Everyone’s a comedian

Clever column by Statesman editorial writer Ken Herman today:

Ready, set, rail: Austin, are you ready to ride
Ken Herman, Austin American-Statesman

Austin enters the rail era Monday. This comes at least a year late and several generations after much of the rest of the civilized world and France did so.

Capital MetroRail’s first southbound train leaves Leander at 5:25 a.m. With it rides questions about our long-overdue Red Line.

First is what we will call it. Will we say, “I’m going to catch ‘the train’ ”? Will we call it the Metro, the way folks in several cities refer to their local train service? Will it be “Capital MetroRail,” the somewhat formal moniker Cap Metro seems to prefer?

Here’s hoping it becomes popular enough to earn some kind of common-usage title.

What about on-board etiquette? On Washington’s Metro, which I rode daily while living in D.C. for several years, the basic etiquette is simple: Do not talk with or in any way acknowledge anybody else on the train to whom you are not related by blood or marriage. Anybody else who tries to talk to you is assumed be an ax murderer or, worse, a tourist.

In Austin, early adopters of our 32-mile rail system will set local norms for on-board behavior. How about if we establish a “ride friendly” tradition in which we greet and chat with one another despite the possibility that your fellow passenger might want to chop you up and throw you in the river?

Working against friendly/chatty will be the free on-board Wi-Fi that will allow us to bury our heads in our laptops — as well as our portable computers. Rim shot.

Here’s a positive development. Looks like the on-board eating and drinking rules will be same as on Metro buses. No eating, and “Drinks are permitted in approved spill-proof containers, for example: plastic water bottles or travel mugs with resealable lids. Open cans, unscrewed bottles and paper or Styrofoam cups with lids and straws are not allowed.”

Unscrewed Bottles? Didn’t they play at South by Southwest?

Another rule: “Shoes and shirts are required.” This, I guess, precludes the possibility of trying to beef up ridership with periodic topless days.

I like the no-eating rule. In New York, decades of noshing has left a trail of crumbs sufficient to nourish generations of Buick-sized rodents. In Washington, a well-enforced ban on eating and drinking keeps that system relatively clean.

Did you hear the one about the 12-year-old D.C. girl, a French fry and the chief justice of the United States?

In 2000, seventh-grader Ansche Hedgepeth was searched, handcuffed and hauled off to a juvenile center for three hours after she was found enjoying a French fry at a Metro station. In 2003, the handling of the case was affirmed by a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. He’s now Chief Justice John Roberts, and he upheld the lower court ruling despite noting that “no one is very happy about the events that led to this litigation.”

“Her shoelaces were removed, and she was transported in the windowless rear compartment of a police vehicle to a juvenile processing center where she was booked, fingerprinted and detained until released to her mother some three hours later — all for eating a single French fry,” Roberts wrote.

The case led to a change in the policy that required juveniles to be taken into custody for such offenses. But Roberts said that policy, though a “bad idea,” did not violate French fry girl’s constitutional rights.

All I’m saying here is obey the no-eating rules. In some parts of America, they make a federal case out of it.

Another thing our trains have in common with New York and D.C.: No bathrooms (though in New York, the whole system has kind of become a bathroom).

For some of you, riding the rails might be a first-time experience. Save for some major metro areas, we’re not much of a rail-riding people. Amtrak is a big deal in the Washington-Boston corridor. But elsewhere, it operates on an ingenious schedule that gets you wherever you’re going at 3:12 a.m. And, in general, you will sit next to someone whose idea of a conversation starter is “I used to be in vaudeville.”

Now, a final warning. How can I say this delicately? OK, I can’t. It seems you’ve got to be a notch or two below Ivy League material to get hit by a train. Here’s a lesson for life: If you see a railroad track, look both ways. There could be a big ol’ train a-comin’.

Save for the rare occasion when the train leaves the track and comes gunning for you, you’ve got to be in its way to get hit by it.

But if your impatience or machismo demands that you race one of our new trains across the track please remember this: You want to win or lose. You don’t want to tie. Laws of physics say the train wins in a tie.

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