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Don't Be Labeled A Degenerate Baby-Killer: The Unofficial Metro-North Railroad Riders Guide to the New Haven Line

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The following entry is by a Dealbreaker reader who shall remain nameless, who counts himself among the contingent making the daily trek between southern Connecticut and New York. In short, it's the rules that must be abided if you hope to survive the jungle that is the Metro North New Haven commute. Whether you're a neophyte who just moved out to CT or a resident who just started a new job in Manhattan, someone for whom none of this currently applies but fear it may in your future, or you've have been doing this trip for years and have your own tips to add, enjoy.

Just before the turn of the 20th Century, Metro-North Railroad’s New Haven Line carried home its first pack of ambitious, southern Connecticut natives from New York City.

In just over 100 years, this 90-mile stretch of rail has blossomed from a novel idea into a daily constant in the lives of hundreds of thousands of travelers. These people aren’t tourists. They’re longer impressed by the splendor of Grand Central Station’s ceiling astrology. They don’t have time to snap pictures of the giant American flag. And they don’t care if the “Oyster Bar is really good!” These people are men and women, young and old who, day in and day out, brave the true horrors of the New Haven Line so that they can chase the American dream. To those riders I say, “I am one of you. I feel your pain. This guide is written in your honor.”

Phase #1: Making it to your platform

I imagine water boarding to be a lot like walking through Grand Central Station at rush hour. Anticipation of the event is only trumped by the terrifying reality of experiencing it, and your ability to breath deeply (or, sometimes at all) is lost almost immediately. Don’t be fooled by the kind older gentleman with the umbrella who held the door for you at the 42nd street entrance. His gesture may be the last sign of humanity you experience for an hour, or more. Once you’ve entered Grand Central, no one will help you. No one wants you to make it to where you’re going. You’ve begun a grueling and bitter quest for survival. You know your train time and track number. Now, you must get there.

Rule #1: Keep your head up at all times. Even a cursory glance at your watch or a young child’s smiling face could mean your being swallowed by a pack of Nikon-armed, Japanese walking-tour participants.

Rule #2: Never let your eyes wander. That woman may very well have the nicest…shoulders you’ve ever seen, but is ogling her worth veering off course and into a group of chattering college girls whose outstretched, texting hands will ram into your tightening chest and knock you down right before their purple Uggs boots trample your motionless body? No. It’s not.

Rule #3: Fill every open space. Remember when the guys in your office were talking about their fantasy football line-ups this morning…for the better part of an hour? And remember how you couldn’t get anything done because they wouldn’t shut up about how some running back was “hitting all the right holes last night!”? Well, you damned well better remember because now you’re that running back. Any space in the crowd represents a step toward your track, a step toward freedom. Feel bad about stepping between two lovers as they embrace? You can’t. Don’t want to ruin that family’s big city picture with a real New York cop? You must. Feel like you should let by that elder woman with the cane? No time. No one would do these things for you. This is New York City. Always remember that. And let no one stand in your way. Phase #2: Getting on the train

Now that you’ve made it to your track and are walking down the platform, you’ve probably noticed the crowd has thinned. You feel a sudden surge of relief and then you peer into the window of one of the train’s cars. There seems to be someone in every row. “Where did all these people come from?” you think to yourself. “It’s eight o’clock at night on a Friday for Christ’s sake!” Suddenly, your frantic, darting eyes spot an open seat. It’s next to a balding man in a pinstripe suit. He looks at you knowingly for a split second. Then he places his briefcase on the open seat and fires up his Kindle. “That seat must be saved,” you think to yourself. It’s not. He put the briefcase there so you’d think that, but it’s not. Kindle man doesn’t care if you live or die. He is a New Haven Line warrior.

The conductor rings a bell to signal the train’s departure and you’re forced off the platform and into a car. You’re now faced with the most formidable and dreaded challenge of the New Haven Line rider: finding a seat.

Rule #4: Think fast. Very fast. Do you see all those people standing in the vestibule? You know, the ones with the florescent lights exposing their every blemish, the ones with the frowns on their faces and their dead eyes fixed on an advertisement for Thompson Reuters. See them? They’re standing there because they were checking their Blackberries when they should have been scanning the car for a seat.

Once inside the train, you can scope spots you couldn’t see from the platform. But, you have seconds to pinpoint and capitalize on your discovery. Don’t blow this.

