15 Secrets of Fireworks Designers

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The Fourth of July just wouldn't be the same without the colorful peonies, waterfalls, and comets that burst across the night sky above wowed crowds. But designing fireworks and their choreographed displays is a labor-intensive, dangerous job that requires the imagination of an artist and the precision of an engineer. Mental Floss talked to two experts in the field to learn how fireworks designers plan their shows, the history and the chemistry behind their displays, and why you don't necessarily want more bang for your buck.

1. THE ROOTS OF THEIR PROFESSION GO BACK OVER A THOUSAND YEARS.

Humans have been adding bright, noisy explosions to their celebrations by setting fire to chemicals since at least 9th-century China. The very first fireworks were little more than quick orange bursts emanating from bamboo rods packed with charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate and tossed into bonfires. Slowly, these contraptions progressed into flares cannon-fired into the sky by “firemasters” in medieval England. By 1830s Italy, the use of metal salts such as strontium, barium, copper, and sodium added vivid reds, greens, and blues to firework displays—a precursor of the brilliant hues we see today.

2. THEY CONSIDER THEMSELVES ARTISTS.

“Fireworks are our paint or our clay, and our canvas is the night sky—or a building, or a bridge, or a waterway,” says fifth-generation fireworks designer Phil Grucci, CEO and creative director of the Bellport, New York-based Fireworks by Grucci. The company has created fireworks displays for seven consecutive U.S. presidential inaugurations, Olympic games in Beijing and Los Angeles, and commemorations such as the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, among other events. “Working with space, understanding color and the dynamics within the fireworks, what moves very quickly, what sounds very loud, what sounds very soft, what is subtle and elegant”—all of it takes an artist's touch, Grucci says.

Pyrotechnic designers “can visualize exactly how various fireworks devices will burst in the sky,” says Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. That means they know "how high [fireworks] will reach their apex and burst, how wide they will spread, and how long the effect will ‘hang,' or linger. They can then choose other fireworks to burst above, below, or on each side of an effect to create the image they wish to see across the sky."

Of course, "painting" with fireworks is a little trickier than using acrylics or oils, since the medium is explosive. "The difference [compared to painting] is that we’ve got something that’s dynamic, that moves, it’s constantly moving and it’s very temporary," Grucci explains.

3. THEY START WITH A PAPER SKETCH.

A red and green firework bursting in the night sky
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Old pros like Grucci may know from experience how certain fireworks will look together against a backdrop. But he still sketches out each segment of every show he designs with colored markers on paper. From there, he works with his team to set the show to music, then choreographs it using software called Visual Show Director. Next, his programmers create a script in SolidWorks and/or AutoCAD. “In the past,” Grucci explains, “we scripted it all on a piece of paper, and the pyrotechnicians installed the hardware from that same piece of paper." Now, he says, they can be "taking advantage of the computer age, to visualize [a show] to see whether the product works as you’ve designed it.” Finally, Grucci’s team generates the computer file that will electronically ignite the fireworks at showtime—much safer than the days when a human had to ignite the fuse.

But Heckman says that although the technology is useful, it's made fireworks performances a little more homogenous. "Before electrical firing, computer choreography and a reliance on imported product [mostly from China], I think fireworks companies' unique style was much more prevalent," she says. "Technology has somewhat leveled that out." A few companies do still have distinctive styles, she notes—even if those differences are usually only apparent to true fireworks aficionados.

4. SOME THINGS ARE STILL DONE BY HAND.

A fireworks cartridge contains a series of pellets called stars, which are cubes, spheres, or cylinders about an-inch-and-a-half long filled with explosive materials and color-producing chemicals and metals [PDF]. A star’s colors are formulated via computer, then pressed into a pellet shape by machine. But when it comes to arranging the stars in the casings that will be fired into the night sky, it's usually human hands doing the arranging. The pattern laid out inside the casing determines the pattern of the explosion—a heart-shaped firework blooms from stars arranged in a heart shape—and according to Grucci, automating the task to account for the enormous variety of available patterns would be too expensive. The task can be labor-intensive, since a single shell can contain hundreds of stars.

