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On the Road Again

By Joshua M. Sharfstein

SOME people love Thanksgiving for the food. Not me. Others love Thanksgiving for the family. Not me.

I love Thanksgiving for the travel. The holiday train from Boston to New York and back is, without a doubt, one of the most pleasant experiences of my year.

I love the challenge of outmaneuvering thousands of fellow travelers and beating them all to the announced track. (My secret strategy involves determining which tracks will not be used and then circulating false rumors among the crowd.)

I love the crush of humanity when "Track Eight" is finally announced and reams of people flock to the gate as if to greet the Messiah. Most of all, I love toying with people's emotions by acting unsure about whether I am actually saving the seat next to me.

I love traveling on Thanksgiving--until the ride begins. For the last 10 years, I've been stuck with one of four basic types of people sitting down next to me.

The Proud Parent: Some beaming mom or pop settles in next to me and immediately begins to chatter away. Before long, I must answer scores of questions on my SAT scores, my social life and "exactly how I got into Harvard." I then must endure scores of detailed stories about their little pumpkins.

Plus: I am treated with some degree of deference and respect.

Minus: I am inevitably asked to talk to the child (one row ahead) and explain the importance of listening to one's parents. Once, a mother asked me to tell her daughter to drink her apple juice. "Your mom wants you to drink your apple juice," I said. "Who the hell are you?" she responded.

The Obnoxious Child: Even worse, and just as likely, is for the proud parent to plunk their kid down next to me. "Oh, look, you can sit here next to this nice young man," they say. But what they mean is "Oh, look, you can sit here next to this sucker."

I once sat next to seven-year-old boy who insisted on playing me in checkers for four consecutive hours. After throwing game after game to keep him happy, I heard him tell his dad that he had been sitting next to an "idiot." When I exacted my revenge with a decisive victory, he began to cry, and told his father I had cheated. Plus: I get free cookies and soda. Minus: Child-abuse laws are applicable on trains.

The Talker: Hi! Howareya? Haven't been on a train in I don't know how long and things have changed haven't they and boy the seats are smaller or is it just that I'm bigger can't tell just getting older every day and whoa! Just started moving, faster than I remember and it's great to see Boston like this reminds me of the last time I went driving in a cab but that was only yesterday and...

Plus: I get an advance experience in purgatory. Minus: Despite the law of averages, they never say anything interesting.

The Religious Figure: Priests, rabbis and nuns gravitate to the seat next to me. Of course, this isn't a problem until, in the course of casual conversation, I inadvertantly let a profane word fly. I then feel profoundly guilty for the next three hours.

Once, sitting next to a nun, I opened my notebook and three unwrapped condoms fell into my lap. There is no doubt that my "roommates love to play these wacky practical jokes" story, though true, fell on deaf ears. She spent the next 45 minutes in the rest room.

Plus: I get two seats to myself. Minus: I may burn in hell forever.

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