Please Stand Back

We’re on the Grand Street station waiting for the B. David leans in, craning his neck to look for train lights inside the tunnel.

“Hey,” I say, nodding toward the edge of the platform. “Don’t stand so close.”

He smiles and rolls his eyes, but takes a step back, raises his eyebrows as if asking, That enough? I hold my stare as if to say, Nuh-uh. He grants me another two steps back.

“You need to stand back like, your entire height,” I explain. “If a crazy person pushes you or if you stumble for whatever reason, there’s enough room for you to fall on the floor instead of on the rails.”

“Sure thing, honey,” he says, amused.

We both know who the crazy person is, he wants to say, but doesn’t.

This happens over and over again, at different stations, with different people. I’m the mom friend, the buzzkill, the party pooper. But I’m also right.

The MTA is my only mode of transportation – I can’t drive, nor afford taxis and ubers. Unlike most people relying on the MTA, I happen to enjoy it. My hometown did not have a subway system: there were buses, but you couldn’t look up their routes or schedules. You had to know everything through word-of-mouth. Don’t know how to get somewhere? Tough luck – call your grandma, she might have an idea. The MTA, grimy and unstable as it is, was revolutionary to me. Maps? Everywhere. Schedules? On your phone. Service? Twenty-four hours. Sure, the honeymoon phase is long gone – ever since I started riding outside of Manhattan more than once a year – but overall, the MTA and I have a decent relationship. For every time he breaks down, I know there were countless days when I needed him and he was there for me. I forgive him. He’s under a lot of pressure.

That said, sometimes I get a little freaked out. My boyfriend says it’s precisely because I didn’t grow up riding the train. I’m not quite as numb to it as real New Yorkers are. Sometimes I become hyper-aware of the whole thing, of being trapped with way too many strangers, inside a metal cylinder traveling way too fast, way too deep into the Earth. Sometimes I wonder if, were the ground to suddenly collapse above us, the train shell would be enough to save us from a horrible death. Sometimes the train gets stuck in the tunnel – We are momentarily delayed due to train traffic ahead, the chirpy male voice says – and I feel dizzy, short of breath, and kind of sweaty.

Worst of all is worrying about falling or being shoved onto the tracks. You see the posters around: 145 people were struck by trains in 2014. 58 were killed. The first time I read that, I cringed – what the fuck happened to the other 87? How do you survive getting struck by the train? Who or what do you become?

After I decided not to think about it, I realized how high a number that was: one person every two and a half days. I don’t want to be that person. So I stand against the wall, or behind a pillar. When I hear the train coming, I take an extra step back, just in case. I’m not paranoid by any means – I just take small, costless precautions.

Years ago, I had this talk with my friend Amber, while waiting for the E on West 4th. She chuckled and said, “If I fall on the tracks and die, that’s because I was meant to, so I wouldn’t mind.”

“Are you kidding me? Because you were meant to?

She shrugged.

“Alright, so if I’m at your funeral, reading your eulogy, I should tell everyone, ‘Don’t cry for Amber, she was meant to die at 19.’”

She laughed. “Go ahead.”

“I’d be beaten. I’d be killed. We’d both be dead.”

She still smiled, but stepped back.

I looked it up. 211 people died on the MTA tracks between 2003 and 2007. Half were confirmed suicides. Thirty percent were accidents – drunkards missing a step, diabetics passing out, children stumbling. Only four were deliberate homicides.

The combined subway ridership during those years amounts to 7.3 billion.

The crazy-pusher story is an anomaly – I understand that. The idea still chills me to the bone. It’s terrifying to think that every single person you encounter has the power to end you. You encounter a lot of people in New York, every day. It only takes one of them to be psychotic, deranged, tripping on bad shit, whatever. Everything you’ve ever done, every dream you’ve ever had, every plan you’ve ever made – gone, just like that, mangled in the rails, bleeding onto mud and metal.

It doesn’t really matter if only four out of seven billion rides end like that. The senselessness overrides the statistical safety. The fifth person could be David, or Amber, or me.

David and I rushed past Columbus Circle, connecting from the D to the 1. We needed to get all the way to 181st Street to get picked up by friends for a weekend trip. The platform was somewhat busy – I imagined it’d been a while since the last train had come, and we didn’t have to wait long for the next one.

The cars were full. When people started crowding at the doors, I told David to hold my hand so we could get in together. I placed my small suitcase in front of me and went along with the mass of bodies. I’d stepped onto the car when I heard David say, “I don’t think we can…,” his voice drowned by the noise. I turned back, asking, “What?”

Before I could realize what was happening, my left foot went straight into the gap. I went down to my thigh, lodged between the train and the edge of the platform.

For a moment, I considered: the doors are going to close, the train is going to move. I am going to be dragged along the platform, my skin peeling off me, my bones cracking internally, David racing along while I die in front of him. Would Amber think it was meant to happen? Would someone have to write a report about me? Would my friends cancel the weekend trip to attend my memorial?

But I immediately felt one, three, six, many hands on me, yanking me out by the arm. In classic New Yorker fashion, there wasn’t much of a commotion. People were still walking into the train car – others were just now gasping, Oh my gosh – and I was saying, “Sorry, thank you, sorry, I’m okay.” I was out in seconds; David pulled me back, and I said sheepishly, “Let’s uh, wait for the next train.” The riders who saved me went on, and I never saw their faces.

David held my face and asked if I was okay. I said I was, but the look in his eyes – like he was so grateful, too grateful – scared me. I choked up and blinked hard. My voice was strained, my eyes were stinging. I repeated, “I’m okay,” a little softer this time. I thought of how quick it all was, and I wondered if it would’ve been the same if I’d fallen just a few seconds later. I imagined someone would’ve screamed, the conductor would’ve been alerted, the train wouldn’t have gone on – right? I’m still not as sure as I’d like to be.

We sat down. The platform was empty. The next train will arrive in four minutes, the pleasant female voice said. It was business as usual.

I clutched my leg and sighed. It was stiff, hot, raw. Later I would take my pants off and find a gruesome bruise, the size of my face. It would take eleven days to heal, going from blue to purple to red to green, and finally to a sickly yellow that lasted much too long. On that first day, I could feel the blood pooling under my skin, pulsing with my heartbeat.

I stepped carefully when the next train came. It was much emptier than the one before.

We sat down again; David held my hand. He said that from his end, it looked like I was getting sucked in by the Earth. I went down so smooth. We laughed, but my throat still felt tight.

Part of me was relieved. On one hand, I went straight into logical fallacies – I was bound to have an accident, and I did, and now I won’t have another. On the other, I felt vindicated – See? This is what I mean. This is what could happen.

The next time we rode the subway, I didn’t have to say anything. We both stood back.

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