Wednesday, March 18, 2009

And then the V train came into the station...

Coming back home last night on the subway, I caught one of the old F trains --those ribbed, stainless steel cars that are as old as I am. Lots of floor space, parallel lines of seats facing each other.

At Broadway-Lafayette, a tall, 20 something guy with a huge duffel bag got on. As the train started to pull out of the station, this guy LEAPED out of his seat, sprinted down the length of the subway car to the very end -- and pulled the emergency brake cord!!!

We heard a loud pneumatic hiss, and the train slammed to a stop. The guy yelled "SORRY! I'M SORRY!", and ran back to his duffel bag. He scooped it up, opened the front door of the car, squeezed between the two cars, and leaped onto the platform. We could see him run down the length of the station.

I am convinced that nearly every New Yorker wants to reach out and talk to the people around them, but they don't dare because they know that it just isn't done without a special dispensation. So we all sat there watching the guy or staring off into the middle distance. No one knew what had just happened, or why. We were startled and a little scared. But still we remained in our shells. Then someone from the front of the car, near where the guy had been sitting, said "He said he must have left his camera on the platform."

That remark was the absolution we needed. Instantly, the entire subway car became a committee of the whole, organized to debate the man's behavior, selfishness, stupidity, ancestry, and recto-cranial capacity:

"A camera? A CAMERA?"
"Who takes their camera out on the platform?"
"Who leaves their camera on the platform?"
"That better be a five thousand dollar camera."
"It's not just this train, you know! He's backing up the whole line."
"If he comes back on, let's throw his duffel bag on the tracks."
"I thought he was epileptic!"
"I thought he had Tourettes!"

When that died down we went back to just sitting there. I habitually sit in the last car of the F train. The first eight cars of the train were in the tunnel -- our car and the car in front of us were still on the platform. And thank the gods of every religion for that. If I had been stuck in the tunnel for 25 minutes, they would have pulled me out a drooling, babbling idiot good for nothing but a long visit at Bellevue.

Not unlike the guy in the wheelchair. It was St. Patrick's Day, remember, and the guy in the wheelchair had decided to drink himself legless. About five minutes after Camera Guy pulled the emergency cord, Wheelchair Guy started shouting. "HEY! Get me off this motherfucking train!" "Open this bitch up!!!" "Do you work for the CIA?" He slammed his wheelchair over and over into the front door of the subway car. His leprechaun hat fell off.

There was an elderly black man seated across from me. He looked at Wheelchair Man, let out a long, deep, sigh, and said in a Barry White voice, "I must be on the Crazy Train."

About 10 minutes after Camera Guy pulled the emergency cord, the conductor showed up, walking through the front door of the subway car (I should mention that the side doors of the car had remained sealed all this time). The guy in the wheelchair said "What took you so motherfucking long? We could have been dead back here!!", which was a completely reasonable observation. "You must work for the CIA!!! Now let me off this motherfucker!"

The conductor took out his special key and opened first side door. Wheelchair guy wheeled himself out. No one else took the option to flee. The conductor went back into the other car without examining the rest of our car. Had he stayed for another second, we would have pointed out that it was our emergency brake that had been pulled.

The PA system cracked to life. "Conductor," the voice said, "garble flurben flarben garble garble floogle boogle garble zim zam zooney." We all looked at each other expectantly: did anyone understand what we had just heard? The conductor's voice came on the PA system: "Yeah, he's on his way." Apparently the conductor did.

The entire 25-minute long event could be roughly divided into pre-conductor and post-conductor eras. Before the conductor showed up in our car, we passengers were relatively cheerful -- talking to each other and cracking sarcastic jokes about Camera Guy and the MTA. After the conductor came and went, the jokes ended, and our complaints became louder. Wheelchair guy's pronouncement -- that the train staff took a good 10 minutes to investigate what could have been a tragedy -- still hung in the air. We were growing disgruntled. And then the V train came into the station.

I had always thought that when the emergency brake is pulled, the signal lights in the tunnel turn red to prevent another train from entering the station. Barring that, I figured the motorman or conductor would radio the trainmaster to hold all trains in that particular part of the line. I was wrong both times. In less time than it takes to read, we heard a V train thunder into the Broadway-Lafayette station! Almost immediately, its motorman slammed on its brakes with a shriek of steel on steel. The V train came to a shuddering stop about three car lengths behind us. Not very close, I'll admit, but dammit, it shouldn't have been there at all!

Now, the people in the subway car were solidly pissed. Wheelchair Guy's observation still rattled around in our heads. And then the V train! What was up with that? How could such a thing happen!?!? Before anyone could work themselves into doing something stupid, the conductor re-appeared. He took out his special key and opened first side door of the subway car. Two MTA employees got on. The conductor led them to the control booth at the back of the car. The two men fiddled with some stuff in the booth for no more than 30 seconds, then came out and said "good to go". We were too disgusted to complain. The train started moving about 5 minutes later.

At Delancey Street a beautiful woman in her 40s got on. The PA system cracked "Lays and Gemmum, garble farble flooble garble floy floy be moving shortly." Eager to regain the lost camaraderie we used to have, I said to everyone, "I think this train has met its quota for getting stuck tonight." No one said anything. The crisis was over, and we had lost that magical dispensation that allowed us to speak to each other. Instead of people sharing an adventure, we were once more individual New Yorkers, back in our shells, brooding about how late this train was.

Then the beautiful woman piped up. "Is that why this train was so late? You were stuck in the tunnel?"

And we all got to tell her the story of the crazy guy who lost his camera and pulled the emergency brake.


Anonymous said...

Nice story.

Anonymous said...

and well told

Anonymous said...

Only in New York..
Thats one of the reasons why i love this city.

thanks for the lol's

Nemo said...

such a great story. thanks for sharing.

bleibtreu said...

Regarding the V train behind you, the subway signals are a block system. Signals are spread some distance apart, a distance that is calculated to be safe for a train to stop within. The space between consecutive signals is a "block." In the NYC subway a block is between 500 and 700 feet.

As a train passes a signal, it turns red. You can see that happen sometimes in the front car or on some platforms. The green light turns red as soon as the first reaches it, entering the next block. The light will stay red until the train clears the next block. That is, there is always one "red block" between trains. Emergency brakes are automatically triggered if a train passes a red signal (although some signals reportedly do not trigger the brakes if the train is moving slower than about 5 mph, so it sometimes is possible for a train to pass a red signal).

So the train behind you got a red signal when it was somewhere between 500 and 700 feet back... and you saw how long it takes to stop a train.

willson said...

Interesting… I might try some of this on my blog, too. It’s quite interesting how you sometimes stop being innovative and just go for an accepted solution without actually trying to improve it… you make a couple of good points.

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