I RIDE SEPTA's regional-rail system.
The trains are clean enough and mostly on time.Conductors are polite and helpful, give or take a grump.
So, I wasn't sure what to make of the clown of a conductor I came across the other night. Was he some jokester? A jerk? A disgruntled employee?
I'm thinking all three. You tell me.
I stepped onto the 6:43 p.m. Chestnut Hill West train from Market East and nearly plowed into the woman in front of me.
Before I could give her the "tourist much?" eye roll, I saw why she suddenly stopped: a black leather computer bag left alone on a seat.
She looked around. I looked around. No one nearby. No one rushing back to grab the bag.
We exchanged nervous glances, but took our seats.
When the conductor appeared a few moments later to collect tickets, several riders wasted no time asking him about the bag.
And he wasted no time freaking out a train full of riders.
"It's probably a bomb," the older, portly conductor said with a shrug before walking off. Stunned riders shook their heads. A few moved as far away from the bag as they could.
Look, we're all guilty of a badly timed joke. Even as the conductor was making the mother of bad jokes, I had my suspicions he knew exactly whose bag it was and, for some inexplicable reason, just wanted to be a tool.
But sorry, you just don't joke about bombs. People get arrested for that, and they should.
This was just days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, the same day as a bomb scare at a West Philly high school.
And even if it wasn't, we live in a post-9/11 "See something, say something," world.
Not that this doofus cared. Here we had a lot of concerned citizens saying something and a spectacularly reckless conductor not just shrugging it off, but joking that we were about to be blown to smithereens.
As I neared my stop, I walked over to the conductor, who was hanging gloomily by one of the doors. I told him I wrote for the Daily News, thinking he might start backpedaling a bit. (I asked for his name, too, but he wouldn't give it, and he wasn't wearing a nametag. What's up with that SEPTA? Shouldn't all public employees be identifiable?)
If the conductor had made even the slightest show of contrition, I may have given him a pass.
But when I asked about the procedure for dealing with unattended bags, Mr. Congeniality lashed out: "Stop the train, call police and wait an hour," he said. "Is that what you want?"
Look, I told him, people are nervous about the bag. He should be nervous about the bag. Or better yet, he should do something about the bag.
But maybe it was a bomb, he joked again. And wouldn't it be cool if it was and the whole train blew up?
"Are you kidding?" I asked.
"Eh," he shrugged as the train pulled away. "I've lived my 52 years."
No pass! The next day I called SEPTA spokeswoman Jerria Williams, who later set up a call with SEPTA Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III.
When Chief Nestel recently took on the position, he said one of his priorities was to evaluate how unattended packages were being handled by SEPTA employees.
He said he was pleasantly surprised to learn that they overwhelmingly do what they are trained to do: Stop the vehicle and contact the command center, which dispatches SEPTA officers to the scene - usually, he said, in just a few minutes.
Fair enough. But what happened here?
"You ran into an idiot," he said, instantly becoming my new favorite Philly public official.
Williams wouldn't give me the particulars of how they're dealing with the conductor - "it's a personnel issue" - but apparently he's been retrained. And that mystery bag? It belonged to another conductor.
Still, Chief Nestel said they're going to start placing bags at various locations to monitor if proper procedures are being followed.
OK. But how will we know if an unattended bag is a decoy, or a real threat?
I'm thinking I might switch to driving.
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