The voice behind the closing doors would like to clear something up.

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Charlie Says



Charlie
Pellett wishes to respectfully assert that he is not from the Midwest,
despite what you may think about the way he speaks. He’s used to having
his voice aped by kids and tourists as he rides the train to and from work every
day—even when he is not actually speaking—and it now amuses him more
than it bothers him. But he was still disturbed when a snotty fellow passenger
on the 6 train responded to the sound of his voice by sneering “Shut up, Mr.
South Dakota!”


Pellett
is not from the Badlands, but is a native of England who has lived in New York
for more than 20 years. He is the most overworked voice in the MTA, though he
has never been paid a cent for his labor; and like you and me, he won’t
see a cent of the 33% fare hike slated for May 4 of this year. His day job is
hosting WBBR’s “The Bloomberg Money Show,” but even more New Yorkers hear
him instruct them to “stand clear of the closing doors, please,” a recorded
announcement heard on the MTA’s newest subway trains. By now, he has pretty
much eliminated all traces of his homeland from his voice. “My wife says she’s
pretty much the only woman who married a Brit without the accent,” he jokes.


Whatever
you think about the new prerecorded announcements, at the very least they’re
audible. If there’s anything worse than languishing on a still subway train,
it’s languishing while the conductor makes an ear-piercing, lengthy and
unintelligible announcement. On a recent ride, as I sat on a stalled G train,
some mushmouthed squawking signaled an attempt to keep us poor commuters in
the loop. One man, clearly at the end of his rope, leaped in the air repeatedly
so he could punch the offending speaker above his head, screaming, “Learn to
talk, goddammit!” No one took exception to his protest.


In recent
years, the MTA has attempted to alleviate one of commuters’ biggest pet
peeves. A 1997 internal task force recommended “maintaining regular communication
with conductors regarding delays and changes in service” and “beginning a ‘back
to basics’ announcements training syllabus.” The resulting booklet, Customer
Communications and Platform Observation Procedures
(also known as the blue
book), lists 17 situations and the official announcements that a conductor should
make. Conductors are expected to know these service announcements and be able
to recite them at a moment’s notice.


According
to MTA rules, a conductor must make an announcement as soon as there is a delay
in service and every two minutes thereafter. Clearly, this is more the goal
than a rule. According to a study released last year by NYPIRG’s Straphangers
Campaign, 74 percent of all subway service disruptions are either lacking any
announcement at all or they’re further exacerbated by “an inaudible, garbled,
or useless one.” This tally was down only slightly from the 80 percent that
Straphangers noted in 2001.


Years of
complaints about the aural hieroglyphics led the MTA to include prerecorded
announcements on its newest trains, the R142, R142A and R143, which began their
runs in July 2000. More than 1000 new cars, built by Bombardier and Kawasaki,
were ordered by the city to replace the rickety “redbird” trains, some of which
had been in use since the 50s. They’re now running on the 2, 3, 5, 6, and
L lines. (Rumors abound as to which train will be gifted next.) Meanwhile, the
old redbirds are spending their retirement as part of fishing reefs, the first
off the coasts of Delaware and South Carolina.


In addition
to Mr. Pellett, the voices of these announcements belong to other personalities
on Bloomberg Radio, including Jessica Ettinger Gottesman, Melissa Kleiner and
Dianne Thompson. Their shared place of employment has nothing to do with our
current mayor; two years before the 2001 election, Bloomberg donated the time
of several of its employees as a “public service.”


In a recent
interview, Pellett called the chance to record the subway announcements “the
most unbelievably cool broadcasting opportunity in the world.” He recorded what
he called “an enormous list of announcements,” some used more than others. In
addition to the “closing doors” bit, he lent his talents to “We apologize for
the unavoidable delay” and “This is the last stop on this train,” among others.


He describes
himself as a passionate and vocal advocate of mass transit in general and the
subway in particular. He recalled how, in his first years in the city, “I would
stand in the front car so I could look out the window.” (This habit, he admitted,
was compulsive enough to cause the loss of a girlfriend.) A Brooklyn resident,
Pellett takes the 4 and 6 to work every day, and is as desensitized to the new
announcements as any other commuter. He often chuckles to himself when he hears
fellow riders mimicking his voice, but resists the temptation to confront them,
even when they misidentify his land of origin.


By Pellett’s
estimate, he recorded his announcements 18 months before the new trains ever
saw the light of day. After they were delivered to the Westchester train yard
in the Bronx, he was invited to a sneak preview. “Hearing myself through the
train for the first time was a bizarre but amazing experience.”


His opinion
of the $2 fare? Pellett still remembers his first years in the city in the early
1980s when track fires and graffiti-covered trains were considered the norm
and ridership was at an all-time low. “The MTA has made amazing strides since
then,” he said. “Even if it goes to $2, it’s a steal.”


Subway buffs
are legion, opinionated, and very vocal, if the online forum at Straphangers.org—the
Rider Diaries—is any indication. It’s amazing that relatively few
of them have griped about the prerecorded announcements. However, like gleeful
fanboys who email George Lucas with continuity errors, they never fail to point
out when the announcements do not match up with the stations, as often happens
when trains are switched from one line to another.


Some lament
the passing of the announcement torch to trained professionals, fearing that
this may bring an end to the art of conductors’ verbal improvising. The
Straphangers’ forums abound with tales of humorous announcements from frustrated
motormen. One favorite, as posted by forum enthusiast “Missing the B”: “Thank
you for riding MTA New York City Transit. And to the gentleman in the 7th car
who gave me the finger at the last stop: No, sir, YOU’RE number 1!”


Maybe the
prerecorded announcements will force subway wits to go the way of the buffalo.
But we can at least take comfort in the fact that as one of the new voices of
the trains, Charlie Pellett is “honored to be part of the biggest and best mass
transit system in the world.”


The natives
should be so eloquent.


  • Parton Keese
    • Parton Keese

      Do you have a brother Rupert and a mother Valerie and a father Pete?

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