All the best horror stories that circulate about the danger and violence of New York City involve its subway system. Its enormity, complexity and unpredictability pose real and terrible threats to those who ride it. It has 24-hour service, so anyone can ride anywhere at any time, and anything can happen. I wanted to search for things unseen by "routine" riders, infiltrate its dangerous catacombs, and expose its legacy of violent death. Ultimately, I sought to brave the many horrors of Gotham's subterranean labyrinth and emerge victorious. I decided to take this most powerful of mechanical bulls by its high-voltage horns and ride non-stop for 24 hours.
I begin my journey deep in Brooklyn one Saturday afternoon. I bring notepad, camera and microcassette recorder to documentary mission. I wear layers of black clothing to keep me inconspicuous and warm in the winter air and damp stations. I pack sandwiches to sustain me and bottled water to wash down the Vivarins. Falling asleep, even for a few minutes, has potentially dire consequences here: Slumbering riders are sitting ducks.
As I board Brooklyn's Franklin Avenue shuttle train en route to Queens, I pause to consider the unlucky passengers who died near here on November 1, 1918. This outdoor station looks like a giant, run-down mausoleum, haunted by ghosts of the victims of the single worst mass transit accident in American history: the Malbone Street incident. A dispatcher filing in for a striking conductor lost control of the train and crashed into a tunnel wall. The train's momentum generated a chain reaction of impacts that pulverized several cars, ultimately killing more than 100 and injuring more than 200. The strike ended the next day.
Leaving the death-tainted shuttle train to board the Queens-bound A train in a notoriously rough Brooklyn neighborhood, I scan the faces of its many passengers to read impending violence. As I note the nearest door and emergency brake, a man enters my car wearing a "horse" around his waist, with jeans and attached shoes dangling from both sides to represent his legs. The Horseman of the A train bucks wildly, striking his mount with a stick and punctuating the ride with a rhythmic chant of "Mm Mm-mm, Fuckin' Mm-mm. Mm mm-mm, Fuckin' Mm-mmm." This diversion is enough to ensure my safe passage north.
Here train lines branch out from Manhattan into the Bronx, resulting in a tendril pattern. Rather than ride up and down the many lines here, I plan a three-pronged attach, opting for a pitchfork route. The train I board at Grand Central Station hurtles north into the Bronx, picking up more speed and power the farther it gets from Midtown Manhattan. I reach the point of my first prong, and wait at an isolated aboveground platform with minimal shelter. The relative security of daylight evaporates as dusk begins darkness and danger. The chill of the night air awakens me to the grim circumstance as I stand stranded in the middle of nowhere. The endless stretches of track and dim sky reinforce my despair.
The wait for my middle prong train is a long one. I pace the length of the Bronx station as it fills with a palpable tension. There are no smiling faces here, no sign of kindness or camaraderie. I approach the thin yellow line at the very edge of the platform. The line between life and death. Walking along it, I study the beer cans, food wrappers and other track debris and think of how close a passing train would come to slamming into me. I should not be this close, considering the ease with which anyone on this platform could push me to my death. This would not be the first such homicidal push. I envision body parts strewn among old newspapers and Big Mac containers in the bloody aftermath of such an "accident." Even without being hit by an oncoming train, a fallen passenger on the tracks is likely to die. The third rail surges with 600 volts of electricity, enough to power the trains, cause explosions when touched by conducting materials, and turn a human being into charred hamburger meat mad quick. The rail's combustibility matches that of the rush hour crowd.
While I switch trains at the decrepit Yankee Stadium station, a middle-aged woman shoots me a "What the hell are you doing in this part of town" look. I see NYPD flyers describing a recent shooting at a downtown station. Deciding to investigate later, sans bulletproof vest, I rip down and pocket the invitation to danger, witnessed only by hundreds of eroding tiles that loosely line these ancient walls. After completing my third Bronx prong, I travel downtown to the site of the recent shooting. I'm so engrossed in consulting my map that I nearly miss my transfer station stop. To be unaware of one's surroundings in a subway car at night is suicide. I gather my shit and rush the door , but I don't make it. The doors shut, sandwiching me between them.
Just one week earlier, a man was chased down and shot at this station. Now I wander its corridors, each lined with graffiti-bastardized posters. A "Cats" character obscenely gestures to a little girl in a scene that must have been cut from the long-running musical. Newly toothless Mira Sorvino adds desperation to a come-on for an action film. Wide stretches of rotting wall mosaic and tar-stained floors separate nearly abandoned platforms.
I take the next train down : the Brooklyn-bound Lexington Avenue 6 train, which derailed at Union Square in 1991, killing five. The operator, who was drunk, was going four times the in-station speed limit. The accident was the worst since 1928, when a defective switch derailed a Times Square train and tore it in half, leaving sixteen dead. The subway does not forgive human error.
Darting my eyes to each of the car's ten doors, I bust more Vivarin pills. Before long, a young, lean man of disheveled appearance enters from the next car. He walks by slowly, with deliberate, measured steps, as he enters from the next car. Hitting me with a stabbing glance, he breaks out a fat roll and begins counting. If it's drug money, he's not likely to target me; I've witnessed nothing. But he's alone with a lot of cash to protect from any threat, real or perceived. I weigh my options, the gravity of the situation pressing me to act. There's nowhere in the car to get away from him. He's close enough to thwart any attempt to exit suddenly. Every few seconds he lifts his eyes from the bills and gauges my position. After an eternity, the train slows. He pockets the money and makes for the door between us, giving me a last once-over and registering my heightened adrenaline level. The train stops and the sounds of waiting passengers on the platform shatters the tension. Others enters the car as he slowly exits, never taking his eyes off me. He stands outside the doors, within striking distance of me, until they close.
Things are much quieter in the hours it takes me to ride the multiple trains to the station doubling as my departure point and final destination. By the time I arrive, 24 hours before I've started, I've been to or through all 325 stations in all four boroughs the subways serve, all for a buck-fifty. Amazingly, I've only covered 70 percent of the entire system. The exit turnstile, my last milestone, melts beneath my disembodied hand as I turn my back on the nightmare network I've just conquered. Before climbing the filthy steps to daylight, I pause at the token booth, an impregnable bastion and inescapable prison. The transit worker eyes me suspiciously as I approach. I tell I've just spent 24 hours on the trains, never once coming up for air, food or water. She responds with an apathetic, "Why?"
The question unleashes a watershed of thoughts, but I dam them with an all-encompassing answer. My daredevil tactics, sleep deprivation, and suicidal jaunts into the unknown were a kick in the face to the big, bad New York subway system. I reflect on my marathon ride through this maze, and my mastery of its navigational challenges. I risked my life to go the distance of its corpse-strewn, crime-laden course. I emerge triumphant to have my moment in the sun, the taste of the journey's perils now mine to relish with every future ride.