Rule #5: “Single; Outside of a two; Window of a triple; never middle; NEVER facing four.” Often times there’s simply no seat to be had. And sometimes, there is a seat to be had but it’s next to someone eating, or snoring, or coughing, or bleeding, or under the age of ten. In these cases, there might as well be no seat at all. Cut your losses. Don’t think of what could have been. Stand. On those occasions when do you have a choice, it’s imperative that you’re informed on where to sit and where not to.

Single: The most desirable spot on a train is the single seat. It’s never next to a window but anyone who gives a shit about a window hasn’t ridden Metro North enough. Windows mean more than one seat in a row. More than one seat in a row means you could end up next to an escaped convict or, worse, someone talking about their budding DJ career on his cell phone. Choose solitude. Always.

Outside of a two: Second to the solo seat is what I call the “outside of a two”, or the aisle seat in a row of two seats. If you get to the two-seat row before the window seat is taken, choosing the aisle spot serves as a deterrent to softhearted passengers who need a seat but “don’t want to make you get up.” If someone does have the gall to make you move (some seasoned New Haven Line warriors are shameless), then at least you have aisle legroom.
Window of a triple: Your third choice should be the window seat in a triple row. Unlike the two-seated row, the three-seated row has a “midget” aisle seat with no headrest. Unless you can sit up straight for the duration of your trip (and I certainly can’t), you’re choice will be rewarded with a healthy dose of nagging neck pain to go along with the bad Chinese food you’ll probably eat for dinner.

Never middle: If someone asks to sit in the middle of a three seat-row, they’re probably either insane or a devout masochist. Never be that person. Just fucking stand.

NEVER facing four: Worse even then the middle seat is any part of the four seats that face each other at the end of each car. They may look kind of cool and social, but leg room is always an awkward struggle and you usually end up having to listen to some middle-aged traveling salesmen try to impress a moderately attractive blonde grad student who will always get off in Stamford. (“Want a beer? I bought two at the station. Big day today, you know? Hi, I’m Mark by the way. I work for Cisco.”) Again, just stand.
Phase #3: Surviving your ride. You may have found a seat but your trials are not over. Before you make it home, you’ll be tasked with keeping tabs on your ticket, defending your personal space, and staying occupied. Easy right? Wrong. Jesus, have you learned nothing?

Rule #6: Take your ticket out as soon as you sit down. Hear that clicking hole puncher and that chatty banter? It means the conductor is coming…for YOU. He wants your ticket. If you don’t have it, he’ll kick you off at the next stop, or tell you that you need to pay next time, or frown at you. Whatever he does, it won’t matter. The sheer panic you feel when you think you’ve lost your ticket is worse than any punishment these capped Phlegyases, these stewards of railway hell can impose. The disbelieving stares of your fellow passengers won’t help either. “Sure, you don’t have it,” they’ll all be thinking. “Degenerate! Loser! Baby killer!”

Rule #7: Do your best to make sure no one wants to sit next to you. Remember that bald man in the pinstripes? The one that placed the briefcase on the empty seat? The one with the Kindle? Remember how you hated him? Well, now you must become him. You see, that man was a New Haven line warrior, defending his personal space from other human beings. His weapon was a briefcase. He used it to make sure no one sat next to him. Pretending to be asleep, sick, or just plain crazy also works most of the time. Unless, of course, you’re met with another warrior in which case, your bluff will promptly be called with an unabashed “Excuse me, may I sit here?” And you’ll say “yes” even though it kills you.
Rule #8: Have toys. Listening to the conversations of other passengers will slowly drive you insane. If you’re not armed with an array of diversions, you simply won’t make it home alive. Different levels of mindless chatter call for different devices. Two men discussing the Yankee’s roster may only require a game of Brick Breaker or Angry Birds on your Blackberry or iPhone, whereas four Westport-bound UBS interns sucking on 22 oz. Heinekens will probably call for a more serious device; like a portable Jet Engine, perhaps.

Rule #9: Be thankful you’re not driving. The best thing about the New Haven Line trip is the end, the realization that you've finished your voyage (hopefully) in one piece. As you step off onto your hometown’s platform and make your way toward relief, you may be discouraged by the fact that you have to do all this again on the next day. You may even begin to dread all the obstacles of confined human interaction that await you. But, as the train pulls away, take a second to consider that, without Metro North, you would have to brave rush hour traffic, $150 parking tickets, and kamikaze cab drivers. Consider that other than having a personal driver, there really is no good way to travel between New York City and Connecticut on a twice-daily basis. And, most of all, have faith in this guide. It will get you through. I promise.