Terrors of a Subway Rider

Notes From the Underground

Then I think, maybe I'll be lucky and be in the last car. So when the bomb goes off—let's say the subway bomber is in a middle car—I won't be burned and, after helping others, of course, I can crawl out. But then I'll have to run on those tracks full of animals and electricity. My only guide is Swan in The Warriors. The film's about how he and his gang have to make it back from Harlem to Coney. These other gangs want to kill him, but the cops are after him, too, so he has to jump off the platform and walk the tracks, and this girl, Mercy, tags along, and she wants to have sex right in the tunnel, and Swan says, "Why don't you just tie a mattress to your back?"

Psychiatrist Scott Masters, director of education at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital, says that since September 11, most of the people he sees are "having a difficult time, and transportation is often the place where they have it. It's the place that's in between where we feel most vulnerable, and someone else is driving." Oh, if we could all be the train operator. Masters says, "There's a great need to control what might be coming. What comes out of the blue terrorizes us more. These days, the mind is set for scanning harm in the environment. Some people bargain. One patient told me that she sat in the waiting room and thought, 'If Dr. Masters sees me early, I won't die of anthrax.' "

This reminded me of a few years ago when things were shaky. I'd be at the Spring Street stop and I'd say, "OK, if the E train comes, I'll be famous. If it's a C, I'll just be nothing." This thought would just rush into my brain. Masters says, "We call that magical thinking—the thing we did in childhood to make magical connections and control our environment by thought."

Illustration by Nathan Fox

The most fearless subway ride I had in a while was the other night, after doing all the research for this story. I was so tired from reading about detonators that I got on the N train and almost fell asleep. But I just hope that if there is a bomb, it will be so forceful that I'll be thrown up into the air through the sidewalk and I'll land in the arms of a handsome fireman. Or maybe the suicide bomber will become so overwhelmed with his harness that he'll just fall asleep. Or I could talk to him about the Bhagavad Gita, calm him down, and say how we're all in the same battle. Or I'll say to myself, Come what may, I'm going to be just like Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver, who was so brave wrestling with that Nazi in her kitchen, and then later, when she's in the bunker, she's able to knit and cheer up her children.

My friend said he had never seen the film. Then after we argued some more about whose terror was the scariest, the discussion turned to his mother and his girlfriend. I noted how different they are. My friend said, "You know, actually, when I think of my mother, it's like the way you feel in the subway. She has her hands around my neck, and they are closing in. That's why I never wear turtlenecks."

I said, "Really, I never noticed. But you know, I don't wear turtlenecks either.They're so confining."

Anyway, in closing, let me just sing part of the 1907 ballad "The Subway Express":

BOY We first met down at Spring Street
       And then upon my word

GIRL I felt I'd known you all my life
       When we reached Twenty Third

BOY You won my heart at Harlem

GIRL At the Bronx, I murmured yes

BOY We lost no time in that hour sublime
       On the Subway Express.

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