Terrors of a Subway Rider

Notes From the Underground

Then I told my friend about that Edward Leary from Scotch Plains, New Jersey. He lost his job at Merrill Lynch one day. In 1994, he made firebombs from mayonnaise jars, kitchen timers, batteries, and flashbulbs. He set them off on two different subways. Forty-eight people were hurt. I read those news reports: "Panicked straphangers scrambled to the doors, trampling those who had fallen in the rush or were crawling as they tried to escape the scorching heat."

That was the only time a subway bomb went off in New York, but it wasn't the only time one was planned. In 1999, two Palestinian men with Middle East terrorist connections lived a block from the Gowanus Canal in this apartment with detonators, a body harness, and bombs made from four lengths of pipe packed with gunpowder. They were all ready to hit the Atlantic Avenue subway stop when their neighbor went flying into the Fort Greene police station screaming, "My friend is going to kill people in the subway!" The police shot and wounded the men in their apartment—foiling the plot!

But how could the police foil every bomb plot? The city has made it clear they're not going to strip-search and psychologically evaluate 4.8 million riders a day.

Illustration by Nathan Fox

My friend said that in Belfast they make people go through a gate and pat them down before they go into the city, so New York could have bomb dogs and three police officers doing pat-downs at every entrance. I told him there are 468 subway stations in the city and hundreds and hundreds of entrances.

I called NYC Transit to see what's what, but spokesperson Al O'Leary was in a security meeting. So I asked Deidre Parker, the deputy director of public affairs, "Well, what are you going to do? Are you going to be like the D.C. Metro and get rid of all the garbage cans?" I had also read that the D.C. Metro system asked the federal government for $190 million to upgrade their security system. And—even though I'm not worried about biochemcial stuff—D.C. is experimenting with an early-warning sensor in one station and some other devices in the Pentagon. The problem is, I read that it's possible that a sensor get confused between chocolate and the spore that causes botulism and then you wind up with false positives; the technology is still being perfected. Also, what if a sensor detected smallpox and we hadn't gotten our vaccines yet? Those vaccines are not going to be ready until next year or something. Everybody would be crestfallen.

Deidre Parker said she couldn't comment about New York yet. We do know the subway police are treating all abandoned packages as suspicious. Now, not a powdered donut will escape. National Guardsmen are posted at all the big stations in their jungle camouflage. The staff attorney of the Straphangers Campaign, Gene Russianoff, whose name sounds like he's always rushing off for a train, said he heard that "since September 11, subway ridership is down about 80,000 to l00,000 riders a day," but he also said, "That's about the loss you would expect right now—people who are missing or no longer have jobs, fewer tourists. Then again, bus ridership is up slightly." People I know who aren't riding the subways are riding their bikes instead, not because they're all scared but because they're irritated by all the delays and evacuations. They tell these long, involved stories about how they had to get off the W and then get on a J or something.

The subway is difficult, even on nonbomb days. Those tunnels always look like Halloween, with the rats frolicking like sheep and going on with their family life. The whole thing is underground like a cave, like where they say Hell is. It's a hole, which is exactly what the subway workers call it. Then once you're in a subway car, it's like being onstage, under those bright yellow lights, nose-to-nose with people, having to look deep into their soul—not always a pretty sight. My friend said, "Oh, I go on subways all the time. I'm just fine." I told him, "Maybe I've seen things you've never seen before. Like that woman one day in February in 1993. She was in her seventies, wearing an elegant wool suit. She lifted the skirt, squatted down on the platform, relived herself and said, 'Oh, that feels so much better.' Or how about the man who, standing in a packed car, put his hand between my legs and moved up until I stopped him with my hysterical screams."

Lately, I look around and think, Who would I like to be stuck with in a car if something happened? The other day, there was the man with the tattoos reading an Ann Rice book and the chubby woman reading So You Want to Be a Wizard—they didn't know each other, but maybe they should. I didn't want to know either one. But then there was the woman with the curls and the legal files—she looked logical and clearheaded. There was the yuppie in the nice white shirt, but he was kind of sweaty, like he got flummoxed easily. Of course, maybe he was sweaty because he had smallpox.

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