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.”

13 Secrets of Substitute Teachers

iStock.com/shironosov
iStock.com/shironosov

Whether they’re recent college graduates or retirees, substitute teachers are a diverse bunch with a range of academic specialties and skills. No matter their background, they often arrive at work unsure of exactly who and what they’ll be teaching—but they usually have some tricks up their sleeves to get oriented quickly. Mental Floss spoke to a few subs to get the inside scoop on everything from why they love pregnant teachers to how they spot troublemaker pupils.

1. Morning people get more substitute teaching jobs than night owls.

Substitute teachers must be willing to have a (very) flexible schedule, and it helps if they’re morning people. As early as 5:00 a.m., subs get a phone call—automated or from someone who works in the school’s office—offering them a job for that day. If they accept, they have an hour or two to get out of bed, get ready, and report to work. Some schools now use an email notification system, but early morning phone calls are more effective given the time-sensitive, often unexpected nature of substitute teaching.

2. First impressions are important when it comes to substitute teaching.

A young female teacher in front of a white board talking to a group of students
iStock.com/SolStock

According to Kevin, a substitute teacher who works at schools in Southern California, dealing with new groups of students can be challenging. “It’s very hard to establish authority in the classroom. As a newcomer, you’re the foreigner,” he explains.

To immediately establish their authority, some substitute teachers practice speaking with a powerful voice, exhibit confident body language, and shut down any disruptions swiftly and decisively. But no matter how confident a sub is, some students will take advantage of the teacher’s unfamiliarity with the class. “It’s hard to write up a student who you can’t name. In a high school setting, you usually get 30 to 38 students a period for five or six periods. That’s a lot of students who may or may not want to test their bounds that day,” Kevin says.

3. Subs are an eclectic bunch.

Substitute teachers range in age from recent college grads working toward their teaching certification to elderly retired people. But what unites them is a love of teaching. Beverly, a substitute teacher who has taught for over 56 years, says that subbing keeps her sharp and active. “I do it for mental stimulation and because it’s a terrific service. You have to stay stimulated and involved with people,” she says. “I find youngsters to be so forthright and honest. The kids light up my life.”

Besides being a variety of ages, substitute teachers also come from a variety of professions. “You can’t believe how many teachers used to be lawyers but couldn’t stand it,” Beverly says. Everyone from former nurses and flight attendants to chemical engineers have earned their teaching certificates and become subs, bringing their real-world experience into the classroom.

4. There's a reason a substitute teacher's face might look familiar.

In schools in Los Angeles and New York, many struggling actors work as substitute teachers because they can balance teaching gigs with auditions and short-term film shoots. Like actors, subs must be able to speak in front of groups of people, improvise when they don’t have good instructions, and be quick on their feet when something goes wrong.

5. Substitute teachers aren't a fan of school holidays.

Because substitute teachers don’t have a set salary and work one day at a time, many of them face financial uncertainty, especially when holidays roll around. “Holidays can be devastating financially,” Kevin explains. When a school has the whole week of Thanksgiving off, subs don’t see that as a chance to relax. “In reality, a quarter of your paycheck for that month is gone,” Kevin says. “When you have student loans, insurance, etc. to pay, that extra little bit taken off your paycheck may mean you’re just scraping by.”

6. Substitute teachers have tricks to learn names quickly.

A primary school teacher helping a young boy in the classroom
iStock.com/JohnnyGreig

Facing a classroom of unfamiliar faces can be daunting, but subs have a few tricks up their sleeves to memorize student names in a flash. While some subs make seating charts as they take attendance, others use mnemonic devices to remember troublemakers’ monikers. Beverly admits that she doesn’t use anything fancy, but because she substitute-teaches math and science classes at the same school, she sees the same kids year after year. “I see the same youngsters out of junior high and into high school, but I do have a seating chart as well. They’re always amazed when I know their names,” she explains.

