LOCAL ON A NEW LINE by Ellen Donker
A Maplewood resident changes course
In the late 1980s when DeMetha Hukins Simmonds was a college student trying to plan out her career, one thing was clear: she had no interest in following in her father’s footsteps. His job was in transit and, although he made an honest living, working on trains left him dirty, bruised and exhausted on a daily basis. Instead, Simmonds set her sights on a B.A. in business management and finance, and started a career in banking.
If her father were alive to see her now, he would probably have himself a good laugh – maybe even an ‘I told you so’ moment – because Simmonds is now a train operator. She is doing the very job she swore she would never take. And she couldn’t be more tickled.
True, she had built a successful career in banking over the course of three decades, with promotions along the way and stints in almost every department. And Simmonds did take pride in the prestige that came with her career: the well-appointed office, her polished wardrobe, the approval from her colleagues. On the home front, she and her husband settled in Maplewood around 2000, and raised two children: a son and a daughter. She had a complete life.
Eventually, though, she started feeling stuck and uninspired by banking. Each day had a sameness to it and she was bored. She says she was thinking, “I really don’t want to be here now. I’m too young to retire. How do you look for something else when you’re making money here and you’re getting older? You know, how do you make that transition with the money that you want and expect? I couldn’t get it together. I didn’t have an exit strategy.”
Then one day in 2015, she got a call from the Metropolitan Transit Authority asking her if she wanted to be a train operator. “I was like, who’s this?” she says. “What are you talking about?” They reminded her that she had taken a transit test six years before, in 2009. And it all came back: how she had given in to her Aunt Peggy’s repeated nudging to take the test even though she wasn’t interested. She was a banker, after all.
But now, the idea of trying something new appealed to Simmonds. Her mother thought it made sense, too, saying, “You’ll never know unless you give it a chance.” So Simmonds did, and started training for a transit job.
It wasn’t easy, though. She went from a job wearing nice clothes with very little physical activity to one that required a uniform and heavy lifting, pushing and pulling. She says, “It was a struggle for a year, from banking [to] not having any idea how to handle heavy equipment. It was like night and day in my mind.”
Simmonds says her supervisor noticed her difficulties but as long as she was committed, he said, “I’m gonna drag you through kicking and screaming all the way.” She adds, “He gave me the confidence and the courage to do this job. He had faith in me more than I had for myself.”
And that’s how Simmonds became a train operator. For five years now she’s been driving subway trains for the MTA. She loves every minute. Well, most of the time. Spending about 75 percent of her time underground, Simmonds has gotten used to the early hours, the manual labor, and being just about the only woman on a work crew. But she’ll never get used to the rats.
She recalls the first time she had to lay up a train – park it in a yard – and walk out with rats scurrying underfoot. The thought of having them pursue her and possibly crawl up her legs, paralyzed her. She knew she couldn’t run; there were too many hazards, including the third rail.
After what seemed a very long pause, she realized that if she wanted to get home, she had no other choice but to summon the courage to look straight ahead and walk out.
Simmonds started out driving the commuter subway trains, meaning that she was the person in the front of the train getting it from point A to point B. But now she drives the work trains that bring supplies to a worksite for fixing a train, painting a subway station, repairing a rail or anything else that needs to be serviced.
Although she knows what her starting and end points will be each day, she doesn’t know what she’ll be doing until she gets to work. She says, “You don’t know whether a tree is going to fall down the tracks. You don’t know whether something’s going to happen to one of the rails. You don’t know.”
What’s more, her shift ends when the work is done. That can make for 14-hour days; anything more than eight hours is paid to her in overtime or time off. Simmonds often prefers the latter so she can work four days a week. The unpredictability is just fine with her, although it was an adjustment after working so many years with her days planned out. And it helps that she’s past the stage when she has to be home for her kids. For now, she thrives on the novelty of the job, saying, “I don’t think if I worked for 30 years here, I could ever be bored. Because there’s too much to learn. I learn every day and I like that.”
And unlike banking, where unfinished business would run in the back of her mind after she left for the day, she says, “This job leaves you at peace. You’re exhausted. But you’re still mentally at peace. It’s different. Physical exhaustion and mental exhaustion are two different things. The mental exhaustion was weighing on me. I prefer being physically exhausted.”
As one of the few women in transit, Simmonds admits that the amenities for women are sorely lacking. But she feels respected by the other men – most of them much younger than she – and is not afraid to stand up for herself if a coworker comes at her “sideways and shady,” as she calls it. To many, she’s known as Miss D, Auntie or Cranky Grandma, names she feels are well-earned.
Occasionally, Simmonds has missed the clothing, purses and jewelry that she traded for a cap and a uniform sized only for men. She has sometimes felt that she was doing a menial job while all her friends were in executive offices. But that was part of the mind shift she gradually made to be able to embrace her new career and stand proud.
Certainly, Simmonds has learned a few lessons in this life chapter but the work ethic she has applied throughout her professional life defines her. She says, “I take pride in what I do. You can do anything you want to at any age. Don’t hold yourself back. Don’t get in your own way by getting in your head thinking that you can’t do something.”
Of course, Simmonds’ Aunt Peggy knew all along that her niece could have a fulfilling career in transit; unfortunately, she didn’t live to see it realized. But her mother did and for that Simmonds is grateful, saying, “She was so proud of me. So proud.”
When Ellen Donker heard about Simmonds' transition from banker to transit worker she knew she had to tell her story.