Troy Patterson @untitledproject has a topper in today’s Times. The Winter Hat Trick it’s called. So, I have to tell you what happened to me.
I put my plain grey watch cap on my head on Wednesday. I put my family on the train; wife, child, cat, self. I put an hour into writing most of a very short but very important email before we arrived at a transfer station. By that I mean we had to switch trains. I recently learned about “transfer station” being the currently preferred terminology in place of “town dump” but here that is not what I mean. I mean that, halfway through our journey, we went from electric rail to diesel locomotive by getting up from our seats and crossing a platform. In getting up and putting away the smartphone on which I had been conducting serious research (serious) for purposes of composing my important email (very serious), I made sure I had the cat.
I noticed my scarf on the floor so grabbed that too. As I got onto the other train, it occurred to me that, just as it was the first time this season I had this scarf, I had also reintroduced another item that morning. My hat! I put the cat down and told the other cat my wife I was going back for my hat. She said, “just leave it.” These words echoed in my head as I stood on the platform again, this time gazing at the closed doors of the electric train we’d been on, wondering if I might find a conducter to reopen those doors. Suddenly the thought of the doors to the diesel train closing took over. I hastily trotted back towards my family.
But wait. I felt something. It was a new nothingness. It was the sensation of my smartphone having vacated the pocket of my cardigan. A quick pat confirmed its absence. Where was it? Scanning scanning scanning the platform, I determined it had to have slipped into the gap between the platform and the train.
I’m shifting. I’m tense. I’m shifting tenses.
No sooner am I peering into the gap than the engineer pops open a window right in front of me and stares into my eyes as if to say, “what the hell?” I politely state my plight but all he says is, “this train is leaving.” I agree it’s good to keep schedules. I blow some air through my lips as if through a silent invisible whistle, pass a thought about the absurdity of man, and get on board.
Now, this train only runs a couple times a day. That alone would have been reason enough to thusly proceed. The main thing, though, is that, without a phone, I would have had no way of notifying my family what had happened to dad.
So now I am on the train thinking about my phone lying abandoned on the tracks. I am confident that, if I have any hope of recovering it, I must go back now. But how? Luckily my wife informs me that, because of Thanksgiving, her parents are taking a later train to pick up their car at that station and, if I can get back in time, I might catch them. I apparently do not have a mobile telephone on me and they do not use theirs anyway, but it’s worth a shot. It’s a matter of getting a taxi in short order although I’m unable to raise a dispatch on my wife’s phone before I have to get out.
I get out at the first stop and start talking right away to one of two other passengers stepping off at the same time. It’s an old man who not only assures me he does not carry a cell phone since “they’re more trouble than their worth,” but also assures me, “it’s on account of those damn things they removed the payphones from the station.” I can see immediately no local businesses will provide an alternative as the few buildings there look boarded up. I run after the other passenger, a young man who’s gotten way ahead of us.
I must look crazed, what with my eyes ablaze and hair all mussed from the missing woolen hat. The college freshman is being met by his mother, the two of them look at me and at each other, and silently agree I mean no harm. They try calling a car for me. A dispatcher informs us it’ll be an hour and fifteen minutes. We all agree that will not do. They drive me into town where someplace must have a payphone or something. They drop me at a limousine service.
I figure the cost of replacing my phone will be somewhere between fifty and a hundred fifty, depending on insurance, so I am willing to gamble that much toward not having to replace it. The two guys at the limo company regretfully inform me, however, that they have not a single driver for the twenty shiny cars in their lot. They like to book days in advance. Indeed, they’re a bit startled to see me. More so than the timid, gentle mother and son who’ve left me here. I’ve straightened my tie and smoothed my curls on the way over, but maybe that’s the problem. Maybe I look too straight.
The really nervous little guy apologizes over the fact there’s no way they can accommodate me and starts calling a taxi service for me right away. He may be calling the same company the nice lady had called but this time it’ll only be fifteen minutes. That’ll do fine, I breathe.
He and the big guy who’s as calm and collected and suspicious and scary as John Cena invite me to sit down. I notice a giant stack of cash and, as swiftly as it is whisked away from view, I dismiss it, as you do. I go right into polite talk of sports and weather.
Somehow the conversation comes around to how I dabble in video game development and I take care to be convincing as they try to poke holes in what could be a bad cover for an undercover cop. I change the subject by asking them about what it would cost me to hire a limo (allowing two days’ notice). It does not escape my imagination that I am in the middle of an elaborate game and, as I escape their fake wood paneled hut because my taxi has arrived, I am conscious of the possibility I may beat both this level and the next.
If nothing really bad has happened since my phone fell out, what could go wrong now? The cabbie asks if I mind his cigarette smoke. It smells more like carpet and sawdust and cat litter than tobacco but I say no, I don’t mind. I say why I am traveling to the next town’s train station. He says rotary phones are better anyway because mobile phones are so easy to listen in on, today’s FBI agents have forgotten how to tap the old tech. We get into fun conversation but I have to cut it short because the next thing I know I am back at the junction.
Chances of finding my phone in one piece are still slim, but my hopes are raised by spying my brother-in-law sitting on a bench. This means I will at least have a ride for the last fifty miles of my odyssey. I let him know I am delighted to see him and that I am just going to talk to the station master.
Running into the station house, I check my excitement and try to regain my calm. I find it difficult to use words clearly. Mumbling something, bowing my head and putting my hands together as if in prayer, I am able to communicate my situation. “Do you believe your phone to be on the railbed?” I nod affirmatively. “Wait outside and someone will be there to assist you. Do not go onto the tracks.”
I see my mother-in-law and let her know I will be a few minutes. She lets me know they’ll be waiting in the car, waiting in the waiting zone.
A station agent with an eight-foot-long instrument finds me and we go to the platform where I think we’ll have some luck. He tells me no one in the station is allowed onto the tracks. Not even he or the station master has that permission. They would have to call a crew out and that would take hours. Instead, he has this thing some genius invented. It is a pair of one-by-three timbers with a couple pieces of rubber facing each other at one end. The only metal is the bolt holding the wooden planks together like a pair of scissors so no danger of electrocution is presented by the third rail.
I see it! Right by the third rail, there is my phone. Maybe it touched the third rail and got fried on the way down. It’s facing away so maybe the screen is utterly shattered. The man lifts it into my hands and it lights up with a new message. It’s my mother. The phone is fine. I hit send on the super important email. The phone tells me the email has been sent. The man tells me this sort of thing happens about once or twice per week but ends as happily far less often.
What about my hat, though? After the ordeal, after the Thanksgiving meal, I search in storage for another. Appropriate to Thanksgiving, there’s this Pilgrim Stetson, not a pilgrim hat like for the jerks in the 1600s trying to look like they were from the 1500s, and not a cowboy hat, but sensible headwear nonetheless, built for travel in the 1940s.
I later settle for a more contemporary example of a fedora. I stopped wearing these as soon as I got my wish. My wild fantasy that they would come back in came true around the same time I got on the ballcap bandwagon instead. Now I am glad to have them because I am much less likely to leave one on a train.