7. They love pregnant teachers.

Subs seeking job stability hit the jackpot when full-time teachers get pregnant. “At the school I currently work at, there’s a woman who is subbing for the whole semester for a second grade teacher who is out on maternity leave,” says Kyle, a science teacher who worked as a sub before getting a full-time teaching gig. Besides pregnancies, long-term health challenges and injuries can present an opportunity for subs to get a steady gig. Beverly says she once took over for an entire semester because of another teacher’s broken hip.

8. Some substitute teachers are quite familiar with busywork.

Novelist Nicholson Baker, who wrote about his experience going undercover as a substitute teacher at six schools, describes the astonishingly large amount of busywork that subs must assign students. “I passed [work sheets] out by the thousands,” he noted in The New York Times.

While Baker laments the “fluff knowledge” and vocabulary lists that subs are expected to force students to memorize and regurgitate, some subs do teach lesson plans. Kyle, who has a math and science background, explains that some teachers felt comfortable with him teaching the lesson plan so the students wouldn’t fall behind. “I’d teach it and assign homework accordingly for what we covered in class,” he says. But he admits that for middle school or non-science classes, he would sometimes simply be given a video to show the kids, or a work sheet or quiz to pass out.

9. The reputation of a substitute teacher can precede them.

High school professor asking students to answer question
iStock.com/Steve Debenport

Once a sub has taught at the same school a few times, they can develop a reputation—good or bad—among students. “When I first started subbing, I was 23 or 24, so I wasn’t much older than these kids—especially the seniors—and I think they saw me more as a peer than an authority figure,” Kyle explains. “I thought if I kept a light and fun atmosphere, kids would show their appreciation with respect. But that’s not how kids’ minds work. If you give a little, they’ll want more. So I became stricter and sterner as I went on,” he adds.

10. Substitute teachers can often spot troublemakers fast.

Although it might seem obvious which students are talking out of turn or giving the sub a hard time, substitute teachers have another way to quickly identify any mischievous students. “Usually, if a teacher has a really outrageous student, they’ll leave a note of warning for the sub. Sometimes the teacher will also leave a list of who the helpful students are,” Beverly says.

11. Substitute teachers may deal with inappropriate student behavior.

Kyle says that due to his young age and easygoing nature, some students tried to push the boundaries and act inappropriately with him: “[Students] would talk about or say things in front of me that I know they would never say in front of a teacher. I was once asked to party with some of the kids. Girls would try and flirt with me.” While male students typically tried to talk to him about basketball, female students frequently asked him if he had a girlfriend. “I would lose control of classrooms sometimes. Kids would get very wild, and sometimes would say inappropriate or abusive things to other students without fear of discipline,” he admits.

12. Substitute teachers are honored on a special day in November.

The National Education Association established the annual Substitute Educators Day on the third Friday in November to honor subs around the country. Besides bringing awareness to the work that substitute teachers do, Substitute Educators Day supports subs in trying to get health benefits, professional development, and fair wages.

13. Substitute teachers can make lasting impressions on their students.

Although most subs don’t see the same kids day after day, they can have a meaningful impact upon their students’ lives. “As an outsider, especially a younger teacher, students will often listen to you as someone who recently was in their shoes. Sometimes you talk to them one-on-one and give them a new perspective on why they should care about their schoolwork,” Kevin says.

And some students listen to their sub’s advice on studying and planning for the future. According to Kevin, students have approached him as he walked down the halls to thank him for encouraging them to get better grades.

“These experiences are few and far between, but it’s crazy to think that even these small talks with students can actually have a lasting impression,” he says.

This story was republished in 2019.

13 Secrets of Tattoo Artists

A professional tattoo artist at work
A professional tattoo artist at work
iStock.com/Vitalij Sova

Tattoos have gone mainstream: what was once considered a mark of rebellion abhorred by grandparents has become more like a rite of passage. Today, about 30 percent of American adults have at least one tattoo, and among millennials the number jumps to almost 50 percent.

