I stared at him for several moments, the next train already faintly sounding from somewhere deep in the nearby tunnel. The man in the suit remained still, staring down at the tracks below and occasionally glancing sideways to the opening of the tunnel. He had a determined posture of readiness.
He looked exactly like someone who was about to attempt suicide, which occurs on average twice a month in this city’s subway stations.
To make the matter more complicated, he also looked exactly like a ordinary businessman who was in a hurry—late for a meeting, perhaps, and hoping to be the first to board the next train.
What a perplexity, I marveled for an un-self-conscious second, before it occurred to my that this man was not some fictional Tolstoy character. He may be contemplating something very tragic—or he may not be—but if he was, I seemed to be the only person noticing. Oddly, not even the transit authority acted on the matter—ordinarily, they never fail to call out people who come half as close to the platform’s edge as this guy. The tension surrounding him was real and potentially life-changing, or –ending.
It was becoming clear that I might have some kind of responsibility here.
With equal clarity, I also knew that I had absolutely no idea what to do if that were the case.
And there I stood, like a fly caught by a spider, paralyzed in the tension between inaction and the urge to act. But how?
Tensions of various kinds have stood at the heart of subways and their stations since the beginning.
Like most other transportational novelties of the late nineteenth century, underground railroads condensed the gaps separating the disparate places and spaces of human landscapes. They allowed for more efficient mobility between between previously distant neighborhoods, streets and socioeconomic groups. In bridging geographic distances, however, they illuminate other more troubling distances, such as social inequality. To this day, subway stations remain a common denominator of sorts in most urban centers—where else, for example, would you find a homeless person and a CEO sitting in the same car for an extended period of time?
There is a beauty in this, and a sadness.
There are other tensions, too. After one has ridden the subway enough times, stations come to feel as a sort of home base, the constant anchors of the ever-moving, ever-hastening milieu of urban transportation. It is that tension between mobility and stability that I love most about subway stations. You can sit on a bench there, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of it all, and feel that you are vicariously going somewhere, that you are transporting to some place that is Other and momentous and mysterious. But really, you are just sitting there, unmoved.
I did not have the fortune of encountering the phenomenon of subways until my twenties: my tiny hometown did not get its first Subway until circa 1992--and even then it was just the sandwich restaurant.
My first experience with a non-culinary subway happened more than a decade later, during my first trip to Europe, Vienna to be exact. And it is a memory I will never forget. I can still recall the dankness of that first subway station, which I entered from a mundane street corner near some friends’ flat. But then, something magical happened: after a twenty-minute ride across the city on the underground, I trundled up the stairs, an opulent sky unfurling itself above me with each upward step out of the tunnel staircase. Beside me, St. Stephen’s Cathedral stretched its spired heathen towers up to the heavens. My first ride on a subway and my first encounter with a medieval cathedral remain indelibly fused in my memory, such that any time I rise up out of the underground hollows of a subway station, part of me is always waiting for some unexpected, magical sight to greet me.
Since then, I have found my way around subways in numerous cities and countries. Have you ever noticed that all subway stations in the entire world seem to smell the exact same? They are all imbued with that faintly fragrant tinge of people, stale air, fast food pastries and engine exhaust. By any other standards, this combination of smells would be disgusting, but in a subway station they somehow amalgamate into a scent that is comfortingly familiar, like that of apple pie or church pews or rising bread.
Now, for the first time in my life, I reside in a city with a thriving subway system. I don’t take it every day, but whenever I do, I never fail to learn something important. I have learned, for example, that peanut butter should not be spread on anything while in a moving vehicle. I have learned that seeing-eye dogs make good partners in staring contests. I have learned the importance of letting myself be inconvenienced once in a while. I have learned that it is sometimes necessary to push and shove people a bit. I have learned that women can be mean to men, blacks can be mean to whites, mexicans can be mean to dominicans, but that even the gruffest stranger will volunteer his seat to a blind, elderly or pregnant person.
And today was no different. I learned that there are times when it is difficult to tell the difference between normalcy and tragedy, but you still have to do what your conscience tells you, even if you risk being wrong.
So that’s why, with cautious steps, I approached the man in front of me. Positioning myself before the yellow line, just inside his peripheral vision, I fixed my eyes on him. After what seemed like a lifetime, he lifted his face from the tracks and stared back at me. Even before his gaze met mine, I could tell there was an angry haste in his eyes as difficult to discern as everything else about him was. Not knowing what else to do, I held his gaze as the sound of the oncoming train crescendoed. The man didn’t jump, but neither did he budge from where he stood at the very edge of the platform. The train came closer to him than I ever hope to see again.
He boarded. And so did I. And that was it.
I will probably never know what had been going through his mind.
Odds are 50% that he was just an anxious business man, unaware in his haste how dangerously close he was to being injured.
The other 50%, only God knows.