5. THE VENUE DETERMINES HOW THEIR SHOW WILL UNFOLD.

Fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge in 2018
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It's as true in fireworks as it is in real estate: It's all about location. That’s partly for reasons of safety—Heckman says that every show has to follow industry standards for “tables of distance,” which “mandate the size of the largest shell that can be fired safely from a standpoint of fallout distance to spectators, and also public highways, occupied buildings, and public roads.” She says there's a complex regulatory scheme that dictates the type of products that can be used per type of venue, as well as when shows can begin and end.

But the site is also an integral part of the beauty and impact of the show itself. "We’re very aggressive in looking at structures, and trying to highlight their key features," Grucci says. “Whether it’s a tower, whether it’s a bridge, we will be [scouting from] the very highest point of that. If [a structure] is horizontal, I know that we are going to capitalize on the entire width of it. I could be easy and say, 'put some fireworks to the left and right side of a bridge.' But that’s not good enough. We have to take advantage of the undercarriage of a bridge, the steel cables that hold its towers together, and highlight the entire structure.” Grucci says he'll often calculate the entire surface area of a structure, so he can make sure he's taking advantage of every square inch.

6. THEY MATCH THE FIREWORKS TO THE MUSIC.

Not all fireworks displays have music, but when they do, the score and the effects should complement each other—not clash. A delicate classical piece may call for smaller, quieter fireworks, while a piece like the "1812 Overture" might fit bigger, louder bangs.

"So many of the [effects] we’re working with, they may have a baroque feel to them," Grucci says. "They’re very bold and strong and very in-your-face, but then you have that very elegant feel to some of the fireworks, that you would never put onto the canvas when there’s a rock-n-roll sequence on. When the product is so simple or so elegant, it would not match that tempo or that thematic."

7. THEY HAVE HIGH-TECH TESTING FACILITIES.

An assortment of colorful fireworks bursting in the sky
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Say you want to create a streaking green comet with a silver twinkling tail. “We’ll make that on a small scale, then we’ll test it at one of our two test sites, in upstate New York or in Virginia,” Grucci says. “Our pyrotechnicians are in protective bunkers and we have high-speed video cameras, wind meters, and dB [decibel] meters for noise. We record everything that we’re testing, so that we can look back on that and analyze it. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve failed. But we failed at the test site—never on the performance stage.”

8. THEY DON'T REPEAT THEMSELVES.

“My desire is to always make something that’s different,” Grucci says. He tries not to repeat a particular scene more than once in a performance, let alone repeat a whole show—although he notes that it helps that the "canvas" is always changing: “Even though we may use a particular beautiful color scheme with a metallic glitter, putting that on the Washington Monument as opposed to [over] an open baseball field—those are two completely different visuals.” One of his newest innovations turned up in the presidential inauguration in January 2017: a 600-foot by 700-foot display behind the Lincoln Memorial, made up of a series of 800 fireworks shells that burst in sequence into an American flag. “The color red [we used] is from a formula that is probably a few hundred years old," he says. "But delivering these little red dots on the sky at these [different] heights is what [allowed us to create the flag].”

9. LESS CAN BE MORE.

Fireworks at the opening of the New York, New York hotel in Las Vegas
JOHN GURZINSKI/AFP/Getty Images

"Sometimes people get caught in the trap of thinking that more is better," Grucci says, but when it comes to the number of fireworks in a performance, it can be exactly the opposite: More shells equals more smoke, which can white-out the night sky. "When you put too much in the sky ... you’re not really allowing the medium to display the beauty of what the product is about," Grucci says. (Plus, the metallic particles in fireworks smoke can pose a health risk for people with asthma or other health problems, which means it's wise to limit smoke where possible.)

10. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN LINGO.

Fireworks designers love to borrow from nature for the names of their displays. In addition to peonies and chrysanthemums, which both burst into circles (chrysanthemums have longer tails), there are willows (bursts with trails of gold or silver stars), falling leaves (glowing embers that flicker as they tumble to earth), fish (which leave little squiggles of light), spiders (a hard burst with straight, flat legs), and palms (which bursts up and out in a shape like its namesake tree). But there are also fountains (showers of sparks, sometimes also called gerbs), comets (several long trails of sparks), crossettes (a comet that breaks into other comets, usually creating a cross shape), dragon eggs (a delayed crackle effect), salutes (a loud noise without a display), and strobes (which burst with a blinking effect).

