subway week

Severed Legs, Sick Passengers, and Other Tales From the Subway

Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

This week New York Magazine explores our love-hate relationship with the MTA. Below, straphangers share their foulest and fondest MTA experiences. As told to James D. Walsh.

I found a leg on the tracks.
Darrell James, 50, actor and acting teacher

It was 1995, and I had just moved to New York. I was coming back from a retreat at Dartmouth, and I didn’t know the subways. I was on the F train, and I got off at the wrong stop — I think 47th Street. I was alone. It was 2 a.m., with incandescent lightbulbs lighting up the place. I was walking along the platform, and I thought, Wait a minute, did I just see 

There, between the tracks, was a human leg. It was wearing black jeans, a black sock, and a black shoe. I got on my hands and knees to look closer and thought, Yeah, that’s not a prosthetic. There was muscle, there was blood, there was bone. I walked around and found a guy and said, “Can I show you something?”

He walked down with me and just said, “Yeah, that’s a leg. Did you call 911?” I said, “Is it a 911? Whatever happened clearly already happened.” He said, “No, it’s a 911.” I bummed a quarter and called 911. This was before the above-ground cops and the subway cops united into one group, so I had to call a few times to get the right precinct, and they said, “Find the ticket agent.”

I told the ticket agent, “I gotta show you something.” He looked at it and said, “Yeah, it’s a leg.”

So I said, “Yeah, so, what do we do?!” He looked at me in that very helpful New York City way and said, “What, you think there’s a body in the tunnel somewhere?” I said, “Yeah, I do!” He said, “We deal with it every fuckin’ day. Get on the train.” So I crossed over to the other side of the tracks, going the wrong way, and got on the train. I had to get out of there.

I was fired because of the 7 train.
Ilija Petrovic, 32, IT worker

I worked in IT at a hospital, and I had to be at work at 8:30 a.m. It was my responsibility to always be there right on time. What if the emergency room has something wrong with their computers? I needed to be there. I lived in Long Island City and would take the 7 to Grand Central and change to the 6. Simple commute, right? It was a shitshow. Some days I’d get to work in a half-hour; other days it would be an hour. How do you gauge that? Do you go to work an hour and a half early to just sit there not getting paid?

I’d been there for ten months and was late at least 10 to 15 times because of the subway. Sometimes it was a half-hour; sometimes it was 5, 10, 15 minutes. Once you’re late and you run a snag at work, that adds up. This was 2008, so they didn’t have those MTA late slips. They couldn’t say much: “Just try to get here on time, figure something out.” I can’t afford a cab. I’m making $18 an hour. During the recession you gotta worry about the train and losing your job at the same time. I got fired. There wasn’t much they could do, you know? I wrote down “late because of train” on my unemployment. They paid it. It wasn’t the end of the world. I was 24, no kids or anything, and, honestly, I didn’t really like the job. Now I only look for jobs that are 20 minutes away because of the MTA. I don’t think there’s enough time in the day for the things that I would say to the MTA. Where does all that money go? I’m happy stations have Wi-Fi and arrival clocks. Things like that are great, but at the end of the day we just want to get from point A to point B. We straphangers rely on that.

I shared a train car with a rat.
Irene, 35, environmental-policy analyst

It was a normal morning commute on the F train. I heard what sounded like a cluster of high-school girls shrilly bantering at the other end of the train. But then, like the wave at a baseball game, a shriek roiled through the rush-hour crowd. The woman next to me arched toward me, and I saw a tiny rat scurrying amongst the feet of hundreds of terrified humans. Back and forth, the rat traversed the car while the crowd shrieked in dainty terror (no one screamed). This continued for more than one stop. Then, at Second Avenue, the rat froze in front of the doors, which opened to a crowded platform. In one motion, a guy with a newspaper scooped the rat and flung it into the unlucky people waiting to board. No one boarded or exited. The doors closed, and the train car heaved on.

I met my wife on the F train.
Jordana Jaffe, 33, social-media strategist

The day I met Gena was a megaordinary day for the most part. It was June 21, 2013, and I was going to a summer-solstice party in Prospect Park. I remember wondering if I would meet someone at the party.

I took the F train with two friends from Bryant Park. There were two empty seats, and I offered them to my friends and continued standing. Five minutes into the ride, I heard some random girl behind me complimenting my friend’s “Hero Dyke” tote bag. Then I heard the same voice behind me say, “I’m such a bad lesbian.” Now I turn around because I’m thinking, What is going on right now? There is super-tiny, bubbly Gena, outing herself to a random girl on the subway. (I later find out this was completely intentional.)

