Did I Say That? Contagious commuters


Last week I had breakfast with two friends who work in Manhattan and all they did was complain about the commute. That was my life for a decade, and I don’t miss huddling with people on a crowded train platform at 6:15 in the morning like a flock of penguins stranded on an ice floe in the Antarctic.

And I don’t miss announcements that the trains are late because of, take your pick, mechanical difficulties, leaves on the tracks, congestion or some crackpot running through the cars screaming, “The Rock for president!”

My friends said they’ve been sneezing and wheezing since Thanksgiving because germs love commuters, and they jump like fleas from one dog to another. It’s safer to be chained to the jungle gym in day care around 30 toddlers with dripping noses.

As soon as we sat down, the woman confessed, “Last night my husband couldn’t stand listening to me cough and asked me to get out of bed.”

“You’re sick. You should have asked him to get out of bed,” I said. “We better reschedule this breakfast because I don’t want to get sick.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not contagious,” she assured me. How many times have you heard those words? I always told that lie even though I’m sure I was spreading around enough germs to contaminate all of Iceland and Greenland, not to mention the Chrysler Building.

Actually, I felt sorry for her and to demonstrate my empathy, I said, “My sinuses are killing me and my hemorrhoids too.” To tell the truth, it was a lie, but it seemed like a sympathetic thing to say to create a feeling of camaraderie. After all, what fun is it to be sick alone — which is probably why we have no qualms about infecting other people.

I still remember the colds, stomach bugs and viruses I got as a commuter because some guy beside me was coughing up phlegm or blowing his nose. That’s what happens when you’re locked in a train for 90 minutes, surrounded by people who should be strapped to a gurney in the ER.    

Metro-North has to start taking germ warfare seriously. As a public service, they should distribute those surgical masks that filter out bacteria and bad breath. You can get 20 of them for $2 at Walmart, and they could tack the cost onto the next fare increase. In China, people wear surgical masks on the street as a fashion statement, but unless Anna Wintour says it’s cool, we’ll never do that here. (Or Taylor Swift could wear them at her concerts.)

That breakfast with my friends was the start of a germ-infested day. An hour later, my daughter was driving home from Trader Joe’s when my grandson, 18 months old, threw up in the car, so she rushed to our house … instead of the pediatrician.

“He probably has a stomach virus,” I said and tried to pass him off to my wife, who insisted, “You hold him. He misses his grandpa.” Then, she gave him my iPad to play with.

“Why don’t you give him your iPad?” I grumbled. “I can already see germs doing the tarantella on my keyboard.”

I grabbed the antibacterial wipes and started scrubbing, but germs move fast. In desperation, I ran into the bathroom and gargled with Listerine. My father gargled all the time and then went out and smoked three cigars and drank a few shots of Seagrams — which was probably more effective than Listerine — and I don’t recall him ever staying home sick.

For that matter, I never took a sick day when I commuted to Manhattan. Instead, I’d drag myself into the office no matter how miserable I felt. Now that I think about it, I should have used all my sick days since the firm didn’t let us carry them over, but back then, I wanted to be “Mister Committed to the Company.” And you know where that gets you.

The young people in our office knew better. They used up every sick day they had. They used them when they had hangovers, when their cats and dogs were sick, and when they went on job interviews. When they were actually sick, they came to work and infected the rest of us. That’s something they learned in daycare.