10 Secrets of Subway Conductors

Chris Hondros, Getty Images
Chris Hondros, Getty Images

Despite listening to their announcements every day, there’s a lot the average rider doesn’t know about being a subway conductor. The men and women at the front of the train are the eyes and ears of the subway system, and they often act as the only line of communication between passengers and the greater transit authority. We spoke with conductors who work for two of the country’s busiest transit systems to learn more about what it's like on the rails—including the real meanings behind the phrases they use, how dirty trains really get, and the one thing they wish more riders would do.

1. IT CAN TAKE A WHILE TO GET A JOB ...

Aspiring transit employees often have to be patient. Candidates must first complete a written exam, and if they pass, their name is added to a list of people waiting to fill whatever jobs open up. The time it takes to reach the top of the list varies: Joe Benton, who's worked for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco for 10 years, tells Mental Floss he was hired a year after first submitting his application. Tramell Thompson, a New York City subway conductor since 2013, says he waited nearly four years after taking his civil service exam to secure the job. Once hired, subway conductors must undergo a training process that can take two to three months. This involves riding real trains in the yards, and learning the various signals, regulations, and procedures.

2. ... BUT STAYING IN THE POSITION PAYS OFF.

The typical base salary for a New York subway conductor is $67,000, Thompson says, but both pay and benefits become more appealing the longer a conductor works for the transit authority. As Victor Almodovar, a New York City subway conductor for 15 years, tells Mental Floss, "seniority is everything." After 12 years, he was able to get weekends off, and he now has the freedom to choose which train line he works on—something most conductors just starting out aren't allowed to do.

3. THEY MIGHT TALK ABOUT THINGS BLOWING UP—BUT DON'T PANIC.

If you could eavesdrop on the private conversations between subway personnel, you probably wouldn’t understand them. All transit conductors speak in shorthand specific to the systems they work for: “BART has literally its own language,” Benton says. That language includes a lot of numbers, like track numbers, platform numbers, and train IDs. But other bits of lingo are more colorful—and could potentially cause panic if they were ever broadcast over the wrong intercom. As an example, Thompson notes they sometimes might say "the railroad blew up." While it may sound terrifying, he explains that it means the trains aren't running on their proper schedule.

4. THERE'S A GOOD REASON THEY'RE ALWAYS POINTING.

If you live in New York City, pay close attention next time you’re waiting on a subway platform: When the train pulls in, you should see the conductor pointing a finger out the car window. The object they’re pointing at is a black-and-white strip of wood called a zebra board. It hangs above the center of every subway platform, and when the train pulls into the station correctly, it will line up perfectly with the subway conductor’s window. If the conductor notices the board is a little too far behind or ahead of them when they point their finger, they know it’s not safe to open the doors. The gesture is also a good indicator that your conductor is paying attention.

5. THEY WORD ANNOUNCEMENTS CAREFULLY.

There are a few phrases regular subway riders are used to hearing—“sick passenger,” “police investigation,” and the standard “we are experiencing delays,” to name a few. These may sound like obvious euphemisms, but Thompson promises that using carefully worded language is in the passengers’ best interests. A police investigation, for instance, could refer to someone causing a scene on a train, but in some cases it’s a lot more serious. “If God forbid there’s a terrorism or a bomb scare, that’s not something you want to put over the public address system,” Almodovar says. “It becomes self-preservation and you don’t want that on a packed rush hour train. So instead you say, ‘We have a police investigation,’ which is basically the truth but you’re not telling them the whole truth.”

“A passenger seeking medical attention” is another example of masking something that’s potentially disturbing without being dishonest. Thompson says, “I’m not going to say, ‘Attention passengers, somebody jumped in front of the train and it’s causing delays.’ I would say, ‘There’s an injured passenger on the train ahead of us,’ or ‘There’s a passenger seeking medical attention ahead of us.’” However, with the MTA now pushing its employees to be more transparent, riders may occasionally get conductors who make no effort to mince words.