While creating their show, fireworks designers may work with cake (a single fuse that lights several fireworks in a sequence), whistle mixes (a combination of potassium and sodium benzoate that burns noisily), and dark fire, which is used to allow a star to change from one color to another (it gives off no light as it burns, allowing the new color layer to ignite below it). They hope to avoid flowerpots (which burst prematurely) and stars that are blown blind—or fail to ignite at all.

11. DANGER IS (UNFORTUNATELY) THEIR MIDDLE NAME.

Fireworks manufacturing presents an enormous danger. In 2016, Slate reported on a preponderance of deadly fireworks-making accidents in China—with an average of 400 workers in fireworks production plants dying every year between 1986 and 2005. Elsewhere, fewer accidents seem to happen than one might expect from the mixing and storing of combustible chemicals. According to Heckman, in the U.S. at least, that’s because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) “stringently regulates the manufacturing process, including personal protective gear, and employers must train their personnel on the hazards and the [kind of gear that’s] required.”

“We’re mixing powders to create explosive compositions that have to be handled very delicately," Grucci says. The work has to be done in a non-sparking environment (one with special tools and materials that reduce the risk of sparks), and in a room that has plenty of exits. "[You don’t want to be in a] big, giant room filled with fireworks and there’s only one door to get out," Grucci says. Workers in their factory wear conductive shoes, which conduct static electricity through the footwear and into the ground, "because the environment is very dry and you wouldn’t want to walk across the floor and touch something and have an arc spark that goes to a box of open powder and explodes on you.”

Safety is paramount for Grucci, who lost his father, James, in a massive industrial accident in 1983 at the family fireworks plant on Long Island. He says that the secret to safety, from manufacturing through installation, is to “be consistent and never cut a corner.” He says his grandfather always told him, "As soon as you think you know it all, or you want to start cutting corners, [that's] when potentially you’re increasing your odds of getting injured or possibly killed."

12. SOMETIMES THEIR FAVORITE WAY TO WORK IS SMALL.

Yes, it’s a challenge to produce a 30-minute fireworks show off five barges in the middle of Manhattan’s East River—but intimate shows present their own set of hurdles. Grucci mentions a Dolce & Gabbana fashion event held around Lincoln Center’s fountain that he created pyrotechnics for this spring. The flaming bits were a mere 15 feet from the audience and the clothing that was showcased in Lucite boxes. In that kind of scenario, “You can’t afford to have the hard outer casing or the inner paper wrappings” you’d use at an aerial fireworks event over the river, Grucci says. “The last thing you want is debris falling on the audience.” The solution: stationary fireworks comprised of titanium and aluminum particles of a sub-micron size, which burn quickly and don’t sustain heat for more than a few milliseconds—sort of like a sparkler.

13. THEY BREAK RECORDS.

World fireworks records include the largest fireworks display: 810,904 of them, fired off on January 1, 2016 in Manila, Philippines. And the most shells launched per minute: 479,651 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2013. And the longest fireworks waterfall (a long, glittering shower of embers): 11,539 feet, 5 inches, at a fireworks festival in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2008. On New Year’s Eve 2018, the Gruccis broke the world record for the world’s largest single aerial shell at a show they produced on Al Marjan Island in UAE. Weighing 2397 pounds, it was the culmination of almost 40 years of Grucci family trial and effort. “My father attempted the world record for the largest firework back in 1979 [with] a 42-inch-diameter white magnesium cascading flower that we displayed down in Titusville, Florida," he says. "Guinness gave him the world record, but it didn’t launch to the height or break to the size that he wanted it to. He always wanted to retry that and I had the opportunity this past New Year’s Eve to give my family another crack.”

14. THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT (OR PASTEL).

Research is underway on fireworks that are quieter—which could cause less stress to animals, children, and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—as well as fireworks that are kinder to the environment by using cleaner, nitrogen-based fuel.

