Terrors of a Subway Rider

Notes From the Underground

I'm on the uptown 6 train reading a love letter from a person who writes that he's decided to spend the rest of his life with me, and maybe I'm also holding a balloon and some daisies. Why not? Life is going so well! The train stops at Astor Place, where this man with a suitcase gets on and sits down next to me. As the doors slide tightly shut, he starts rummaging through his suitcase. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a laundry bag from the Comfort Inn, a rubber lobster from the Portland airport gift shop, a notebook titled "Secret Code Instructions." I read over his shoulder: "Now, when you see me on TV and my hat is on a little crooked, hit 14th Street. But if my hat is on straight and I am scratching my nose, go for 59th and Lex because it's got narrow stairs and you will make a mess and maybe even break a water main. And when you don't see me on TV anymore, what can I tell you? Use your judgment. I'll be up there with those 70 cellular phones."

Then the man turns to me and tells me how he hates his overbearing mother and his father, who wanted him to be a doctor, but he was a weakling and couldn't cut it, though he did date a scientist who was called Dr. Germ for short, but that didn't work out. Suddenly, he peels off a tight-fitting rubber face mask. I see he has heavy brows, thin lips, dark bedroom eyes, and I scream, "You're that man on the cover of the newspapers!" He says, "No, I'm just his evil twin, hidden at birth." Then he puts his hand on my knee, says, "Your number is up," pulls the switch on his body harness, and the rest is all fire and flesh and suffocation. And this article is being written from the grave.

Thankfully, it's not. The above was just a test run. Lately, while everybody's been worrying about whose spore is smaller and watching those letter sorters, I'm more scared about a bomb in the subway.

Illustration by Nathan Fox

Of course, I heard about that Nightline scenario of how anthrax can be spread by a subway. It "begins at rush hour," Ted Koppel says. "Several hundred thousand people pour into the subway system. Invisible in that crowd [is] . . . a squad of terrorists about to launch an attack. . . . Each [person] carries a half-liter glass jar filled with anthrax spores . . . and throws it onto the subway tracks, breaking it open. Now the trains themselves become part of the attack mechanism . . . pushing air ahead of them, pulling air behind them; like a pneumatic tube system, the anthrax is distributed not just through that station but throughout the entire network. . . . [In a few days] more than 50,000 [are] dead, a city virtually destroyed, a country shaken to its core."

Nightline and I have a different sense of what could happen. But the thing is, I'm not afraid of the subway as a germ carrier. I'm afraid of a fire and being trapped, like the people in their cars when those trucks crashed in a tunnel in Switzerland last week. It was 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, and everybody was molten.

A friend of mine said he thought Nightline's scenario was the scariest thing he ever heard; he didn't think mine was scary at all. And then we had a whole argument about it. I said I wasn't scared of anthrax because I could take antibiotics. Though the medical people changed their minds overnight about what kind of antibiotics we should take, and even if it was too late to take them, getting anthrax was better than dying of some terminal illness for 15 years. Then my friend said that the odds of being sealed up in a subway with a suicide bomber are so small. More people get killed in car crashes. I said, "Who is ever in a car? Who cares about the odds anyway if it's horrifying?" Then he said—he was in a really bad mood, and we were having hot chocolate—"A subway bomb is just some people being killed, not tens of thousands."

I told him he sounded like all those people who say, about the Shinrikyo cult's sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway, "Oh, they killed only 12 people." I remember the sarin thing as so horrible. People were lying on the subway floor; thousands were sick.

Then my friend said, "I'm more concerned about the death of a city." Like he is the governor or the pope or something. Then he said, "Forget the subway, because terrorists like to make a big splash." Well, the subway could be very splashy. Right after September 11, everyone was saying, There's going to be a second hit, and it's going to be the subway. Hey, you get a suicide bomber on a moving train and, ka-boom!, you wreck the whole system and screw up the city for months.

All that got lost with the anthrax. But remember how Bin Laden said, "America will burn"? He did not say America will stop breathing.

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