Illustration by Russell Christian.
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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
You wouldn't normally have expected the train to Brooklyn to be rush-hour crowded at 7:30 on a Saturday evening, but it was. You wouldn't have expected it to be that warm in mid-March either, but it was. Both seemed odd, but I didn't think about them all that much. The ride would be over soon, and I had other things to think about.
The wide mix of passengers in the last car with me represented the sort of carefully-constructed cross-section of society you'd find in any disaster film. There were fancy types and bums, high school kids and the elderly, young couples and angry loners. And I had Devo's "Beautiful World" stuck in my head.
Moments after pulling away from the Bergen Street stop, just as the train got back up to speed again, there was an unmistakable pssssh of the emergency brakes, as the train jerked to a halt.
Damn kids, I thought, being the kind who always thinks that it must've been those damn kids when the emergency brake is pulled. There were a few frustrated sighs and groans throughout the car, but the air fell mostly silent, except for a few quiet conversations which picked up from where they'd been interrupted a second earlier.
After sitting there for ten minutes, the conductor came on and said something about having a red signal ahead of us, and that he was waiting for it to change. We knew better. We'd heard the emergency brakes. It was not until then that the first serious grumbles and the repeated, more audible heavy sighs began.
Taking advantage if the moment, a 17 year-old in a basketball jersey and his chubby girlfriend pressed themselves up against a set of doors and began groping each other, oblivious to the uncomfortable and embarrassed people around them.
"What is this? How long will we be here?" an East Indian bum asked. Nobody answered.
It was already starting to get warm. Thin rivulets of sweat began trickling down my neck and back. I wasn't worried about the inconvenience. There were just too damn many people in there, and too little air.
After 15 minutes, the conductor finally admitted that the emergency brakes had been triggered for some unknown reason. Workers were trying to figure out why, he said, before offering a pat, "We hope to be moving shortly."
"How long is 'shortly?" the bum asked, the pitch of his voice rising. "They always say 'shortly'!" Then he added, with a derisive snort, "Shortly." He leaned against the back door, slid himself down to the floor, and stuck his legs out straight in front of him.
"Would you watch it?" a well dressed, matronly black woman spat at him.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'm not very refined."
"I don't care about your personal habits," she said, "I just don't want you puttin' your feet on me."
"Sorry." He moved his outstretched legs a little to the right, so they were touching someone else's legs, not hers.
For the first time, I heard a voice halfway down the car mention the word "terrorists." Then a few other people mentioned it, too.
I considered the very real possibility that we were stuck there in that tunnel because some jittery dundernut had mistaken a rubber band or a crumpled McDonald's bag for a bomb. If that turned out to be the case, somebody needed a sock in the back of the head.
After half an hour, and after screaming angry encouragements to the poor sap who was presently working his way down the tracks looking for the problem, a group of teenagers at the front of the car started ad-libbing parodies of (what I assumed to be) popular songs of the day, altering the lyrics, transforming them all into tunes about being stuck on the train.
The temperature continued to rise, and I was sweating worse, regularly removing my hat to wipe my damned forehead. At least nobody was able to use their cell phones down there. I had no interest in listening to 75 people call up friends to say "Hi! I'm, umm, stuck on the train? And "
Across the way, an aging junkie seemed to be on the nod.
"C'mon baby," the kid against the door urged his chubby girlfriend, "be like Michael and just do it." He jammed her against the doors with his pelvis again. The matronly woman who'd had the tiff with the bum earlier turned her back on them and pursed her lips in disgust. She wasn't having a good time at all.
"Jerry's gonna join the Marines as soon as he graduates," one young woman told her boyfriend.
"The Marines?" her boyfriend replied. "You know what they teach you? They teach you how to kill. That's all. I'm gonna join the Air Force. You gotta be more sophisticated. Right after I graduate, that's what I'm gonna do."
"Are you kidding?" she asked.
The conductor came over the PA again. "My partner is now checking the signal," he announced. "We hope to be moving again soon."
The East Indian bum snorted from his spot on the floor. Throughout the rest of the car, the singing continued, as did the groping, the quiet conversations and the wild doomsday speculation.
Finally, an hour after someone or something pulled the emergency brake, the train pulled into the Carroll Street station. I'm not sure if it had to be dragged there or got there under its own power. When it was announced that the train was out of service and that we all had to wait there for the next one, people cheered. It was news everyone was happy to hear.
My shirt, by this time, was soaked through, and the air at the Carroll platform was pleasantly cool.
The train we'd all been on was dragged away, and another pulled in only a few short minutes later. We all loaded back on again, fingers crossed.
At the next stop--Smith and 9th St.--the doors opened, and a few more people got on. Nobody, at this point, was talking anymore. We just wanted to get the hell home.
Then, as the train was about to leave again, a wiry woman with angry eyes ran aboard and stopped, bracing herself in the doorway, preventing the doors from closing.
She looked back towards the platform and shrieked, "Jenny? Hurry yo' ass up!"
(Jenny, it seems, was taking her own sweet time coming up the stairs.)
"Take the next train," a tired, annoyed voice droned. The woman didn't respond but continued blocking the doors.
"You in the yellow," the conductor's voice commanded over the PA, "step on or step down."
"Take the next train," the same tired voice urged. I couldn't see who the voice belonged to.
"Fuck you," the woman shot over her shoulder. Then back out into the darkness she screamed, "Jenny!"
You could feel the anger building in the air. Everyone stared at the woman with weary hate in their eyes.
"We're two hours late as it is, lady."
"Fuck you!" The doors tried to close again but couldn't.
Then another passenger--a large, gentle-looking man who'd been on that last train--took a step toward her. Before anyone knew what was going to happen, he gave the woman quick shove back onto the platform. The doors slid shut and we continued moving, the woman's voice howling on the platform as we pulled away. A few people clapped, and the man took a small bow.