Respect for the Dead

by

04/08/2013

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

I was on the 2 Express uptown on my way home after work. It was about 6:30 pm. We straphangers who were standing were packed in like sardines. As the train pulled into the 79th Street station, there was a sound, a whooshing of air, a release. It felt as though the power had been cut. We came to a stop inside the station… and then we were stuck there. The lights and air conditioning snapped off. The conductor came on the intercom and told us that someone had activated the emergency brakes and that we would be stalled there while it was investigated. A collective groan went up. I looked around, wondering where the emergency brakes are kept in each car, whether it involved a lever and why someone might have pulled said lever. We waited awhile, grumbling, sighing. It was getting hot. Someone opened the door at the end of the cabin to let air in.

“I’m so hungry.” A woman said. “I want to get home and eat.”

“I told you.” A mother said to her young son. “You should have listened to me when I told you to sit.”

That’s when we started to see the police and emergency workers, tons of them, pouring into the station, big men in uniforms and helmets. They walked the length of the platform, shining flashlights under the train.

It occurred to me then that we might have hit someone. But I quickly decided that this was unlikely because we were on one of the two center tracks, far away from the platform, and because, just last week, I had been on another train out on Long Island that had been stalled for a least an hour after an earlier train hit a commuter (I was told later by a taxi driver that I had just missed seeing the body on the tracks). What were the odds of me being at the scene of two commuter train accidents in the space of a week? Not good. I flexed my toes and shifted in my spot. My feet were aching in my heels. I was hot in my suit and down jacket so I took off the jacket. I thought about taking off my shoes but decided against it. I had some almonds in my bag and thought about eating some but decided against this also. No one else was eating and I didn’t want to be the only one. I wondered if there was a bomb scare. I wondered if we were in the midst of a terrorist attack. I remembered newspaper reports from years ago of Sarin gas being set loose on a Tokyo subway.

One man realized we had cellphone service. “They gots the NYPD and the firemen and EMS and the FBI and the CIA and the secret service and the Army and the Air Force and the Marines. They gots damn near everyone in here it looks like.” He said into his phone.

The conductor came on the intercom again and told us what he had been telling us for the past 40 minutes, that someone had activated the emergency brake, that it was being investigated, that he would tell us more when he had more information.

A woman came up from the back, pushing through the crowd. “Excuse me! I have to get to the front of the train! Excuse me!” She was young and had a thick Staten Island accent. She had a little notebook and a pencil – a reporter, I thought. Someone asked her if she knew what had happened. “Someone is injured.” She told us.

I texted the babysitter and my husband to let them know that I was stuck on the train, that I might be there for awhile. I typed, then erased the words “I think we hit someone” and “I hope we didn’t hit someone” so as not to make it true and so as not to bring bad luck upon us.

The conductor came on the intercom again. “This train is going to be evacuated.”

EMS appeared at the open door at the back of the car. “We’re all going to walk through to the back. Just be patient. It will only take 15 minutes, half an hour.”

On the platform, we could see emergency workers bringing a big ladder. “Is that for us?” I said out loud.

Finally, the crowd started to move, flowing toward the back. One by one, we climbed through the open door into the next car. Down below, on the tracks, several EMS workers were carrying small pink plastic bags. One worker was digging around between the tracks with a shovel. I stretched myself to see and saw a black body bag on the ladder that was now laying on the tracks; it had a few of the pink plastic bags in it.

“They’re taking him out in pieces.” The man behind me said.

Do I look? I wrestled with myself. Some side within me won, the side that was always scolding the other side for not being more daring, and so I stretched further toward the window. We all did. We were right above the EMS workers now. Directly across from us, on the platform, NYPD and EMS, maybe twenty of them, looked on grimly. I went right up to the window and looked down. That’s when I saw him – the man wedged under the train. He was face down, wedged alongside the track. I gasped. It was an older man – he was balding and had only faint wisps of hair. An EMS worker crouched by the train and tried to move him but he was wedged in – it was clear he was dead.

There was a big cop at the end of the car, bellowing. “RESPECT FOR THE DEAD!! STOP YOU’RE GAWKING!!” He was furious. “HAVE SOME RESPECT FOR THE DEAD!!” I felt ashamed and shrank back and flowed with the others past him, not daring to look again.

They had pulled a local 1 train into the track beside us and had set up a little bridge between the two trains. I followed the crowd through the two trains and onto the platform, filing past all the cops and EMS, my eyes cast downward. All of a sudden, the men on the platform erupted at once. “PUT AWAY THE CAMERA!!! NO CAMERAS!!! PUT IT AWAY!!!” And, again, that same cop, bellowing. “HAVE SOME RESPECT FOR THE DEAD!!!” The men were all yelling at us.

Outside, there were more police and EMS, cops cars and emergency vehicles, yellow tape strewn around the top of the subway entrance. There was a great crowd of people watching a blond newscaster interview someone in front of a camera. My home was almost 30 blocks away but the buses were packed so I walked. When I thought no one was looking, I did something I don’t do very often – I crossed myself and said a silent prayer. I thought maybe I should do something more but there was nothing to be done.

The next day, I learned from The Daily News that it was a teenager who had been struck, a young man who had been celebrating his 18th birthday who had, on a dare, tried to run across all the tracks with two friends. The two friends made it. The 18 year old didn’t. Why had I thought he was an older man? What had happened to his hair?

Claudette Bakhtiar holds a MFA in Fiction from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She received a NYFA Fellowship in Fiction in 2004 and served on the fiction judging panel in 2008. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, The L Magazine, Gigantic, and Time Out NY. She works part-time as an attorney and lives in Manhattan.

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