So it’s a good time to be in the tattooing business. But no matter how up-close and personal you get with your tattoo artist, there’s still a lot about the job you probably don’t know. We talked to a few seasoned experts about the intricacies of inking.

1. Tattooing is really hard to break into.

Today there are more than 15,000 tattoo parlors in the U.S., compared to roughly 500 professional tattoo artists operating in 1960. But while the industry is booming, it’s difficult to get your foot in the door. The first step is to get an apprenticeship under a reputable artist who will teach you all they know, but that can take years of persistence.

“I just now have an apprentice and he’s been bugging me about it for three years,” says Chad Leever, a tattoo artist in Indiana. His best tip for landing an apprenticeship? “Hang out, get to know us, get tattooed, but even then it will probably still be no. It’s really tough.”

Tattooing has been an exclusive and secretive industry for years. The “every man for himself” culture has roots in the early days of tattooing when an artist had to protect the tricks of their trade. Sailor Jerry, for example, was known for his vibrant ink shades and Japanese-inspired designs. Captivated by his work, other artists would ask him how he concocted such brilliant colors on the posters in his shop, and Jerry would tell them to add sugar water to the ink. The copycats would realize they’d been sabotaged when they found their posters full of holes—eaten by cockroaches attracted to the sugar.

“Everybody has their secrets and they don’t wanna tell anyone else,” Leever says. “You have to earn the right to gain the knowledge.”

2. Tattoo apprentices get hazed.

If you miraculously manage to land an apprenticeship, get ready to grovel. “Being an apprentice, we can make you do anything,” Leever says. During his own apprenticeship, Leever had to get his navel pierced. “They picked out the most ridiculous navel ring,” he says. “It was this colorful rainbow thing and I had to leave it in for 10 days and show every person who came into the shop. It was horrible.”

Rituals like these are meant to test how far an apprentice is willing to go for the job. “It’s tough but you’re gonna find out if someone’s gonna make it or not based on how much they wanna sacrifice for this career,” says Bang Bang, a celebrity tattoo artist in New York City and author of the book Bang Bang: My Life In Ink. “Do you love it or do you just wanna be part of the show? You have to prove you are just the humble, humble student.”

3. Tattoo artists practice on themselves.

It may be years before an artist-in-training gets to wield a tattoo gun. When they finally get their first shot at inking some real human skin, it’s often attached to their own body. “I just had my apprentice tattoo himself,” Leever says. “It was terrible tattoo. It turned out horrible. He messed it up and he’ll learn from that but now things will make more sense the next time he does it.”

Occasionally they’ll get to tattoo their close friends or even their teacher. Bang Bang says he was the subject of his apprentice’s first tattoo attempt. “If I’m not brave enough to get it, how can I suggest other people do so?” he asks. “I wanted to show them I believe in you, you can do this.”

Other non-human practice materials include orange peel, faux skin, and pig ears.

4. They agree with your parents.

Artist tattooing male customer's hand in studio
iStock.com/Portra

If you’re looking for support for your burning desire to get a neck tattoo, you probably won’t get it from your local tattoo parlor unless you’re older and have a steady job. A lot of artists flat-out refuse to tattoo necks, faces, and hands for young people because they know it could affect the rest of their lives.

“I don’t feel like at 18 you understand the risk of that,” Leever says. “That’s huge. I feel from a moral and ethical standpoint, I could do this and get paid however much, but totally change or ruin this kid’s life.”

According to one survey, 61 percent of HR managers said a tattoo would hurt a job applicant’s chances of getting hired. “People are like that’s money you turn away,” says Jeffery Page, a California-based tattoo artist, “but it allows me more time to do something more positive. Otherwise you’re screwing that person out of at least half of their job opportunities.”

5. A good tattoo artist will say no.

Whatever your age or employment status, there are some tattoos artists just won’t do, either because it’s not their specialty or they know it won’t look good or heal well. The professionals will be honest about this.

