Friday, July 20, 2007


“Attention passengers. This station is Kew Gardens-Union Turnpike*. Kew Gardens-Union Turnpike station will be the last stop on this train due to track work. Transfer here for connections to the F train and a shuttle train to Sutphin Boulevard.”

The doors slid open and a mass of dispirited humanity filed off the train, our soon-to-be-more-comfortable reverie interrupted by the news of an entirely unwelcome transfer. I reached between my legs, scooped my backpack by the loop stitched to the top and carried it, suitcase-style, out to the platform with the rest of the disenfranchised souls who’d boarded the train, miles back down the line, with no knowledge of “track work” or a disrupted “weekend repair schedule.”

I made a beeline for my customary subway standing-spot, leaning against one of the support columns that run along the track. You think differently about subway pushers when you’ve actually seen one. I have. When I was twelve years old, I was waiting for a train with my cousin when a man pushed another man off the platform. There hadn’t been a train coming, and some people jumped down to help him get off the track. Some other people chased down the pusher and kicked him in the face so he’d be unconscious when the cops arrived. In Manhattan, they’d surround subway pushers and wait for John Law. In the outer boroughs, people kicked them in the face. New York in the eighties.

Vigilante justice notwithstanding, I’ve long been in the habit of looking for danger when trains are about to pass.

I leaned against the column with my weight on my heels to prevent people from pulling me away and throwing me in front of the next train. I’ve been thinking about these things on subway platforms for twenty years, and my heels are my defense. When I feel the breeze of an oncoming train in my face – it hits you just before you can see the lights down the tunnel – I know to brace myself, and when I brace myself I know I’m not going to die under the wheels.

The effort had me sweating.

Twenty minutes of post-sitting later, another E train pulled in, and another luggage-laden throng of frustrated travelers spilled onto the platform, their JFK-on-time dreams trapped in the jaws of a living, breathing MTA cluster-fuck which, judging by the stale, unmoving air in the station, didn’t seem likely to end anytime soon.

“I want to know what the fuck is goin’ on down here!”

There was shouting. I turned around. An African-American woman with a navy blue scarf on her head and a stroller in tow had confronted the train’s conductor, who stood stoically in his compartment, window open, listening until he could leave.

“Why ain’t these motherfuckin’ trains stoppin’ at the nex’ three stops?”

“They’re doin’ track work, ma’am,” replied the conductor, palms turned placatingly upward. “You got to transfer to the F when it comes.”

“This is bull-SHIT! I got to stand down here with my child, in this heat, and you motherfuckers don’ tell nobody that the motherfuckin’ trains ain’t stoppin’ at Parsons?”

“I’m sorry you’re inconvenienced, ma’am. All I can tell you is that you got to transfer to the F. That’ll take you to Parsons.”

The woman sucked her teeth. “Why you can’t take me to Parsons in this train?”

“Because I’m just doin’ what I’m told, ma’am.”

“Well, why you can’t tell nobody that before they get on the motherfuckin’ train in the first place, n---a?”

The conductor was a black man. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I can’t do anything for you. You just got to get on the F when it comes in.”

“You goin’ that way. You goin’ to the yard, an’ you got to go past Parsons, an’ you can’t take all these motherfuckin’ people where they got to go? You a asshole!”

“Oh, I’m a ass-HOLE? You’re the one standin’ here makin’ a ass out of YOUR-self in front of YOUR child, bitch! What the fuck you want me to do, HIJACK THE MOTHERFUCKIN’ TRAIN?!?”

*This may or may not be correct. I wasn’t paying much attention at the time.