6. SOMETIMES PASSENGERS KNOW MORE THAN THEY DO.

Passengers aren’t the only ones who are kept in the dark during delays. When a conductor doesn’t give a specific reason for the delay in their announcements, it may be because he or she doesn’t know why the train stopped in the first place. “In that case, I would tell them we’re investigating the issue,” Thompson says. Usually the control center—the hub that keeps New York City’s subways moving—will inform conductors of the problem before too much time passes, but in some cases transit news travels faster by phone. “The information will get to passengers through all these MTA apps before it’s even relayed to us,” Thompson says. “So sometimes I ask them, ‘Hey, can you check your phone and see what’s on the [MTA] website?’” (Conductors are forbidden from using their phones for personal reasons on the job, but the MTA is experimenting with giving employees work iPhones to better keep them up-to-date.)

7. MOST DELAYS AREN’T THEIR FAULT.

For better or worse, subway conductors are the face of city transit systems: That means they’re usually the first people to receive complaints and abuse from passengers when a train isn’t moving fast enough. But if your train has been stuck underground for what feels like forever, there’s only a small chance one of the system's employees is to blame; the much more likely cause is faulty equipment. According to WNYC, signal problems account for 36 percent of extended subway delays (eight minutes or more) in New York City, followed by mechanical problems at 31 percent, and rail and track issues at 19 percent. “When you get mad you have to understand that we are not the ones who made the schedules; we’re ones who have to work with the tracks and the signals which are over 100 years old and they break down,” Almodovar says. “We have to work with what we have."

8. THEY HATE DELAYS MORE THAN YOU DO.

A signal malfunction might mess up the average passenger's morning commute, but it can ruin a subway conductor's whole day—so despite being blamed for them constantly, it’s possible that no one hates train delays more than subway conductors. “I didn’t really have a lunch today,” Almodovar says, recalling how he fell behind schedule when the automatic brakes were activated on the train ahead of his. “I had enough time to run downstairs, get a slice of pizza, then I’m right back on the train.”

On some days, conductors are lucky if they get to eat at all. “With all these signal issues, track issues, and all types of other issues, it’s hard for the schedules to work,” Thompson says. “Sometimes we gotta choose between using the bathroom and eating.”

9. SOME WON’T LET THEIR FAMILIES RIDE.

Staying on schedule is a priority for most subway systems. That means employees might rush through jobs where they would ideally take their time—like cleaning a subway car that a passenger has been sick in, for instance. Thompson says the lax sanitation procedures he sees up-close have convinced him to never let his son ride the subway. “It’s like working in a restaurant—you know the other-end stuff that the customers don’t know,” he says.

10. THEY WISH YOU’D LEAVE THE HOUSE EARLIER.

If you want your commute to go smoothly, subway employees will tell you the best thing to do is plan ahead. This means finding out how delays or construction might impact your preferred route before stepping outside the house. Almodovar recommends downloading a navigation app called Citymapper, which integrates the latest data from city transit systems into one spot. Official transit system websites and Twitter accounts are also good places to go for service updates.

But regardless of what your apps tell you, it’s always safer to assume your train will be behind schedule. “We all know that the transit authority isn’t the most punctual service,” Thompson says. “Leave an extra five to 10 minutes earlier from your house, because things are always happening.”

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

12 Secrets of Spirit Halloween Employees

Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When Joe Marver founded Spirit Halloween in 1983, he probably didn’t have any idea his seasonal Halloween store would eventually grow to over 1300 locations in the United States and Canada. But now, seeing a Spirit pop-up materialize in a vacant building has become as much of a Halloween tradition as pumpkin carving.

In order to assist shoppers with Halloween costumes, decorations, and animatronic creatures, Spirit employs a small army of seasonal workers. To get a better feel for what goes into this spooky vocation, Mental Floss reached out to several current Spirit Halloween team members. Here’s what they had to say about everything from customers making a mess to the hazards of trying on a mask during this pandemic-heavy Halloween.

