Long Island Rail Road Moments That Tug At The Heartstrings

BY BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

The electrician and the sleepy attorney have commuted home on the train to the same station for some time — probably for years — but I doubt they had acknowledged each other before this moment:

“Hey, pal. We’re in Bay Shore,” the tough-looking contractor says in a soft but assertive tone while alerting the napping litigator with a gentle nudge on the arm.

For four years, I spent over three-and-a-half hours a day riding the Long Island Rail Road to work in Brooklyn. Riders always had plenty to whine about — what with the delays, the shutdowns and the steep ticket prices that always seemed on the verge of being hiked. But for those riders who pick their heads up from their smart phones now and then, there are plenty of feel-good moments to be seen and heard.

I once watched two riders team up to map out the quickest way to reach Jamaica via subway from Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, after word spread that railroad service west of Jamaica was shut down “indefinitely.” Believe me, I have tried this, and it’s no picnic.

The two men analyzed the giant subway grid on the wall, then weighed the friendly and a bit too ample advice of a disheveled passerby. Finally, they walked to the Lafayette Avenue subway station.

There, they chatted about work and commuting before catching an A train to Broadway Junction, where they ambled up the steps to the elevated platform and soon boarded a J train bound for Jamaica. The two stayed by each other’s side until they boarded a LIRR train in Jamaica.

Romance — depending on its form — is nice to witness on the train. One rainy evening commute home, I caught a glance of a smartly dressed middle-aged man standing under an umbrella on the Islip station platform.

My train crept to a stop and I got a little choked up as the train door slid open right in front of where the man was standing and a woman stepped out into a warm embrace with the man before the two clasped hands and walk down the platform stairs. As the train pulled away, I watched the man gently guide the woman to the passenger door of his car. In a flash, they were out of sight.

What made this so heartwarming was that it was clearly a daily routine. How else would the man know just where to stand on the platform to greet his lady friend?

On another commute home, it was sure nice to find a $20 bill on the floor of the train, even though I may have pounced on it a little too fast. Out of guilt, I asked the nearest person, “Does this belong to you?”

He said, “No.” That was good. Good to find the 20 bucks, good to keep it and good that the man was honest.

The train was always good for chance encounters with old friends. For me, it was bumping into a former Daily News colleague, a high school football teammate or a fellow parent from my time living in Bethpage.

It was always a pleasure bumping into the coach of my daughter’s soccer team on the ride into work. Bob and I boarded in Patchogue, but Bob would hop off the train 20 minutes later for work in Babylon.

Commutes with Coach Bob represent the best of both worlds for me. I get just enough stimulating conversation before Bob’s stop. Then, when he’s off, I’m able to kick back, read the paper and tinker with my iPhone.

It was a pleasure watching old friends meet and hug. And it was nice to see a young family board the train together, embarking on an exciting trip to The City. They worry about things most commuters don’t: Should we sit in a seat facing the direction we’re traveling in? Do we change in Jamaica? What time do we arrive at Penn Station?

I frequently saw regular riders switch their seats on the train to make room for a couple or a family to sit together.

It was wonderful to see a regular rider who speaks fluent Spanish step in to serve as translator between a conductor and an elderly Hispanic man who had boarded a train without a ticket. The Hispanic man clearly did not understand the conductor’s English – even when the conductor spoke very loud and very, very slow.

From what I could tell, the amateur interpreter asked the man in Spanish, “What station are you getting off at?” I was able to make out “qué estación.”

The man replied, “Jamaica.” Then she informed him — in Spanish of course — that if he didn’t have money for a ticket, the conductor needed to see “identificación.”

The man quickly dug up his I.D. and the last I saw of him, he was on the platform filling out paperwork.

It was especially good to see common sense prevail on the train, like when a regular rider realized it’s a new month, but was already on an evening train back to Long Island and hadn’t purchased his monthly ticket. When the conductor came around to check tickets, the rider barely uttered the syllable “for-” in the word “forgetting,” before the conductor recognized him and quietly agreed to give the guy a pass for the ride home.

What makes the LIRR good — even great — on many days are the riders. Sure, they can be cranky and gruff and want their quiet and their space, but given the opportunity to reveal their goodness, they rise to the occasion again and again.