But those aren't the only innovations shaping the future of fireworks. Shapes are changing, too; look for letters and corporate logos. Designers now also have a host of softer and more diverse colors at their disposal. “In the early ‘80s we started developing colors in between ROYGBIV, the basic colors, so now we can produce lemon and tangerine and chartreuse and aqua and every color within the spectrum,” Grucci says. They do so by fiddling with the purity of the metals used and the size of their particles—which also change other parts of their overall effect. Large particles of metals like titanium, iron, and aluminum result in large “splinters” and a glittery effect, Grucci says, while smaller particles lead to fewer splinters and “a very bright light.” He notes that at this point, they can "get pretty much any Pantone color" in a fireworks composition.

15. THEY LOVE TO SEE AMAZEMENT ON THE FACES OF AUDIENCES.

People watch the Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks from outside Brooklyn Bridge Park in 2015
Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

“I think a crowd, in general, appreciates a lot of action—variations in colors and noise; and pattern shells such as smiley faces, hearts, and dice are always pleasers,” Heckman says. According to Grucci, “This is a very serious business. But it’s colorful and it’s beautiful and it has great, great energy. When we go to a performance, we can see an 80-year-old man and a 5-year-old granddaughter watching the show and their expressions are pretty much the same.” In that moment, “They both [become] children.”

11 Secrets of Tour Directors

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Tour directors get paid to travel the world, dine at incredible restaurants, and sleep in comfy hotel beds. Of course, there’s a lot more to the job than merely hoisting a brightly colored flag and rattling off pertinent facts. Some would even describe the work as exhausting, both physically and mentally. Unlike tour guides—who provide local expertise about a city or attraction and generally don't have to travel far—tour directors book gigs across the country or abroad via tour operation companies, handle the pre-trip planning, and conduct the tour, all while fixing the problems that pop up along the way. To find out what their day-to-day work is really like, Mental Floss spoke with three tour directors (or managers, as they're also known). Here’s what they had to say about an occupation that many label a “dream job.”

1. FORMAL TRAINING IN TOURISM ISN’T REQUIRED.

While some tour directors hold certificates in tourism and hospitality management, this isn’t a strict requirement, and professional directors come from a range of educational backgrounds. Kimberly Fields-McArthur, an American tour director based in Australia, has a degree in biblical studies and archaeology, and Anne Marie Brooks, a former tour director turned cruise ship worker in Orlando, has a background in musical theater.

More important than education or training: their skills. Tour directors must be highly organized, adept at speaking in front of large groups, and people-oriented. "A lot of it is a personality thing versus a training thing," Brooks says. "You can’t train someone to have a personality to work with people.”

2. WHEN THEY’RE ON A TOUR, THEY’RE ON CALL 24/7.

While they might get to spend the night in a nice hotel, the sleep of a tour director is often interrupted. Brooks, who used to lead city tours for high school performance groups, recalled a time when a large group of rowdy, drunk men stayed on the same floor of a hotel as the girls in her group. Although she was staying on a different floor, she received word around 3 a.m. that the boozed-up bros were making some of the girls—and adult chaperones—uncomfortable, so she went down to the front desk to sort it out. No other rooms were available, but the hotel agreed to hire a security guard to sit in the hallway for the duration of their stay.

Similarly, Fields-McArthur says she’s been forced to respond to issues in the middle of the night quite a few times. “One of them was a gentleman who made a very bad decision about what height he could jump into the pool from and ended up breaking his foot,” she says. “That was 2 o’clock in the morning.”

3. THEY HATE IT WHEN YOU CALL THEIR JOB A “FREE VACATION.”

“There’s nothing about what I’m doing right now that is me on vacation,” Fields-McArthur says. “If I am on vacation, it means I am not doing my job and you are probably not having a good time.”

Kathi Thompson Cullin, a tour director based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, adds: "I was up at 6 o’clock this morning and didn’t go to bed until midnight doing my paperwork.” When they're not traveling, they're handling all the pre-trip arrangements: crafting the itinerary, ordering tickets for activities, taking care of transportation and lodging, and following up with venues to make sure they haven't forgotten about their reservations (a common problem). Plus, there's the added challenge of shepherding dozens of people around a city that's unfamiliar to them, which isn't exactly a walk in the park, either.

4. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF SHOES ... AND LUGGAGE.