1. Most Spirit Halloween employees really, really love Halloween.

Why take on a seasonal job with no potential for year-round work? If you love Halloween and the macabre, it’s a dream job. “I've never once worked with an employee that didn't love Halloween,” Kota, a five-year veteran of Spirit Halloween in Kentucky, tells Mental Floss. “It's something that all employees have in common from my experience … It's a perfect place to meet people with the same interests.”

2. Spirit Halloween employees are supposed to open costume packages for customers.

Spirit Halloween employees are happy to help with your costume selection.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

If a Spirit Halloween employee is eyeing you with a little bit of consternation, it might be because you ripped open a costume package. Owing to issues of loss prevention and hygiene—even before COVID-19 struck—Spirit’s policy is to let employees open items and then package them back up. But not every customer is willing to wait.

“Our employees are supposed to deal with opening and closing each and every package,” Kota says. “This way we don't have to worry about things coming out or going into the packages that aren't supposed to. Although we try hard to make it as easy and friendly as possible, some customers would rather do it themselves wherever they may be standing in the store.”

3. Spirit Halloween employees can’t keep astronaut helmets in stock.

Every season brings a different phenomenon to Halloween shopping. In 2018, it was the popular video game Fortnite. This year, it’s an astronaut helmet. Not the suit, just the helmet. The trend is due to the popularity of a smartphone game titled Among Us, which puts the player in the role of a space explorer.

“Despite what you might think, the suits themselves seem significantly less popular than the helmets themselves for reasons beyond my comprehension,” Derek, a Spirit Halloween employee in New Jersey for the past three years, tells Mental Floss. “It's still just a bit too early to say, but if the helmets keep shipping out at the rate they are, in-store stock will probably remain at a near-constant zero. If I'm recalling it right, all of the stores in my area currently have one helmet if any, and no more than five are being shipped to each store.”

4. Spirit Halloween employees can’t believe customers are still trying on masks.

It's probably not a good idea to try on Halloween masks this year.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Despite newfound concerns over touching surfaces or being exposed to infectious particles, customers are still willing to try on masks in the store, even though someone else may have already been wearing it. “Ultimately the pandemic hasn't affected my store, aside from everyone needing to wear face masks while they're inside,” Jayme, a Spirit Halloween employee in Florida who’s worked there for four years, tells Mental Floss. “But people still ask to try things on and … they do still put masks on despite orange signs everywhere saying not to.”

Derek agrees. “If you've bought a mask from Spirit in any of the past seasons, there's a very high chance you're one of at least five people who’s worn that mask, and that's a conservative estimate for some of the masks. Despite the rule, I think I've seen that many people trying on [fictional creepypasta internet character] Jeff the Killer masks just in this past week.”

5. Spirit Halloween employees have seen some spooky things.

While a store full of scary costumes and props is a Halloween lover’s dream, some Spirit Halloween employees say it can also be the site of some spooky events. “An associate and I have both seen things swaying on the shelves as if someone walked by it, though nobody else is in the store,” Jayme says. “We've seen a few shadow movements as if people were hiding behind [a] corner. The funniest one [was] at closing time. One of my associates yelled ‘whoo’ and we heard a guy's voice say something in response. It totally freaked him out. It was one of our sound-activated hanging [animatronics].”

But not all employees get creeped out. “As much as I want to say that I've experienced anything creepy or paranormal, the store's about as creepy as a former Circuit City can be,” Derek says. Still, he's seen some strange things. “The lights used to turn off at the exact same time every day for about a month, there's always been the occasional inexplicable bang or creak, and some of the aisles do get messy a bit too quickly. One time, I was working at the fitting room. I sent a kid back with a previously unopened, dry Morphsuit costume [a full-body spandex outfit] and it came back warm and moist.”

