Shortly before 3 p.m., Marvin and Mike ducked inside a grate that had been propped open at the corner of Livingston and Smith Streets in Brooklyn, then descended a steep set of stairs to the A and C lines. They had both joined the Transit Authority in the eighties, and for most of their careers they had worked on the same track gang in Queens, doing maintenance on the graveyard shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. There are about 1,800 trackworkers in the city. A gang usually consists of six or seven or eight men (and very rarely a woman), and they stick together—sometimes for years. Mike and Marvin were like family. They knew each other’s wives and kids; their houses were a few blocks from each other in St. Albans.
They had both volunteered to work overtime this Sunday, which is how they’d wound up in Brooklyn, on a stretch of unfamiliar track between Jay Street and Hoyt-Schermerhorn. They were assigned to a six-man gang assembled just for today that included their friend Jeffrey Hill. Compared with the other two, Jeff was practically brand-new—he’d been working on the tracks for just sixteen months. He was also the smallest of the three. But he was reliable. Underground, it doesn’t take long to figure out which of your co-workers you can trust to help keep you safe—and which ones are absentminded or reckless or a little too fond of the bottle.
Every night, track inspectors walk the city’s subway tracks, five miles at a time, searching for defects, for broken rails or worn-out plates or debris that could activate the emergency brake or anything else that might cause an accident. Trackworkers are then dispatched to the trouble spots. The work itself can be exhausting. Every tool is heavy—the jack, claw bar, sledgehammer, pinch bar, even the wrench—and the large rubber mats workers use to cover the third rail weigh about 115 pounds. But the most grueling task of all is to install a new piece of track, known as “humping rail.” Each piece of rail is 39 feet long, weighs 1,300 pounds, and requires at least sixteen men to carry it.
Marvin’s body had started to show the strain of so many years spent doing manual labor, and these days he worked primarily with inspectors. But when he worked with a maintenance gang on an overtime shift, like today, he often became its unofficial leader. He was 55 years old, with 22 years on the job. That experience—combined with his six-foot-two, 230-pound build and his shoulder-length dreadlocks—gave him an air of authority. “Every track is live,” he would say, meaning you should never assume a track has been taken out of service.
Today’s assignment was to clean up scrap debris along the A and C lines. The men were told these tracks were shut down, which would make the job much simpler. First, though, somebody had to fetch a dolly to transport the debris. Marvin and Jeff headed off to the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station to get it. As they trudged through the tunnel, taking care to avoid the third rail, they talked about art. Jeff had studied painting at Pratt; Marvin attended classes at the Art Students League in Manhattan every morning after he got off work. For two decades, Marvin had been drawing homeless people he encountered in subway stations. Sometimes he’d bring a bag of sandwiches to hand out in exchange for the chance to sketch them. He didn’t give many details, but he’d confided to Mike that years ago he had once been homeless, too.
That day, Jeff and Marvin discussed their favorite mediums. Marvin said he preferred to work with watercolors. “If you show me how to do watercolors,” Jeff said, “I’ll show you how to do oils.” Seven hundred feet later, they arrived at Hoyt-Schermerhorn. The dolly they had to retrieve was on the platform across the tracks of the G line, which was still running. Jeff and Marvin left the A and C tracks, stepped down the ladder to the G line, looked both ways, then walked across the rails.
Getting out of the way of an oncoming train is known, in the parlance of trackworkers, as “clearing up.” Finding a place to clear up fast can be tricky, and there are numerous candy-striped signs marking those areas where you can’t clear up because there’s not enough room—a niche in a tunnel wall, for instance, that might look like a good place to avoid a train but in fact is too shallow for a person to fit into. Where you clear up depends on where you’re working, but often the best spot is in the middle of two sets of tracks, between two columns, a live track on either side of you. In a worst-case scenario, you could pretend you’re Wesley Autrey and lay down in the trough between the rails, but no one really recommends that. It only works if the trough is deep enough, it’s not full of trash, and the train isn’t dragging any debris beneath it.