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"You have to look at the total experience in the subway," O'Leary says. "We have well over a billion riders a year and most of them have sense enough to ride inside the trains. I don't mean to make light of it. This is a terrible tragedy. We are always on the lookout for it. But there is a limit to how much you can do."
When a man gets a glimpse of Seec, Desif, and Seiz surfing recently in Brooklyn, he rushes to the token booth and shouts to the woman behind the glass. "There are three guys on top of the train," he yells. "On top." She stares back. "I don't know about on top," she says. "But in the train . . . "
Faced with the horrifying deaths of surfers, public officials have adopted that same blank look. After the 1996 death of a teen who hit a signal light just south of the Bronx Park East station, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani told reporters, "There is no way that you can protect a child who decides to surf on the top of a subway car." The courts have agreed. In 1993, a state supreme court judge ruled that an injured surfer could not sue the MTA for damages. "It is impossible to make the subways 100 percent safe," the court wrote, "let alone guard against the intentional and foolish foreseeable dangers."
Because statistics are incomplete, it's hard even to gauge the frequency of these accidents. Newspaper clippings trace the earliest surfing deaths to the 1980s. After a rash of incidents in the early and mid '90smost involving people atop elevated trains in the Bronxthe fad tailed off, only to heat up again with three major incidents in the first half of this year.
Transit historians say there is scant evidence that train surfing was part of city life before the rise of graffiti. "I grew up with a subway station right underneath my house and I have been riding the subway since I was three," says Stan Fischler, author of The Subway: A Trip Through Time on New York's Rapid Transitand the forthcoming Subways of the World. "And I can tell you this is not even something that our group would ever have imagined."
Fischler recalls a pal who walked across the tracks of a station in Brooklyn. "I remember watching in awe and horror," he says. "To me it was the absolute height of daring or stupidity. And, you know, it defies credulity what these kids are doing. It's part of this new cultureyou've got to go beyond."
For Juda Nadav, 25, and members of his southern Brooklyn graffiti crew, known as CGB, train surfing was inextricably linked to spray-painting their tags in and near the B line as it runs through Borough Park, Bensonhurst, and Gravesend. From roughly 1992 to 1997, Nadav estimates, he and his friends rode the roofs hundreds of times.
"When we were younger we would ride for hours," says Nadav, who has a shaggy goatee and fiery eyes. "Back and forth for hours. Because there was nothing to do. We grew up in the city. We were poor. We didn't have cable. We didn't have video games."
He was raised in Borough Park, where he found trouble even as a young child. By high school, he was an active graffiti writer with close friends like Lenny and Joey Lucenti, 21-year-old twin brothers. They would skip school and make a beeline for the stores that sold spray cans. After shoplifting a hefty supply, they would plot out that evening's targets.
"Our crew would always do what everybody else didn't," says the hyperactive Nadav, who has retired from the graffiti world and now only surfs to "reminisce" about his go-go years. "We'd climb that extra roof to get that extra spot. We would push ourselves to the limits, and I'd say a lot of times beyond the limits, just because we'd get more fame from it. It was our B line. It was the CGB line. We had every single rooftop from Ninth Avenue to the [Coney Island] train yard."
Then one evening, while riding inside the B train, Nadav and his crew saw the next limit.
"I was hanging out with my friend Matt, and we just glanced up and saw some kids surfing on the train," he remembers. "I'm like, 'Oh, shit,' you know. So that whole night we tried to catch up to them. Finally on one Manhattan-bound train, I stuck my head up, and boom, they were there. So I climbed up. I introduced myself, and what do you know, I know these kids from high school, FDR in Brooklyn. So that night, they showed me what to do, what not to do, this, this, and that."
Nadav then introduced the stunt to the Lucentis and other members of the crew. Joey says he was "scared shit" at first but after a few rides grew at ease. Lenny talks of how he clutched the train's roof for the first few stops before feeling confident enough to stand.
The crew camouflaged themselves in all-black outfits with masks and gloves, and they used hand signals to communicate above the train's roar. They also liked the heady rush, the boundary-stretching thrill of it all.