Wet costumes aside, Derek won’t declare any paranormal activity just yet. “If I see a kid go flying across the store, I'll let you know.”

6. Spirit Halloween employees wish customers would stop making a huge mess.

Spirit Halloween employees like to keep stores neat.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Owing to the nature of pop-up stores or the excitement over the holiday, customers at Spirit Halloween stores tend to make messes. Big ones. “You could've just finished putting every mask neatly back on the racks, and half of them will be back on the floor before you've caught your breath,” Derek says. “It seems like everyone takes a little pride in the sections they helped set up and the animatronics they built, and that definitely manifests in how we feel about customers messing with those things.”

7. Spirit Halloween employees would prefer you not use the aisle as a dressing room.

Some customers like to try on outfits in the aisle instead of the dressing room, a habit that predated the current pandemic. (Spirit Halloween fitting rooms are closed this season.) Employees would still prefer you not try to dress—or undress—in the middle of the store. “It's very common to find people, mostly kids, trying on costumes in aisles,” Kota says. “We [did] have multiple fitting rooms to try to stop this from happening, but once again, people would rather do things themselves sometimes.”

8. Spirit Halloween employees move a lot of licensed animatronics.

Animatronics are a popular item at Spirit Halloween.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Among the most popular items in Spirit Halloween locations are the life-sized animatronics that provide a scary atmosphere for homes or parties. “Animatronics are one of our largest-selling items,” Kota says. “There's a certain group of people that love them and look forward to them annually. Some of our buyers buy them and use them for their haunted attractions. It's always nice to go to one and see a familiar face.”

While Spirit offers a number of original animatronic concepts—the Harvester of Souls being among the more popular—Kota says that customers usually gravitate toward licensed characters. “I've noticed that the most popular animatronics are our licensed ones. Pennywise [from 2017's It] and Sam [from 2007's Trick 'r Treat] have been huge sellers this year as was Michael Myers a few years ago. I've also noticed the ones that stay behind at the end of the season are almost always the swinging animatronics. I think they're interesting, but they don't sell as often as the others do.”

9. Spirit Halloween employees might sell you a used animatronic, but you need to get lucky.

Come the end of the season, Spirit Halloween locations often unload animatronics that were on display and no longer being manufactured. “Older animatronics, if I recall correctly, will stop being manufactured and then sold until it runs out,” Jayme says. “As for the displays, we do sell those at the end of the season. It's just a matter of putting your info on a waiting list.”

10. Spirit Halloween employees meet a lot of cosplayers.

Cosplayers are frequent shoppers at Spirit Halloween.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It’s not just Halloween customers that Spirit Halloween stores service. According to Kota, cosplayers looking for that perfect accessory sometimes show up. “Spirit actually gets quite a bit of cosplayers and I personally think it's a great place to go for more specific items,” Kota says. “I'm sure we get even more cosplayers than I'm aware of since some customers like to talk about it and others don't say much about it.”

11. Spirit Halloween employees get a steep, steep discount once Halloween is over.

Between the standard employee discount and the after-Halloween fire sale available to customers, Derek says that he can go shopping in November and save a considerable amount of money. It’s one reason he keeps coming back. “It's hard to say no to an 80-percent discount during the November clearance sale,” he says. (The regular discount is 50 percent, and employees get an additional 30 percent.) “There's nothing like rewarding yourself after a busy season by spending $150 on, like, five or six things.”

12. Spirit Halloween employees sometimes get holiday shoppers.

Halloween means holiday shopping for some people.JJBers, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

For some customers, a Spirit Halloween store is a perfect place to start their holiday gift shopping. “I made a friend last year with a kid who comes in weekly to see if we have anything new in yet,” Kota says. “He's maybe about 7 years old and [he] and I go around the store almost every time he comes in and talk about new things and animatronics we have. His parents then secretly go around and buy him animatronics and props as Christmas presents. It's so nice to see his love for Halloween all year round. It reminds me of myself when I was his age.”