The Taste of Fear
Hidden on the roof of an elevated subway station deep in Brooklyn, a gangly twentysomething man watches as a train rumbles in, its awesome power shaking the structure to the foundation. Later he'll claim to have felt no butterflies, but now he moves with the speed of a man who knows he might get caughtor killed.
When the Coney Island-bound local lurches to a stop, the man, known by his graffiti tag, DI, springs the short distance from the overhang to the top of the car, undetected by the passengers below him. Emerging just as quickly from the shadows are his three friends, known on the street as Seiz, Desif, and Seec. Within seconds they are all lying on their stomachs, clutching the grooves in the iron horse's back.
The 400-ton machine starts up again, building toward a speed of 30 miles per hour, and the young men move to their feet, defying the laws of physics and common sense. Dressed in ordinary jeans and rubber-sole sneakers, they perch on the only space availablea four-foot-wide flat spot on the roof. They lift their arms like wings and shift their weight as the beast sways, knowing the edge and death are a single misstep away.
As the train hurtles down the tracks, they grow more comfortable, hopping from car to car, leaping over gaps, and relishing the adrenaline sweeping through their bodies.
"It got boring just riding in the car and bullshitting," says DI, reflecting on the deadly art of subway surfing. "So it was like an adventure, like going on the ultimate adventure."
His partner Seec adds: "It's as close as you can get to flying without taking drugs."
It's also notoriously dangerous, an ultraextreme urban sport that makes the fashionable bungee jump off the Manhattan Bridge seem like a prance through Gramercy Park on visitors' day. There are no safety harnesses or cool-headed guides to soothe your fears, though there's plenty of reason to be afraid. Surfing an underground train, which sometimes has mere inches of clearance from the tunnel roof, is nothing more than a suicide mission. The elevated lines aren't much safer, with signal lights jutting toward the tracks, and trains barreling through sudden curves and dipping without warning into tunnels.
If you are unlucky enough to fall or be struck, you're probably dead.
This year has been one of the bloodiest for subway surfers, who transit officials say are almost impossible to stop. In the first seven months of 2000, three people were killed and two critically injured after soaring on the city's subterranean finest.
In May, a man believed to have been surfing atop the Flushing-to-Manhattan 7 train was found lying on the tracks in Grand Central Station. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Two Irish nationals spent a March night drinking in the Village, then decided to surf the E train and were struck in the tunnel between the 65th Street and Roosevelt Avenue stations in Jackson Heights. They were taken to Elmhurst Hospital with serious injuries. And in January, 15-year-old surfers Billy Quinn and Cory Hammerstone were killed as their N train entered the Bay Parkway station in Bensonhurst.
"Look what happened to my baby," Quinn's mother, Cathy, told a group of kids who gathered at her home, according to a newspaper report. "Please let this be a warning to you, or all your mothers will be suffering like I am. It's not worth it. I have to carry this pain around in my heart forever."
"I want my baby back," Hammerstone's grief-stricken mother, Shelley, told the reporter. "Why, God, did you take him?"
Police theorize that the graffiti-writing youthsCory was known as Sone, Billy as Hexclimbed from the roof of the Kings Highway station onto the top of the Manhattan-bound train. They made it only a single stop before colliding with a bar that hangs near the entrance of the station. On a recent afternoon, all the N trains sounded their horns just before passing the spot, an ear-shattering warning to any copycat surfers.
"I couldn't believe it," says a 17-year-old boy whose tag is Risk, languidly strolling down the Bay Parkway thoroughfare with a few friends, not far from the station where the boys died. "Billy was like a regular kid. He played football. They weren't in trouble. I mean, they used to go to school."
Another boy, Sir Spiticus, tooling around on roller blades, says he doesn't think the pair surfed much because if they had they would've known the dangers of the tunnel. "It wouldn't have happened," he says.
"The whole idea of surfin' is old school," pronounces 19-year-old Drone, wearing a baseball cap slightly askew and smoking a cigarette. "Let's leave it there."
Would he ever surf? "Never," says Risk. "I know what can happen."
Neither the Metropolitan Transit Authority nor the New York Police Department keeps statistics on the number of subway-surfing deaths. The MTA charts how many people have been killed by trains42 in 1999but doesn't specify the nature of the deaths, says spokesman Al O'Leary. Despite the seeming spike in numbers, he says there's no evidence surfing fatalities are on the rise.
"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 Transit and 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.
Nadav says he rarely thought much about the risks. He was a kid from a strife-ridden home life who spent nearly every waking hour on the streets. "The element of death was always there," he says. "We were young, and life wasn't that valuable to us. But I don't know. It was like divine intervention or something. So many times we would have close calls."
In 1993, one of the core members of the crew, 15-year-old Eric Suarez, whose tag was Phyn, was killed while bombing in the Union Street station on the N line. He was crossing the tracks to reach an incoming train when a work train struck him.
"At a point it stopped us and then maybe a year after that it was our inspiration to keep going," says Joey Lucenti, who says he makes the sign of the cross whenever he passes through Union Street "even though I am an atheist."
"He basically died for us," says Nadav. "For us and for our crew. For fame for us. And it's like, we're just gonna let all that get painted over?"
The crew laid off for a while, then picked up again, even fighting with other graffiti writers who tried to paint over their dead friend's work. And they got back up on the trains.
In all, about 30 people rode the tops of subways with CGB at some point during the five years of the crew's peak. No one was ever arrested or injured while surfing. But plenty of people did it only once. "We brought a girl up on the train one time," says Joey Lucenti. "The reason for her never returning is she almost slipped." New riders were always paired with an experienced surfer, who would coach them through.
Nadav estimates that 70 percent of their surfing was strictly for fun, with the other 30 percent involving some kind of graffiti work. "I'd say maybe three to four nights a week it would be the B line and one night a week the F line," he says. "We would do that so we got more familiar with those neighborhoods, so if we ever got chased we would know where to go. We knew what stop was coming up next. We would recite it in our head. OK, this stop, this stop, and then this stop is coming up. We never had to look at the map. We knew which stations were by the main avenues and even how far the police stations were. It was all a calculated-plan thing."
They say they rarely surfed while high and never dreamed of risking a ride in an underground tunnel. As they got more experienced, they had no qualms about riding during the height of rush hour. They would run on top of trains and even jump between cars. Once Lenny Lucenti nearly fell to the tracks when he misjudged the length of his leap. Another time Nadav slipped on a piece of paper stuck to a train's roof, avoiding injury only because he dropped directly backward onto the car.
By 1997 they started to drift away from the active graffiti scene. Now they say they are living resolutely aboveboard, except for a regular indulgence in marijuana. Nadav, hoping to avoid trouble lurking in the city, lives upstate, where he works construction, teaches dance classes, and is attempting to kick-start a Web design business. Both of the Lucenti brothers, still in Brooklyn, work as counselors to mentally disabled adults, "believe it or not," says Joey, who is also, believe it or not, a licensed security guard. Their dream is to make it in the entertainment world. Joey spends his offtime as an MC, Lenny as a DJ.
When they talk about their surfing days, they rarely dwell on the danger of it, emphasizing instead the ballsiness of the experience. Still, when the subject of the deaths of Quinn and Hammerstone comes up, they express sadness about the loss, speaking in quieter tones. The Lucentis, who knew Hammerstone slightly, never understood him to be a surfer. They saw him as someone who was just beginning in graffiti, too young even to worry about being arrested by the police. Joey thinks that if he had "preached to him not to do it, maybe I could've made a difference," but he adds that he didn't know the boy to be in danger.
"Just because I jump off the bridge doesn't mean they have to jump off the bridge," offers Nadav. The deaths, he says, do not weigh on his conscience.
At Cory's wake, Joey was one of many graffiti writers who packed the room to pay their respects. "It was sad," he notes, speaking slowly. "A lot of people, a lot of people crying. He looked up to us, so I felt really bad." After a pause, he adds, "May they both rest in peace."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.
- Meet the Woman Who Uses Cosplay and Comic Cons to Lift the Spirits of Sick Children
- Here Are Ten (Or So) Graphic Novels to Watch Out For at NYCC
- The Man Behind 'Modern Seinfeld,' Focuses on His Own Neuroses in New Book