a little bit. Either way, in an ideal world, if not the one we have, I think we can all agree that train operation hierarchies should function the same way that baseball development programs do.

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