Metro-North's blogging conductor spots the stars, regales riders

Robert McDonough, a conductor for Metro-North Railroad, leans Robert McDonough, a conductor for Metro-North Railroad, leans out of the window of his New Haven-line train at Grand Central Station in Manhattan. (Jan. 2, 2013) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Shirley MacLaine. Andy Rooney. Whoopi Goldberg. Ron Howard. Bill Clinton.

They've all made it onto Metro-North conductor Bob McDonough's blog of his chance encounters on the railroad with the famous and the not-so.

A 27-year veteran of the railroad, McDonough, 50, recalled watching actor Christopher Reeve, who portrayed Clark Kent in the screen version of "Superman," rushing down a Grand Central Terminal platform in the early '90s asking the conductor if he had time to stop and get a beer before getting on board.

"What are you worried about?" McDonough assured him. "You're faster than a locomotive."

That brush with a superhero later became fodder for "Derailed: One Man's Story of His Life On (and Off) the Rails," which McDonough, of Clinton, Conn., started six years ago. The blog is filled with a wiseacre's voice that drips with a sarcasm honed as the youngest of nine growing up in a sprawling Irish-American clan.

Seldom does McDonough, who works the New Haven line, grouse about the job, the hours or the pay.

"I don't want to get fired because I offended someone," McDonough said in a recent interview. "It's not mean-spirited even though I'm sure I ruffled a few feathers."

The majority of his regular readers are riders who get a kick out of reading what the man who takes their ticket every day is thinking.

"Keep 'em coming, Bobby!" one wrote on the blog in October.

Anthony Bottalico, who heads Metro-North's largest union, said he checks in on "Derailed" now and then.

"It's nice to have a railroad man's perspective," said Bottalico, the general chairman of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, which represents conductors and engineers among other workers. "And he's passionate about his job."

Even Metro-North president Howard Permut has become a fan, saying it "provides a unique window into the day-to-day life of a Metro-North conductor."

Fellow bloggers plug his work on their sites and McDonough returns the favor. On his site are links to Metro-North blogs like "trainjotting" and "I Ride the Harlem Line."

McDonough works six days a week, so his blogs are infrequent. His joy comes from riders coming up to him and recalling word for word something from his latest blog.

"They remember the stories better than I do," McDonough said.

He doesn't carry a notebook to jot down his thoughts. Moments he knows must go in the blog leave him scurrying for a scrap of paper.

Most people brighten to McDonough's wry smile and red cheeks, revealed beneath an ever-present blue conductor's cap that covers a balding pate.

After McDonough confessed to comedian Ruth Buzzi that his then school-age daughters loved her as Ruthie on Sesame Street, she mailed him two of Big Bird's feathers attached to a signed photo.

Comedian Victoria Jackson invited McDonough and his wife backstage when she was a cast member on Saturday Night Live.

"I'm a people person so I like talking to people," McDonough said.

IT'S ALL IN A DAY'S ENCOUNTER ON THE RAILS

Not all of McDonough's musings about life on the rails are glamorous.

He recalls the times -- three so far -- when he's had to come out on the rails to locate the body of someone who's just been hit by a speeding train. Unlike his celebrity posts, those recollections spare the details.

"They say you don't know how you're going to handle a situation until it happens to you," McDonough said. "I don't handle it well. Every muscle in my body tenses up while I'm out there with my flashlight looking like Barney Fife looking for the body."

McDonough comes from five generations of railroad workers. His father and uncles worked on the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. After graduating with an English major from Southern Connecticut State University, McDonough took a job as a conductor, figuring he'd try it out for a few years.

"Other conductors when I first started here they'd say, 'You have a college degree. What are you doing here?'" McDonough said. "After all these years I still say because I like coming to work."

That's the case even when passengers ask stupid questions.

In one recent post, McDonough recalled one of his favorites.

"What time does the 4:07 train leave?" a woman asked him one time.

Then there are the drunken and unruly passengers who have spit on him and bloodied his nose. And there are those who insist that he doesn't know where the train is going.

Instead of getting angry he'll catch his breath and scribble it all down.

"Instead of strangling the person, I go back and I use it," he said. "You harness all your anger and you write it down."

THE OH SO VAIN

advertisement | advertise on newsday

McDonough's 2007 post on actress Sarah Holcomb, titled "Sarah Smiles," became the most popular item ever on "Derailed." It's logged nearly 37,000 page views and generated 103 comments, several of which appear to have come from Holcomb friends and fans recalling her abrupt departure from film.

In it, McDonough recalled how, soon after he took the job, he encountered a distraught woman in her 20s who had missed her stop in Westport, Conn.

McDonough agreed to drive her back to Westport in his car once they got off the train. In the car, he wondered if she was the actress from "Animal House" who played the toga-clad mayor's daughter, and he told her he liked her Scottish accent in "Caddyshack."

"Scottish! She seemed insulted," McDonough wrote. "I wasn't Scottish. I was Irish. Maggie O'Hooligan's the name. She then went into character and recited her lines from Caddyshack . . . Well t'anks for nuttin."

McDonough's charm doesn't work on all passengers, however. Some will brush him off.

McDonough was collecting tickets one day when he looked down and swore he recognized singer Carly Simon.

"Wow, you look just like Carly Simon," McDonough said.

"Yeah, I get that a lot," she replied.

Undeterred, McDonough had his brother Brian, working as an engineer that night, come down into his car and see if he was right.

"As I collect her ticket I say, Aha! You are her," McDonough wrote. "She just smiles, and hides her face in a magazine. For the rest of the ride I have to resist the urge to sing, 'You're so vain.'"

Read Bob McDonough's blog at Derailed

You also may be interested in: