Flirting with Disaster
Julia Anne Miller
I can tell by the way the "F" train stops that this is no "delay in service," no passing stall of "signal trouble," no rolling slowdown of "traffic up ahead." No, this is the grinding halt of system failure, an industrial strength shudder and nails-on-chalkboard squeal. The lights go out, and we are children in a darkened room.
Sounds on a subway car are like transistor radios blaring. Sometimes it's all night talk radio and the crazy man is standing over you screaming "Osama Yo Mama" and reading a psalm for the end of the world. Sometimes it's classical music leaking out from the headset of the tall guy reading Dostoyevsky, while the lady with the receding hairline and Hello Kitty shopping bag shouts at her companion in Chinese. Always it's the teenage girls who holler and curse, squeezing their fat friend through the closing doors at the last possible minute and demanding to know who farted.
This time, no one is talking. This is how we know it is a disaster.
My first thought is not of terrorism. My first thought is "Thank god I have a seat." Our car is divided into the have and have-nots. I am tucked into the window-side of a 2-seater, complete with molded armrest, and no gum. I look around, relieved to find no one so frail, so pregnant, or so young as to obligate me to give up the seat. It is a good seat. My second thought is: Maybe I won't have to go to work tomorrow.
Emergency lights come up. People begin to talk.
"This can't be good."
"My, oh my."
"Ksckz ksckz, ksckz, ladies and gentlemen, kzckz, ksckz, kzckz."
I am trapped in a subway car! I am strangely excited. I wonder if we will soon devolve into Lord of the Flies cruelty and kill off the over-weight man leaning against the double-doors? Or will we re-enact a Life Time Movie of the Week, featuring strong female characters and a triumph of the human spirit?
The guy next to me blows his nose like he's been saving it up all year. The boy in front of me makes a quick shift of his balls. The dark haired lady in a grey uniform licks her finger and mats down her eyebrows. A red-faced baby demands and receives a juice box. The air has been off for twenty minutes. People are beginning to glisten.
"Ksckz ksckz, ksckz, ladies and gentlemen, kzckz, ksckz, ksckz, please be patient."
I imagine Batman and Robin trapped in a vault. No, not Christian Bale, George Clooney, Val Kilmer or Michael Keaton -- Adam West. After twenty minutes, Batman and Robin slump to the floor. They know exactly how much air they have, how many minutes they have left to live. Robin has a wristwatch with a very large second hand. He proclaims them both "goners."
We are not "goners," but those who "take matters into their own hands" have cracked open the small slanted windows. An enormous woman in a red jumpsuit and high heels presses her face against the window cracks. Two men in baggy pants try and fail to pry the side doors open.
Someone has a guitar! She is not a nun like in the movie Airport 1975. We lack a nun. We are down by a nun. Our guitarist is a young tattooed hipster; she doesn't sing to us. But we've got a sweaty man with crazy luggage and a sudden temper, a teen mom with one unblinking baby, a man in a security guard outfit who smells like booze, a woman in scrubs who does not look up from her New Yorker; a balding man in a pin-striped suit who is eyeing my seat, and a dark eyed hunk in a tool belt who smiles at me.
Me, I'm just a girl on her way home from the office, a girl who hates her job, but in that sexy melancholic way that a disaster heroine hates her job, just before everything in her life is about to change...
Ksckz, ksckz,ksckz, ladies and gentleman, kzckz, ksckz, ksckz.
My white shirt is beginning to stick to me in all the right places. My breasts are becoming larger and my voice deeper. I'm turning into Adrienne Barbeau in Escape from New York! I look around at my companions who are also changing. The man with crazy luggage becomes a mad genius whose secret experiments on light deprivation are the occasion for our predicament; the teen mom becomes the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold who'll decide to go back to school in the end; the drunken security guard is beginning to sober up, just in time to make one great sacrifice in his life; the no-nonsense nurse in scrubs looks up from her magazine just long enough to see how she's hidden from romance all her life; the pin-striped Wallstreeter prepares to catalog his regrets like a confession to anyone who'll listen; and the dark-eyed man in the tool belt gets ready to lead our small band of misfits out of that tunnel and steal my heart in the process.
Ksckz ksckz,ksckz, ladies and gentleman, kzckz kzckz, ksckz, appears to be a lossof power.
"You hear that?"
"I bet no one knows we're down here."
We do not think about the last time all the subway cars stopped in New York City. We do not let our minds wander south of Canal Street on a flawless blue morning in September. We do not think about this. We think about how we are not thinking about this.
"I said no one knows we're down here."
"Shut the fuck up."
I think about all the other trains streaking though the blackness around us like sharks. A slow tickle starts at the back on my neck. Fear getting to second base.
BAM! Another "F" train comes barreling around the corner and slams right into the back of our train. Bodies are airborne, the crazy luggage, the juice box, a Macy's bag, a Prada shoe. The teen mom slides across the floor, a wrench hits the nurse. My snow white breasts are toppling out of my shirt. I tumble onto the dark-eyed man, our hearts beating as one in those mad, final moments as the oncoming train smashes our subway car into an accordion. A terrible crunch of metal and squealing brakes fills the tunnel IN MY MIND.
"Back up. Someone's sick."
The man with crazy luggage is shaking all over.
Some people begin to fan him with copies of the Village Voice, The Post, and The Daily News.
I eye the dark-eyed man for a sign. Is this where it starts? Is this the front porch to pandemonium?