Small, intricate designs might not age well, and finger tattoos won’t last. A good artist will warn you about these potential complications and maybe even refuse the work. Because so much of their business relies on referrals, their art is an advertisement, so it better be good. “A good artist will tell you no because your money is not worth their name,” says Page.

But this isn’t always true, especially for less-experienced artists looking to make as much money as possible. “They probably didn’t train under somebody that taught them well,” Leever says. “It’s become this cash-cow industry where people open up a shop that know nothing about tattooing and hire a bunch of people who don’t know anything about tattooing and it’s just about making money.”

6. Tattoo artists hate it when you don’t look at their portfolios.

One big pet peeve of artists is when customers don’t even peek at examples of their work before asking for a tattoo. This is a little bit like hiring an interior designer to revamp your home without looking at their previous designs or at least checking out their Yelp reviews, except a lot more permanent.

“I want my work to sell itself,” Leever says. “I want you to look at this and realize, yes I am the one for you.”

This is also a sign a customer hasn’t done their research, another pet peeve. “If you’re in such a rush to get a tattoo that you can’t look up a person, then you probably shouldn’t be getting it done,” says Page.

7. They’re tired of infinity symbols.

A woman from the back with an infinity tattoo at the nape of her neck
iStock.com/_lolik_

Tattoo trends come and go, but this one just keeps hanging on. According to Leever, there’s been a huge increase in requests for the infinity symbol (which sort of looks like the number eight on its side) over the last few years. “A guy I worked with did four or five in one day,” Leever says. “It’s a poor, boring design. Maybe it’s on Pinterest or something.” Indeed it is, but it’s also on a lot of celebrities, including Kristen Stewart and Taylor Schilling. And celebrities have a huge influence on tattoo trends.

“When Megan Fox got lettering down her ribcage, it seemed like for a whole year we’d have girls come in asking for messages down their ribcages, saying it means a lot to them,” says Page. “But they never would have gotten the message on the ribs, because it’s more of a painful area, [except] the fact that she had it meant it was a cool summer addition to their body.”

8. They make mistakes all the time.

They just know how to cover them up so the customer never knows. “Every tattoo artist messes up,” says one artist on Reddit. “We just take the time to fix it as we go, adding a flourish here or there, a little bit more contrast. No client would notice.”

9. You can barter with them.

Not all tattoos must be paid for in cash. “I actually love bartering, because both parties involved always get what they want,” says Leever. “No money exchanged, makes it easy. The best barter I've been involved in would probably be when I received a 1977 Kawasaki KZ750 motorcycle with a sidecar. It was quite the deal.”

10. Men have the lowest pain tolerance.

A male tattooist at work
iStock.com/Glenofobiya

Women handle having their skin pricked with needles over and over again much better than men do, according to Page. “Usually the funny thing is, the more alpha male the guy is, the less of a pain threshold they have,” he says. Leever tells the story of a man who wanted a “tough guy Metallica tattoo” but who couldn’t handle the pain. He left the shop with a single line trailing down his bicep.

11. Cover-ups pay the tattoo shop bills.

The tattoo industry is self-sustaining in many ways. For example, people rarely stop at just one tattoo. According to the Pew Research Center, about half of millennials with tattoos have more than one, and 18 percent have six or more [PDF].

But there’s also a lot of cash to be made in covering up old designs. “I make more money from guys down the street than from new customers,” says Leever, meaning bad tattoos from his competitors. “There’s always a name to cover.” And speaking of names …

12. There are only three names you should ever have tattooed.

According to tattoo artists, if you’re going to get a name inked on your body forever, it should only belong to your pets, your kids, or a dead relative.

13. The bodies of tattoo artists take a beating.

A female tattooist bent over a drawing
iStock.com/PeopleImages

“If your back’s not hurting, you’re not trying hard enough,” Bang Bang says. “I have a bad neck now after many years of being hunched over. Back problems are really common, as are hand and neck and eye problems. It takes a toll.”

This article was first published in 2016 and updated in 2019.

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