If you’re looking for a job that forces you to stay active, tour directing might be the profession for you. Thompson Cullin and Brooks say they walk so much they burn through three or four pairs of sneakers per year. (Pro tip: If you’re looking for comfy travel shoes, they both swear by their Skechers.) Suitcases tend to be another casualty of the job. Thompson Cullin says she stopped buying expensive luggage because it would just end up “beat up and broken with the wheels off” by the end of the year.

5. THEY’RE TRAINED TO ANTICIPATE THE WORST ...

People get lost. Accidents happen. Natural disasters strike. Tour directors have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. “If I’m leading a trip to Indonesia, I need to know volcanoes might be part of the process of being there, and earthquakes might be part of the process,” Fields-McArthur says. So educating herself about potential disasters—and how to deal with them—is part of her pre-trip research.

Things can go wrong with the guests, too. "I’ve had trips where people have gotten very sick," she says. "I had one trip where I had seven people end up in the hospital at different times for completely different reasons. I’ve seen broken bones and illnesses and hospital stays for days on end, where we ended up having the trip continue on to a different country and we had to leave them behind.” (In those instances, the tour director notifies the tour company, which follows up with anyone injured and left behind to ensure they have travel arrangements once they recover.)

6. ... BUT IF SOMETHING LESS SERIOUS GOES WRONG, YOU PROBABLY WON’T KNOW ABOUT IT.

Problems arise more often than you’d expect. A misspelled name could result in the hotel not having any record of a 50-plus person reservation—this once happened to Thompson Cullin—and businesses often forget that large groups are scheduled to come in on any given day. “So many things go wrong on a day-to-day basis that our guests will never know about,” Brooks says. One time, a restaurant she took her group to was understaffed, so she stepped in, grabbed a pitcher of soda and plates of food, and started refilling their glasses and serving them—all while playing it off like she was merely mingling with the group.

The job is hard work, but tour directors never let it show. Fortunately, Thompson Cullin was able to fix the hotel reservation error before her guests ever found out about it. “Think of me as a duck floating on the water,” she says. “To the human eye I’m looking very peaceful floating along, not a care in the world, but underneath my feet are paddling like crazy just to stay afloat.”

7. THEY REALLY LIKE TALL PEOPLE.

While guests do get separated from the group from time to time, tour directors do their best to avoid it. In addition to holding a flag or umbrella at the front of the line to help guests find their way, they have another trick up their sleeve: “What I usually do is try to make friends with somebody who’s very tall in the group,” Fields-McArthur says. She'll ask if they'd mind being the last person in line; that way, when she looks back and sees their head bobbing above the others, she knows that the group didn’t get split up. (Of course, this doesn’t stop the occasional straggler from ditching the group any time they get distracted by a gelato shop or chic boutique.)

8. SOMETIMES THEY HAVE TO BREAK UP FIGHTS.

When you take a big group of strangers from diverse backgrounds and send them on a trip together, it doesn’t always end well. Thompson Cullin said part of her job involves playing mediator and preventing disagreements from escalating. The most extreme example of this is the time when she had to physically break up a fight in the hotel lobby between two women who weren't getting along on her tour. When tensions reached a boiling point, one woman raised her arm to hit the other, but Thompson Cullin arrived in the nick of time. “I grabbed both of their arms and said, ‘Come with me now,’” she says. They did cooperate, but only after they received a warning that they’d be kicked off the tour if they continued to quibble.

9. THEY OFTEN DEPEND ON TIPS.

The median wage for travel guides—those who "plan, organize, and conduct long distance travel, tours, and expeditions for individuals and groups"—is $25,770 annually or $12.39 hourly, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor. However, Fields-McArthur says many U.S. tour companies pay directors by the day, and wages range from $100 to $300 per day (on the lower end of the scale) to roughly $400 per day for higher-paying jobs. For directors in the former camp, tips are essential. “On some of the older adult tours, sometimes they give you $5 in an envelope and say, ‘That was the best trip of my life,’ and you’re like, ‘Great, I can’t pay my bills now,’” Fields-McArthur says with a laugh. If you’re on a tour and you're unsure how much to tip, check the information packet provided by the company. They usually include tipping guidelines.