"Put something under his tongue."
"My cousin's like that. There's nothing you can do."
"Put a penny under his tongue."
"He'll choke on it you idiot."
Three people are fanning the man with the crazy luggage who is shaking. The rest of us have nothing to do. I fumble in my bag for a box of Altoids.
I imagine the "Lucy in the Alps" episode of I Love Lucy where they are trapped in a cabin after Lucy causes an avalanche by sneezing. Everyone is starving. Lucy is hoarding half a cheese sandwich.
I pass the curiously strong mints to my neighbor shyly, proudly, like I've brought something in to share with the class. Some of us have fresh breath now.
Ksckz, ksckz,ksckz, ladies and gentleman, kzckz kzckz, ksckz, power outage throughout the system
"Someone's gotta come for us."
The man with the crazy luggage shakes all over. The nurse does her best imitation of the head teller in Dog Day Afternoon. She shouts over her shoulder. "He's sick. He needs help."
"HEY! Sick passenger. HEY!" someone calls to the conductor.
The two men in baggy pants give a heave/ho to the doors. The doors crack open about 2 inches. The teen mom fusses over her baby.
It's been more than an hour.
Ksckz, kzckz, kzckz, ladies and gentleman, ksckz, kzckz, kzckz, evacuation.
"Hey! This guy needs to go to a hospital."
"My cousin's got the seizures. There's nothing you can do."
"HEY! HEY! HEY!"
Ksckz kzckz, ksckz, kzckz, kzckz, kzckz...
A woman with a gold tooth and MTA uniform enters the car. She tells us we will be evacuating one car at a time. She tells us to exit single file when she gives the word. We must all walk to the first car of the train. We are in the second to last car.
But we are wary of the law. We are feral and free. I know that soon I will be pregnant with the seed of the survival race that'll have no need of subway cars, because their hands will be made of wheels.
When we get the signal, everyone piles towards the front of the car, rock-concert style. I stay in my seat. I look at the dark-eyed man who is also holding back. Is it time now? Is this the part where you think the disaster is over, but the real disaster looms: a heart attack, gun shots, a stampede?
The dark-eyed man shakes his head and moves towards the back of the car near the cracked open door. He angles his shoulder between the rubber lips of the doors and breaks free. He drops down onto the darkened track, becoming one with the night.
MTA cannot be responsible for anyone exiting this train through unauthorized exits.
A teenage boy follows the dark-eyed man into the blackness; the two boys in baggy pants follow. The heat of the car is increasing as everyone presses towards the front of the car. I want to join the resistance, but I am afraid.
"HEY! Make way for the sick guy!"
The crowd parts. And the man having the seizure is carried through the authorized exit, supported on both sides by his protectors. They are a cult now, and he their ailing god. They disappear through the front of the car. It will take 2 more hours to be evacuated.
"A panic attack."
"I used to get them before, at my other job."
One by one, more young men are slipping out the cracked open doors into the uncertain dangers of the tunnel. Those left behind are becoming a society of women, children, and elderly men.
"If the power comes back on, they're gonna fry on that 3rd rail."
I get in line and wait my turn for the authorized exit. Once at the front of the train, I am assisted by a burly man who has been sent to ferry us back to society. I step out of the car into the pitch black of the tunnel. There is a narrow ledge above the rails which we are instructed to climb upon. We take the journey in baby-steps along the soot covered wall by the pale light of a single lantern. In front of me is the teen mom with her baby. Behind me is an enormous woman in the red jump suit. She has kicked off her high heels and is in her stocking feet. My dark-eyed stranger is nowhere to be seen. My breasts are now tucked neatly back into my Old Navy T-shirt. I am no longer a disaster heroine. I am a woman who gets in line and waits for further instructions.
I make my way through the tunnel without incident. No rat sightings. No twisted ankles. No ripped spaghetti strapped ball gowns. When I near the Broadway/Lafayette station I am temporarily blinded by a flood light. It is a newscaster standing in the tunnel and narrating our lives.
A kind man who is not the dark-eyed stranger holds my hand as I walk the plank that covers the 3rd rail. The station is so dark I cannot see the platform. I climb the stairs on my hands and knees.
When I reach the surface of the world, it is sunset in lower Manhattan. The intersection of Broadway and Houston is filled with wandering New Yorkers. News of the black-out is leaking out of transistor radios. It's me, the teen mom, the nurse, the security guard, and the man in the pin-striped suit. We are the only ones left from my car.
I think: Life is short. I'm gonna quit my job and write that novel.
The teen mom thinks: Life is short. I'm gonna leave my boyfriend.
The nurse thinks: Life is short. I'm gonna ask out that cute doctor.
The security guard thinks: Life is short. I'm gonna quit drinking.
The man in the pin-striped suit thinks: I'd like to go to Starbucks right now, but Starbucks is probably closed.
We imagine changing everything about our lives at once. The possibility is like a string of foreign words you hear once and try to repeat in your head so you don't forget. We exchange shy glances and offer up our names when saying our good-byes.
We've forgotten all the names by the time we get home.
BIO: I am a writer and performer whose true stories have been told in storytelling venues such as "Stripped Stories" and "Speakeasy" in and around New York City. My story "The Stupid Cookies that I Couldn't Stop Eating" recently appeared in Salon (link below). I live in Brooklyn, NY and am working on a collection of essays entitled, "My Life in Cake."