Tipping is appreciated for ... CRASH!

As the national college media conference in New York came to a close last week, I took a shuttle from my hotel to the La Guardia airport, along with eight other people.

As I stepped into the van, a sign caught my eye: "Tips are appreciated for excellent service." It wouldn't have caught my eye, except for one thing. The word "excellent" had been scratched out.

Not removed. Not professionally erased.

Scratched out.

Scratched out in the way young children scratch things out. Scratched out with the silver-colored Crayola marker.

An inauspicious beginning, to be sure. But the driver was patient and friendly, making small talk, helping everyone with their bags. An older gentleman, well past retirement age, he seemed to take pride in his job. He turned on the oldies station, and we were on our way.

This was excellent service so far. Why scratch out the word?

After taking several taxi rides in New York, I've realized that, yes, you can make the light. Yes, you can swerve into the other lane even when a car is right beside you. And yes, you can shoe-horn a cab through the seemingly three-foot space between those two trucks. Yes, you can, no matter how deadly the experiment looks. So after a few cab rides, I no longer involuntarily point and yell profound statements such as: "Uh...ahh...but...the...watch...we're gonna..."

Instead, I relax, because I know that cab and shuttle drivers have magical voodoo powers to use at their discretion.

As the driver got on the off ramp to La Guardia, none of the eight people in the car thought to tell the driver to watch out for the line of stopped cars in front of him. What's the point? It would immediately give you away as a first-timer.

But there was still a line of stopped cars, and we were going about 20 miles per hour. The cars are 200 feet away, then 100 feet, then 50.

It all happened at once: He noticed, we spoke up, and the van hit the car in front of us.

Soft impact would be an understatement. The four-year-old behind us was unaware that we were just in an accident. "Are you okay?" her dad asked.

"Yeah," she said, puzzled at the question.

The driver apologized, then got out and started talking to the person whose bumper he tapped—a cab driver who seemed to relish yelling at this older man.

Then the people in the van started chiming in.

"I cannot miss this flight!" said the woman in front of me. He apologized.

A few minutes later, names and insurance information had been exchanged, but the cab in front of us hadn't budged.

"He's not moving," the driver told us, apologetically.

"Well, he would be if you hadn't just hit him!" somebody said.

Even though we lost about 15 minutes, the total drive time was about 45 minutes, which was exactly what the hotel said it would be.

At the terminal, he helped people with their bags, apologized again, and told them to have a good flight. They walked away silently.

I reached into my pocket and gave him two dollars.

He was startled.

Hey, I was just following the sign. Tipping is appreciated for, well, any kind of service.

This is in contrast to the cab driver who was impatient with me when I was giving him an address. "I'm going to Chelsea between..." and I looked for the exact address. Before I could say "Eighth and Ninth," he said, "There is no 'Chelsea between!' There is no 'Chelsea between'"!

No tip.

 

As I was about to jump out the window of a train in Livorno, Italy...

Why am I on a train in Livorno, Italy, in the first place? This summer, I’m writing for The Florentine, an English-language newspaper that caters to the expat community in Florence. My assignment is to write three to five travel articles about beaches along the Etruscan Coast. For most non-Italian travelers, these beaches are considered to be off the beaten path, and they’re certainly off the beaten path for an American like me.

My first beach: Vada. It’s a white-sand-and-crystal-blue-water beach. In short: It’s lovely.

Because the restaurants in Vada don’t open for dinner until around 7 p.m., I’m a little late getting back. I catch the last bus back to Livorno, 28 miles away, where I’m supposed to catch another train to Florence at 10:22 p.m. I bought my ticket earlier in the day.

I sit on the bench at Platform 2, reading my book, while the PA system says things like, “It is forbidden to cross the railway lines.” At 10:20 p.m.—two minutes early!—the train rolls to a stop at Platform 2. I punch the little button that makes the door open, as I’ve seen so many people do, and I hop on.

I take my seat. My first thought: Wow, there’s nobody else on here. Which is good. I can sprawl out, put my head against the window, and take a nice nap on the way back to Florence. No need to worry about moving my backpack for a little old lady. Yes, this is nice. It’s been a long day, and I’m tired.

