Web Exclusives: Inky Dinky Do
a PAW web exclusive column by Hugh O'Bleary

April 18, 2001:
The Dinky - last stop before static
Even dowagers are connected

By Hugh O'Bleary

There was a two-part joke I learned as a kid that went like this: First, you give a rambling set-up about a man who builds a house and finds himself standing in his new living room with one brick left over. "So you know what he did?" you say, with exaggerated enthusiasm. When your audience says, "What?" you shout: "He threw the brick out the window!" Then you laugh as if you'd just gotten off the funniest line since Groucho Marx retired, while your audience looks on in "That's-it?" mystification. Then, say half an hour later (or as long as you can wait), after the conversation moves on, you deliver the second half, saying you have "another joke." This one is about a man smoking a pipe on a train and the lady sitting next to him with a poodle. The lady complains about the pipe. The man ignores her. The lady grabs the pipe and throws it out the window. The man grabs the poodle and throws it out the window. Two minutes later the poodle shows up, running happily along beside the train. "And you know what it had in its mouth?" you say. Everyone, of course, says "The pipe." This is your moment. You shout, "No! The brick!" Har. Har. Hey, it slayed when I was 10. I've been thinking about that joke a lot lately. Today, you know what the poodle would have in his mouth? The cellphone!

Because any story about obnoxious behavior or an offending implement on a train today will, by definition, center on a cellphone. I guarantee you that if train windows still opened, the Northeast Corridor from New York to Philadelphia would be a carpet of defenestrated Nokias. Alas, the glass remains sealed and so we ride on, hostage to the cacophony of rings and beeps and chattering and grandiose soliloquizing and - Hang on. Is that me? Hello? Hello? Listen, you're breaking up. I gotta call you back - Oops, now where was I?

I'd like to say that Princetonians are different, that there are no electronic noises on the Dinky, just the rustle of Times and Journal and philosophical text amid a murmur of polite, witty conversation, with perhaps a soft snore mixed in from the Old Guard. I say I'd like to say that, but I can't. For, even into or out of Tigertown no ride goes by without the happy little chirping and the one-sided conversations ubiquitous in today's wireless world.

Yesterday morning, though, a sound broke through the general buzz that shook me to the core: a trilling voice just beside me that said, "Hello, darling."

I looked across the aisle and did a double-take. There sat dear old Mildred Pince-Pennington. An octogenarian of regal bearing, formidable cheekbones and corona of snowy hair, Mrs. Pince-Pennington is the widow of Freddie Pennington '32, the distinguished classics professor and rose breeder. Mildred, always impeccably turned out, rides the Dinky every week to go into New York, where, I am told, she shops, lunches at the Princeton Club and plays bridge. She habitually spends the journey writing letters in elegant longhand on monogrammed stationary. I like to think of her as the Grande Dame of the Dinky.

And now here she was, sitting with her hands folded in her lap, her head titled demurely, seemingly gazing right at me and, well - what? - coming on to me? Had dementia suddenly set in while crossing Route 1?

"Darling, hello," she said, a little louder, her brow furrowing just a bit.

"Er, hello..." I ventured, unsure of whether to address her as Mildred or Mrs. Pince-Pennington.

"Darling..." she said, and there was a long pause, during which I began to sweat.

"Darling, it's Mummy, and I'm afraid you're breaking up. I'll have to call you back."

And then I saw it, almost invisible in the white swirl of her hair: a discreet little headset with a wire running down to the phone that was just poking out of the pocket of her Talbot's jacket. The little Madonna mike was tucked just behind a large pearl earring. I gawked at her. She blinked, seeming to see me for the first time. "Young man," she said, "I am definitely going to have to change carriers."

I swear, if she'd had a poodle, I'd have thrown it all the way to New Brunswick. And now you'll have to excuse me, I'm breaking up...

Hugh O'Bleary commutes to New York City from Princeton. He revels in his daily sojourn across campus to catch the Dinky. You can reach Hugh O'Bleary by writing him c/o paw@princeton.edu