Most subway train operators know Leon George by reputation only.
To them, he is “number one.” Currently the longest-tenured subway operator at the MTA, George has first pick of train lines to drive.
“They come up to me like, ‘Hey, number one man!'” the 73-year-old Brooklyn resident said. “It feels pretty good but I don’t let it go to my head.”
George moved from Savannah, Georgia, to New York City in his 20s and eventually landed a job as a subway conductor working the A line in 1971. Since his promotion to subway operator a few years later, George has worked on all the train lines.
On June 28, he will begin his 44th year with New York City Transit. Metro spoke with George about the joy of driving subway trains, his favorite lines and getting flipped off by angry commuters.
Metro: How were the trains different when you first started?
George: The trains back in them days was unsafe, especiallyR-9, they were really, really unsafe, especially for the conductor. He had to get between the cars — snow, rain, sleet, whatever.
What’s the difference between a conductor and a train operator?
He’s opening and closing the doors. The train operator drives the train.
Do you like being a train operator more than a conductor?
When I first started as a conductor, just in the middle there, you can’t see nothing in front. I always wanted to be the go-go guy who moves the train.
Why did you want to work on the subway?
When I was a kid, I used to love trains.…When I became a young man in life and seeing how to make a little money, I said this would be a good position — making money and operating a train at the same time.
What’s your favorite part about the job?
Going to different stations and seeing different activities on the station. Keeps you alert.
Have you ever wanted to do anything else?
Some people go to college and whatnot and get degree and all that. Hey, I’m just an average Joe trying to make a living, that’s the best I could do.
How many lines have you operated?
Oh, I’ve operated all of them.
What’s your favorite line?
What’s your favorite train car class?
Have you operated a train with CBTC — communications-based train control —the advanced signal system?
I never did that. Before I retire, I might just do that, just to try it.
Do you think a computer could ever do your job?
New York City, with all these characters out here, I don’t know. They get in there and do all kind of damage and whatnot. It’ll work in a little small town, but I don’t think New York City. It’s too big. Too complicated. They got to have some conductor, train operator — somebody — in the cab at all times.
What’s it like having control over subway? If you’re late, you can mess up someone’s day.
I know. A lot of people get mad if the train come in late cause they got to go to work. But there’s whole different types of things that make you late.You got track workers, you got signal department holding you up…you pick up the train, the train is late coming to the station.A lot of people, they catch the front end and give you the finger.
Do people ever say anything nice to you?
A lot of people thank you if you give a good ride, you don’t throw them all over the place, over the seat and everything.
What’s one of the strangest things to happen to you as an operator?
I think I was on the R-9 going into the Bronx and lo and behold, this guy was in the tunnel, sitting on the catwalk. … I see some leg dangling and I said, ‘What is this?’ and I look, throw the train in emergency and the train just start to roll and roll and roll and he’s sitting here, and the train just rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling and I’m just praying the train will stop cause I already throw the train in emergency I can’t do nothing then. I don’t have more control over it. … The train stop right there.
Did he thank you?
He was drunk.
Do you come across a lot of people in the tunnels?
Since 9/11, lot of cops out there now, so they kind of cooled it off. But back in them days, people walked all through the tunnels through every which way.
Have you ever hit someone?
I was on the A line, from Far Rockaway coming into East New York, and this guy, homeless guy…I thought he was sitting on the bench. I never thought nothing of it. Next thing I know, he’s running along against the train and next thing I know, he jumped right in front.
When was that?
That was in the ’70s. That was my first fatality. I’ve had one.
Was that difficult to process?
You really can’t do nothing. … I don’t want to kill nobody, that’s not my thing. But a lot of people, they take it upon themselves, when they want to commit suicide, they jump in front of the train.
What are you going to miss about the job?
I’m going to miss the joy of driving these trains, ’cause it’s in my system. But one day I’m just going to have to give it up.
Do you need to keep working?
I don’t have to. To tell you the truth, I just want to work. I could retire anytime. … I probably do some traveling or whatever when I retire.
When do you think you’ll retire?
Maybe sometime next year. … I’m thinking about putting it in. Everybody says ‘about time.’
Is the ‘number two’ guy trying to get you to retire?
Everybody out there is trying to get me to retire. Guy was telling me out there, ‘When you going to retire so we can move up?’
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