My next thought: Gee, it’s dark in here. Is it usually this dark on the night train? Maybe they forgot to turn the light on in this compartment. It’s kind of eerie. Cinematically eerie. I think about movies like Strangers on a Train and Murder on the Orient Express. Someone really could commit a terrible crime on here and get away with it.

But the train starts to move. We’re on our way. Just me and my backpack. On a dark train.

Then the train rolls to a stop again, making that metal-against-metal noise, and goes completely silent. Why is the train completely silent? It’s as if it’s being parked for the night. Parked for the night in a railway yard.

I see. I’m on the wrong train. That’s okay. I’ll just get off. Now, if I could only get this door open …

All right, fine. If I can only get this other door open …

All right, fine. If I can just walk through the compartments to the front of the train, I'll talk to the conductor. Next compartment opens. Next one opens. Then it’s locked.

I knock. “Hello?” I'm nowhere near the front of the train.

I knock some more.

"Hello?"

Okay, don’t panic. No need to panic. Why panic? That’s silly. What’s the worst thing that could happen? I have to spend the night on the train? Come on, worse things have happened. I just had a full meal of authentic Italian lasagne at 7 p.m. I’m not hungry. I’m not cold.

Why am I still panicking?

“Somebody help me!”

Who could I call? Let’s see. There’s the guy whose apartment I’m renting for the month: Alessio. I could call him. And tell him … tell him what? That I’m stuck on a train in Livorno? Come and get me? I’m on the train that left from Platform 2 at 10:20 instead of 10:22?

What’s the Italian number for 911?

Okay, besides the door handles, there’s another handle that I can barely see. There’s some writing that goes along with it that I can’t read. It’s above the door. Maybe that’s an emergency exit. Yeah, that’s what it is. So I pull it.

It makes an ungodly hissing sound.

Right. Yes. I wasn’t expecting that.

WHY IS IT HISSING?

“Help!”

Okay, well, first of all, whatever you did that’s making it hiss, get out of that compartment. I think we can all agree that’s the first thing that should happen. Hard to think of a plan with that hissing noise.

I go two compartments down to be safely away from the hiss. Then I see it: the window. Why didn’t I think of this before? I’ll try the window. And the window opens. God bless you, window.

“Help!”

What’s the Italian word for “help”? Wonder if it’s something close to the Spanish “ayúdame”?

“¡Ayúdame!”

I think about breaking open my English-Italian dictionary, but it’s too dark to see.

The window opens wide enough for me to put my upper body through. Success. Wait. Now don’t just throw yourself out like an idiot. It’s not like the train is on fire. Things are hissing, but nothing’s on fire. At least not in this compartment.

Hmm, it’s a longer drop than I anticipated. I’m not going to break any bones or anything, but I might need to climb out backwards and then slowly loosen my grip for a more graceful fall. But I need to lower my backpack out first.

Here we go. Going to jump out the window. Looking at a dark railway yard. I can see the back of a department store. Civilization isn’t far away. Why am I nervous? In the movies, people jump out of trains all the time. At least this train isn’t moving.

Wait. Woah, what was that? We’re moving. This train is moving. And it’s moving at a pretty good clip. No warning. No warm-up. I guess there's no need to worry about jolting the passengers when nobody’s supposed to be on board. Good thing I didn’t attempt a jump.

Now we’re back in the station.

 “Help me!”

The conductor sticks his head out the window. “What are you still doing on the train?” he says. Which, in his defense, is a reasonable question.

“I thought it was going to Florence!”

I hear a sound. He’s unlocking the cabin doors. I get out. I know I’m “forbidden to cross the railway lines,” but it looks like he’s going to make an exception for me.

 

The aging process as measured by tolerance of Bob Seger music

Age: 16

"Today's music ain't got the same soul"? Yeah, spoken like a truly old guy.

Age: 18

"Twenty years now / where'd they go? / Twenty years / I don't know." What a loser. Nobody wants to hear you whine about getting old.

Age: 26

On the other hand, I see his point about old time rock and roll. Most of the best stuff has already been made.

Age: 36

My 20-year high school reunion is coming up. I think Bob Seger really says it best. "Twenty years. Where'd they go? Twenty years. I don't know. I sit and wonder sometimes where they've gone."