10. THEY MEET SOME INTERESTING CHARACTERS.

Tour directors see a steady stream of fascinating people from around the world. One of the most memorable characters that Thompson Cullin ever encountered was a “sweet little old man” from New Jersey on a tour of Sedona, Arizona, who happened to be an ex-con and “retired” member of the Mafia. “He said to me at lunch, ‘You know what Kathi, I like you. You got moxie. Here’s my card. Anybody ever gives you trouble, you call me and I’ll take care of them,'” she says. She thought he was joking at first. He wasn’t.

11. THEY NEVER GET TIRED OF THE AMAZING SIGHTS.

Sure, they may get sick of certain activities—Brooks, for example, has had her fill of Radio City Music Hall—but awe-inspiring sights like the Grand Canyon become no less impressive with repeated viewings. “I never get tired of it. That’s probably the one question I get asked all the time,” Thompson Cullin says. She also enjoys witnessing how her guests react to the sights they’re seeing. “My biggest perk is to see people’s faces transform into childlike wonder when they see things for the very first time—things that they have always wanted to see.”

10 Secrets of Subway Conductors

Chris Hondros, Getty Images
Chris Hondros, Getty Images

Despite listening to their announcements every day, there’s a lot the average rider doesn’t know about being a subway conductor. The men and women at the front of the train are the eyes and ears of the subway system, and they often act as the only line of communication between passengers and the greater transit authority. We spoke with conductors who work for two of the country’s busiest transit systems to learn more about what it's like on the rails—including the real meanings behind the phrases they use, how dirty trains really get, and the one thing they wish more riders would do.

1. IT CAN TAKE A WHILE TO GET A JOB ...

Aspiring transit employees often have to be patient. Candidates must first complete a written exam, and if they pass, their name is added to a list of people waiting to fill whatever jobs open up. The time it takes to reach the top of the list varies: Joe Benton, who's worked for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco for 10 years, tells Mental Floss he was hired a year after first submitting his application. Tramell Thompson, a New York City subway conductor since 2013, says he waited nearly four years after taking his civil service exam to secure the job. Once hired, subway conductors must undergo a training process that can take two to three months. This involves riding real trains in the yards, and learning the various signals, regulations, and procedures.

2. ... BUT STAYING IN THE POSITION PAYS OFF.

The typical base salary for a New York subway conductor is $67,000, Thompson says, but both pay and benefits become more appealing the longer a conductor works for the transit authority. As Victor Almodovar, a New York City subway conductor for 15 years, tells Mental Floss, "seniority is everything." After 12 years, he was able to get weekends off, and he now has the freedom to choose which train line he works on—something most conductors just starting out aren't allowed to do.

3. THEY MIGHT TALK ABOUT THINGS BLOWING UP—BUT DON'T PANIC.

If you could eavesdrop on the private conversations between subway personnel, you probably wouldn’t understand them. All transit conductors speak in shorthand specific to the systems they work for: “BART has literally its own language,” Benton says. That language includes a lot of numbers, like track numbers, platform numbers, and train IDs. But other bits of lingo are more colorful—and could potentially cause panic if they were ever broadcast over the wrong intercom. As an example, Thompson notes they sometimes might say "the railroad blew up." While it may sound terrifying, he explains that it means the trains aren't running on their proper schedule.

4. THERE'S A GOOD REASON THEY'RE ALWAYS POINTING.

If you live in New York City, pay close attention next time you’re waiting on a subway platform: When the train pulls in, you should see the conductor pointing a finger out the car window. The object they’re pointing at is a black-and-white strip of wood called a zebra board. It hangs above the center of every subway platform, and when the train pulls into the station correctly, it will line up perfectly with the subway conductor’s window. If the conductor notices the board is a little too far behind or ahead of them when they point their finger, they know it’s not safe to open the doors. The gesture is also a good indicator that your conductor is paying attention.

