Doesn’t he like us? Was it something we said? How could he leave us?
That’s how I felt when Frank, the conductor on my 8:02 a.m. inbound commuter rail train, told me and his other passengers that he was switching lines. It felt like he was breaking up with us. There was a mixture of shock, sadness, even jealousy. After all, we knew what those Worcester-line passengers would be getting. To quote my 6-year-old: “It’s not fair!”
Before the clock hit 9 a.m., I spent only a little more time talking with my wife and kids than I did joking with this 50-year-old playful Irishman with square-rimmed glasses and salt-and-pepper beard. I didn’t even know his last name. I just knew he made my mornings.
Whenever my train pulled into the Needham Junction station, Frank would step off and watch as we filed like bleary-eyed, iPhone-tapping, coffee-sipping cattle toward our purple passenger cars. But he refused to let us board in silence.
“Morning, Frank,” he’d bellow. “I’m good, Frank. How are you? Good to see you, Frank.” Or his favorite: “I have feelings, too, you know.”
It was his way of shaming us into brightening up. He wasn’t trying to get us to acknowledge him. He wanted us to acknowledge, well, life. To look around. To see the strangers riding with us and realize there could be more to this ritual if we would only lift our heads from our phones, papers, iPads, Nooks, and books. When I’d fumble trying to find my pass, he’d look around and say, “It’s OK. Not like I have anywhere else to go.”
Then one day he said he’d been bumped to a different line by a more senior conductor. We asked if there were plans for his last day. “The Corrib. West Roxbury. April 19. Just be there,” he shouted.
So I went. It’s a dark Irish pub in a neighborhood filled with dark Irish pubs, across the street from the commuter rail station. As I wandered in, I wondered if anyone else would show up to toast their conductor. I shouldn’t have. The 6:10 a.m. train was even better represented than mine.
“He makes me smile every morning,” said Andrea D’Amato, who gave him a train-shaped cookie and hugged him when she left. “He’s got a great repartee. You can give him your best shot and he’s coming right back at you.”
“He” is Frank Teague, as I learned when we started chatting. Three kids. Ex-Marine. Lives in Rhode Island. Began with the commuter rail when he was 28 and has worked the Worcester, Franklin, and Needham lines. Now he was returning to Worcester, which would mean waking up at 1:50 a.m. But he wasn’t worried. “Sleep is overrated,” he said.
Like any conductor, his worst memories are the tragedies. “Four,” he answered when I asked him if his trains had ever struck somebody on the tracks. And his best involve his passengers, like the couple that were dating when he met them on the train. Then one day she held up her rail pass and her engagement ring nearly blinded him. “Hugs and kisses all around,” he said. And now, he added, they have a baby.
A conductor’s work seems pretty monotonous. Boring, even. Same route every day. Same grumpy riders. Checking tickets. Shouting out the next station. Occasionally it gets testy, as it did one morning when a late-arriving passenger hopped on the train just as it was pulling away and Frank had the train stopped and angrily ordered her off. But that’s rare.
With a job like this, there are two ways to approach it. As a routine. Or, as Frank Teague does, as an opportunity.