*This an updated version of my column that ran in the Riverhead News-Review on April 7, 2012.*

Photo credit: Emmanuel Nicolas

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With Football and Hazing, History Repeats Itself

By BRIAN PATRICK HARMON

It was theater in its ugliest form:

Two half-naked freshman football players being forced by teammates twice their size to lick each other’s nipples.

An audience that by most accounts exceeded a dozen players eagerly watched the degradation – and cheered. It only got worse – far worse – for the pint-size 13-year-olds.

Next came demands to simulate oral sex on a banana held against the groin of one of the three attackers – much to the delight of the ogling crowd. Then, the ringleader in this varsity trio lowered the hazing attack to new depths.

Witnesses said that with rock music blaring and duct tape at the ready to drown out the screams, a hulking 16-year-old lineman grabbed a broomstick and dipped it in Mineral Ice.

This was part of the horrific pre-season football camp scene in August 2003 that landed three upperclassmen from Long Island’s Mepham High School in jail and led to the cancellation of Mepham’s football season. The depiction above – describing one of the many attacks on Mepham freshmen inside a cabin at a sleep-away camp in Honesdale, Pa. – kicked off a story I wrote back then, as a reporter for New York’s Daily News.

The paper, committed to being the first media outlet to identify the teens accused in the attacks, wanted to deliver a strong, compelling story. Editors said the writing and reporting were fine, but what I submitted was too strong. What did get published was a version that toned down the details and pulled back on the drama, but was nonetheless influential in that it named the accused.

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Daily News Dec. 21, 2003

The details that began to emerge last week of the alleged hazing attacks involving members of New Jersey’s Sayreville War Memorial High School football team are no less shocking. This fall – before school district administrators appropriately cancelled the remainder of the season on Oct. 7 – freshman football players were routinely subjected to sexual attacks carried out by seniors during a locker room ritual, police said.

Seven players – aged 15 to 17 – were criminally charged Oct. 10 for their involvement in sexual assaults on younger players. One parent, informed by his son, told a reporter with NJ Advance Media for NJ.com that a victim would be held by multiple older players while a finger was inserted into his rectum. The same finger was sometimes placed in the freshman’s mouth, according to the NJ.com report.

At the time of the arrests, the coaches – except the assistant arrested for steroids possession a week before the hazing story broke – still had their jobs.

Hazing – in varying degrees of severity – exists at all levels of team sports. In the NFL, summer camps each year yield images of rookies wrapped and immobilized by yards and yards of athletic tape.

Last month, rookies across Major League Baseball were encouraged by the veterans on their respective teams to carry out goofy public acts. On the team’s website, the New York Mets proudly posted embarrassing photos of sheepish-looking rookies pushed into parading around the clubhouse dressed in feminine super hero costumes.

Given how widespread hazing is, it cannot be eliminated. And nor should it be – so long as it’s all in good fun, it’s not dangerous and the participants are willing. However, it should be carefully monitored and contained, particularly at the high school level.

Coaches may want to rein in the seemingly good-natured hazing that calls on freshmen to clean the field or carry off all the equipment after practice. Simply because this type of delegating makes an impression on young minds that the lowerclassman is something lesser than the rest of the team.

Another factor to consider is that when a school team’s hazing customs go unchecked, the bullying will grow more degrading every season. In many instances, each class looks to top its predecessor.

Consider that during Mepham football’s 2002 pre-season camp, the worst hazing act was a swirly, which involves holding someone upside down and dipping the person’s head into a toilet bowl as it is flushed.

Seems mild when you look at what happened at their camp in 2003.

With one 250-pound lineman sitting on top of the fully-naked victim, the equally beefy ringleader of the Mepham hazing attack began violating the freshman with a broomstick that had been dipped in Mineral Ice. Duct-tape muffled the screams. Laughter from the spectators and the beat of the music took care of the muffles.

Back and forth, the attackers bounced between two freshmen. Friends since kindergarten, the two teen victims were now linked as objects facing bizarre brutality.

Similar attacks were repeated throughout the five-day camp, with the attackers adding beatings and pine cones and golf balls to their sadistic repertoire. Those objects were also dipped in Mineral Ice.

By some accounts, the attackers grew tired of the assault and allowed the victims to return to their bunks with golf balls still inside them.

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Wayne County, Pa., court documents

Photo: By trowel317 via Flickr