My Family’s Fatal Relationship With Public Transportation



Brooklyn, NY 11215

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Park Slope

My family has a particular vulnerability, a fatal relationship really, with public transportation. Aunt Aneila, running to catch a bus, was hit and killed by a post office truck on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn long before I was born. “Mowed down like a dog,” my mother used to say. Uncle Donald had a heart attack and died on the subway on the way home from his job as a limo driver in Manhattan. My father’s father drowned at thirty-one when he fell off a ship in New York Harbor; my grandmother fainted when she went to identify the corpse, bloated from three days in the water. When I went to a small town in Ireland a few years ago, I met the Nolans, neighbors of my grandmother’s family, who told me that it was too bad I hadn’t been there a year earlier. If so, I would have met my Uncle Patsy, the last member of the Horan family–run down by a bus in Dublin just the year before.

Other close calls, while not causing death, suggested that the curse was real: my mother was sent to the hospital for three weeks as a result of a smash up with a livery cab; my Uncle Alphie lost three fingers of his right hand when he slammed them in the door of the huge truck that he drove; my dog Augie was killed by a sanitation truck whose drivers, after giving us a minute to say good-bye, picked up Augie’s carcass and threw it into the back of the truck. Doom lingered in my subconscious as a cumulative result. These accidents confirmed my belief in the dangers of getting around the city. I was fearful of traffic, always crossing at the light, trusting no driver, and saying a small prayer every time I made it alive to the other side of the street.

The most memorable incident, however, was what happened to my Uncle Johnny. The day Uncle Johnny was run over by the RR train returning home from his weekly bowling league, I was in the hospital having my tonsils removed. I came home but Uncle Johnny never made it out of the hospital, although he did manage to stay alive for eight days. His legs had been amputated by the train. That was a new word to be added to my eight-year-old lexicon, “amputated,” and I still cannot hear it without picturing my uncle, a torso in a hospital bed, blood seeping through his heavily gauzed stumps.

My father was the oldest and Johnny the youngest of my grandmother’s three remaining sons. I vaguely remember Johnny, but everyone said he was the most handsome of the sons—women were crazy about him. We children, my older sister and brother, were not permitted to visit him in the hospital. We got our scanty information by eavesdropping on conversations of the adults who were shocked, and who spoke solemnly to one another. Snippets of conversation were all we heard: “stop the bleeding,” “never walk again,” “no life insurance,” “his poor mother,” “My God!, my God!”

Feeling left out, and overwhelmed by the dense tragic atmosphere, my sister Janie and I, upstairs in our bedroom, devised our own gruesome recreation of the accident, coming up with imagined bizarre and horrifying details. “What do you think happened to his legs?” Janie started. “Did one cop have to tell another one: “Go get the legs?”

“You’re sick! You’re disgusting!” Hysterical giggles rose in my throat, still raw and loose from the tonsillectomy. “Do you think his feet still had shoes on?”

Jamie screamed with laughter. “I’m disgusting? You’re disgusting! If he dies, will they put the legs in the coffin? Will they attach them under his pants? Maybe he can hold a leg in each arm.” We laughed hard enough to make our stomachs and my still-raw throat hurt, and giggled loudly enough that my mother stomped up the stairs to ask us if we had gone crazy–laughing at a time like this

When our mother finally talked to us, she revealed that she had never seen her mother-in-law, my grandmother, a tough and unsentimental sixty-five year-old widow, cry until then, at Johnny’s bedside. He had become conscious, but delirious, and was complaining that his legs hurt, or were burning, or itchy. Grandma, who slept on a cot in his room the whole eight days he survived, pretended to rub them, or salve, or scratch them, soothing him in comforting tones she had never used before, even to her grandchildren.

Besides a terrible fear of hospitals and the habit of standing well back from the edge of the subway platform, Uncle Johnny left us another legacy. Janie and I were given, why I do not know, his bowling bag, ball with “JH” on it, tan bowling shoes, men’s size ten, a leather glove, and a book called Bowling for Beginners. These things had been with Uncle Johnny on the night of his misfortune, causing much speculation and squeamishness on my sister’s and my part as to whether the bag and its contents fell onto the tracks with him.

Being enormously thrifty by nature, Mom couldn’t stand to see anything go to waste, even sports equipment. She viewed this bequest as a sign from God that her children should bowl, or perhaps she just wanted us out of the house. Every Sunday afternoon for two years, with the exception of summers Daddy took us bowling at Maple Lanes. He sat at the bar drinking whiskey and soda and smoking Pall Malls down to the end, sometimes until they burned his fingers and lips. When his patience ran out, he would rush over to our alley urging us with “C’mon. C’mon. Finish up! Let’s go. Finish it up! I don’t have all day for this.”

At the beginning of our weekly bowling trips, Janie and I had to share Uncle Johnny’s bowling shoes, money being tight. As soon as Janie finished one frame, she quickly slid the shoes off and I put them on, complaining that she either had not untied them or that they were hot and smelly from her feet. She did the same when I took them off to give to her. Of course, the man-sized shoes had to be stuffed with socks to make them fit. When our interest in bowling really took off, Mom gave us the thirty-five cents each to rent our own shoes.

Uncle Johnny’s shoes and glove always remained in the bag in the closet even though we no longer used them. I read and reread Bowling for Beginners. I decided to adopt the straight arm, straight down the alley, “shaking hands” approach, rather than risk the curve delivery. To this day, even though I only bowl every few years, I’m pretty good, and I have Uncle Johnny to thank for it.


Marilyn Horan was born in Brooklyn and has spent her whole life there. Recently retired from the job of assistant principal in NYC schools, she now has time to write.

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