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.

Of course, I heard about that Nightlinescenario 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."

Nightlineand 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 sosmall. More people get killed in car crashes. I said, "Who is everin 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.

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.

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.

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."

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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