My ten-year-old son Cooper comes with a host of puzzles and a load of obsessions. Somedays we deal with these puzzles better than other days but trust me when I say everyday you deal with them, there are no days off. Now, the other side of that statement; trust me when I say I wouldn’t want a day off from Cooper.
One of Cooper’s “obsessions” is New Jersey Transit. Not just trains but the mighty transit system that runs through our town and many other towns in the great state of New Jersey. Each of the systems many corridors of travel hold exploration possibilities for Cooper. He knows the stations and wether they come with a gap at boarding or have gates that come down to stop pedestrian & automotive traffic. He knows the engines and has definite opinions about the various passenger car options. This goes way beyond the next station stop is… Over the last few years I have taken Cooper on many a train ride to destinations that provide nothing more than a train ride back to Maplewood. #LifewithCooper is the hashtag I established to accompany several of our journeys.
During our travels Cooper has made an acquaintance with several of the conductors. Many of them provide him with seat checks and a friendly nod. There are a few who have a fondness for Cooper’s fascination with the transit and have gotten to know him by name. I know this because I hear them say, “hi Cooper, where’s your mom?” That’s me “Cooper’s Mom.” Then, about 6 months ago Cooper met a conductor on the Dover line that gave him a job. Cooper was sitting in the front of the train near the engine but before the engine is a door lead to an open space. I was sitting in a seat on the bottom of the train where I could hear what was going on but giving Cooper his “space”. This conductor saw Cooper staring at the engine and had a brief exchange about what kind of an engine it was and why it was such a good engine, then he told Cooper to not let anyone go through that door because it was dangerous. Cooper dutifully performed this task until we got to our stop. We got off the train and the conductor told Cooper “thanks for helpin’ man. good job.” The next week Cooper wanted to take the same trip to see his friend who had given him a job. We did and again this Conductor took a genuine interest in Cooper. I introduced myself and quietly explained that Cooper wanted to take this train so he could see him. That was the day Andre came into our train travel life, we would take an early train to Dover so we could accompany Andre to Maplewood several times over the next few months. Andre introduced Cooper to his engineer, Art, taught Cooper about “zone-numbers” and had him study the zone chart, he taught him about greeting customers and cutting tickets. He even showed him the button configuration for opening doors. Super nice guy with boys of his own who seemed to love his job, he even gave Cooper a little bag of treats the Saturday after Halloween. Then in mid November, just before Cooper’s birthday, we got on the morning train and transferred at a different station just to mix things up. The train pulled in and we ran to the front of the train, where the Conductor is, and it wasn’t Andre. Coop asked the man right away where Andre was and the man responded that, “he doesn’t work this train anymore.” I headed back to find a familiar face and one of the ticket collectors came up and said he knew we were looking for Andre but he had been “bumped.” This is a apparently a process where Transit employees with more seniority can take over certain schedules. Cooper was gutted and honestly so was I. We took to some other train lines after and found Engineer Art, but no Andre. Then on New Years Eve I agreed to take Cooper on a long journey to Montclair State University train station which involved going to Broad Street Station and transferring to the correct train line. As usual when we boarded the train Cooper asked the conductor if he knew Andre and he said yes and thought maybe Andre was at Penn already, if he was working that day. Needless to say we went all the way into Penn to search for Andre before heading to Montclair U. Cooper took my phone into the crew room at Pennsylvania Station and started showing pictures of Andre but it didn’t appear he was working that day. We continued on our journey and on the way back home I got a phone message from ANDRE! I had forgotten I had given him my number in case he wanted to arrange tickets to take his wife to see the show I was working on at the time. The conductor from earlier in the day had run into Andre and told him Cooper was looking for him. Cooper was elated and Andre and I texted back in forth about his train schedule because he wanted to see Cooper because he had something for him.
After a healthy back and forth and discovering we were not going to catch him on the train over the holiday I asked Andre if he would like to stop by our house to see Cooper and bring his boys with him to play. Andre, who lives in a neighboring town, did come over. This gentle giant was decked out in civilian clothes right down to his Lebron James Soldier 6 tennis shoes and you would think Cooper saw the president walking up to the house. After an introduction to all the children and a show-and-tell of Cooper’s trains, Andre presented Cooper with a present of a real NJ Transit conductor’s hat that he got with that year’s uniform allotment. Cooper was understandably excited and proud to have the very hat he had admired many-o-times on our train journeys, but I can honestly say that the time that Andre spent with Cooper and the genuine interest he took in him will always leave the most indelible mark on my very special boy.