a PAW web exclusive column by Hugh O'Bleary (email@example.com)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org