5. THEY WORD ANNOUNCEMENTS CAREFULLY.

There are a few phrases regular subway riders are used to hearing—“sick passenger,” “police investigation,” and the standard “we are experiencing delays,” to name a few. These may sound like obvious euphemisms, but Thompson promises that using carefully worded language is in the passengers’ best interests. A police investigation, for instance, could refer to someone causing a scene on a train, but in some cases it’s a lot more serious. “If God forbid there’s a terrorism or a bomb scare, that’s not something you want to put over the public address system,” Almodovar says. “It becomes self-preservation and you don’t want that on a packed rush hour train. So instead you say, ‘We have a police investigation,’ which is basically the truth but you’re not telling them the whole truth.”

“A passenger seeking medical attention” is another example of masking something that’s potentially disturbing without being dishonest. Thompson says, “I’m not going to say, ‘Attention passengers, somebody jumped in front of the train and it’s causing delays.’ I would say, ‘There’s an injured passenger on the train ahead of us,’ or ‘There’s a passenger seeking medical attention ahead of us.’” However, with the MTA now pushing its employees to be more transparent, riders may occasionally get conductors who make no effort to mince words.

6. SOMETIMES PASSENGERS KNOW MORE THAN THEY DO.

Passengers aren’t the only ones who are kept in the dark during delays. When a conductor doesn’t give a specific reason for the delay in their announcements, it may be because he or she doesn’t know why the train stopped in the first place. “In that case, I would tell them we’re investigating the issue,” Thompson says. Usually the control center—the hub that keeps New York City’s subways moving—will inform conductors of the problem before too much time passes, but in some cases transit news travels faster by phone. “The information will get to passengers through all these MTA apps before it’s even relayed to us,” Thompson says. “So sometimes I ask them, ‘Hey, can you check your phone and see what’s on the [MTA] website?’” (Conductors are forbidden from using their phones for personal reasons on the job, but the MTA is experimenting with giving employees work iPhones to better keep them up-to-date.)

7. MOST DELAYS AREN’T THEIR FAULT.

For better or worse, subway conductors are the face of city transit systems: That means they’re usually the first people to receive complaints and abuse from passengers when a train isn’t moving fast enough. But if your train has been stuck underground for what feels like forever, there’s only a small chance one of the system's employees is to blame; the much more likely cause is faulty equipment. According to WNYC, signal problems account for 36 percent of extended subway delays (eight minutes or more) in New York City, followed by mechanical problems at 31 percent, and rail and track issues at 19 percent. “When you get mad you have to understand that we are not the ones who made the schedules; we’re ones who have to work with the tracks and the signals which are over 100 years old and they break down,” Almodovar says. “We have to work with what we have."

8. THEY HATE DELAYS MORE THAN YOU DO.

A signal malfunction might mess up the average passenger's morning commute, but it can ruin a subway conductor's whole day—so despite being blamed for them constantly, it’s possible that no one hates train delays more than subway conductors. “I didn’t really have a lunch today,” Almodovar says, recalling how he fell behind schedule when the automatic brakes were activated on the train ahead of his. “I had enough time to run downstairs, get a slice of pizza, then I’m right back on the train.”

On some days, conductors are lucky if they get to eat at all. “With all these signal issues, track issues, and all types of other issues, it’s hard for the schedules to work,” Thompson says. “Sometimes we gotta choose between using the bathroom and eating.”

9. SOME WON’T LET THEIR FAMILIES RIDE.

Staying on schedule is a priority for most subway systems. That means employees might rush through jobs where they would ideally take their time—like cleaning a subway car that a passenger has been sick in, for instance. Thompson says the lax sanitation procedures he sees up-close have convinced him to never let his son ride the subway. “It’s like working in a restaurant—you know the other-end stuff that the customers don’t know,” he says.

10. THEY WISH YOU’D LEAVE THE HOUSE EARLIER.

If you want your commute to go smoothly, subway employees will tell you the best thing to do is plan ahead. This means finding out how delays or construction might impact your preferred route before stepping outside the house. Almodovar recommends downloading a navigation app called Citymapper, which integrates the latest data from city transit systems into one spot. Official transit system websites and Twitter accounts are also good places to go for service updates.

But regardless of what your apps tell you, it’s always safer to assume your train will be behind schedule. “We all know that the transit authority isn’t the most punctual service,” Thompson says. “Leave an extra five to 10 minutes earlier from your house, because things are always happening.”

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