I started talking to Gena. I asked her what she did (corporate lawyer) and if she liked it (she hated it and quit six months later), and suddenly, out of nowhere, she asked me my name. I told her and she responded, “I know you!” Now I’m totally creeped out. Turns out we were both dating the same girl and Gena had heard about me through her. At that point I wanted the conversation to end as quickly as possible, but my friend kept hitting me on the back of my knee, whispering, “This is so going to be your next girlfriend.”

My friend was right. A little over a year later, we got married. It was such a super-uneventful, unexciting day. Then I met Gena and my life changed forever.  

I was the sick passenger.
Sandy Goodman, 63, green-energy consultant

I was, at the time, cantor of a temple in Flushing, and I was coming back from a Friday night service on the 7 train. I had a headache. I thought, People get headaches. No big deal. About halfway home, I started to feel much worse. Nauseated, crampy, crummy, and it got worse and worse. Just hold on until you get to Times Square and then you can throw up in a garbage can. But I didn’t make it.

We were at the beginning of the tunnel. The first stop inside the tunnel is Hunters Point, and that was about where I really started feeling sick. Just as we left the last stop in order to come into Manhattan, I threw up. It was pointless for me to get off sooner than Times Square; that was my stop, so I waited it out. This was 10:30, 11 at night; not a lot of people in the subway car, but there wasn’t a single person who left and went into the next car. Someone brought tissues; another person went down and told the conductor to call the EMT guys.

When we got to Times Square, the conductor came out and told me he had called the EMT folks. There’s nothing worse than being sick in a public place and feeling that you’re alone, but the conductor and a passenger stayed with me. I was very grateful. The train waited in the station until the EMTs came to take me to the hospital. It was longer than usual. People were boarding and sticking their heads out of the doors to see what was going. In retrospect, I think, Oh, I was the sick passenger.

I felt like New Yorkers were vindicated that night. The people who were helping were not tourists. Everybody wanted to be helpful, which I think is sort of typical of New Yorkers. We’re good people. We get a bad rap outside of New York, but we’re good people. Unfortunately for the people who were on the train, they hadn’t cleaned up the car before it left to go back to Queens. I felt very bad for those people.

I fell on the tracks.
Miguel Fernandez, 28, graduate student  

I was bartending in Greenwich Village, and a friend, Xavier, who I grew up with in Miami, met up with me for drinks after work. We went to Union Pool in Brooklyn. I don’t really even remember much after that. We had a few shots of whiskey. I was pretty inebriated.

We left and I guess we were standing on the platform at the Bedford L when I passed out and fell on the tracks. I hit my head on the rail. Xavier is a trained EMT, and he said he thought I was gone. He said my body looked lifeless.

Courtesy of Miguel Fernandez. Photo: Courtesy of Miguel Fernandez

They have the clocks at Bedford, and Xavier saw that the train was coming in less than two minutes, so he didn’t get help; he just jumped on the tracks and lifted me up — he’s kind of a big guy — and some other stranger helped pull me up.

I remember waking up in Kings County Hospital alone, not really knowing what was going on. A doctor came by and told me I had a concussion and two staples in my head. I went home around 7:30 in the morning, took a nap, and went back to work. This was six years ago. I was young. Now if I think about it for too long, it freaks me out. It was close.*

*The MTA doesn’t provide official instructions on what to do if you fall on the tracks. Some recommend lying flat between the rails or below the platform (but there may not be enough room depending on the station and train). Others say run away from the train to give it more room to stop (be fast, don’t trip). Everyone agrees it’s best to follow the MTA’s official line: Stand away from the platform edge.   

I spent 24 hours riding the subway.
Mohamad Saleh, 24, unemployed

I graduated from college in May and happened upon an editing job. I was riding the subway home with my news editor and complaining about the MTA when I had this idea: What would happen physically and mentally if I spent 24 hours on this incredibly old, Stone Age system that doesn’t ever seem to work?

I did it all on one swipe. I got on the L at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, September 18. I had a little bag with me with things that I would need — four sandwiches, a charge for my phone, and a sweater. Three hours later I was at the end of the 3, at New Lots Avenue, when I realized that 24 hours is an incredibly long time.

Then I took the N to Coney Island to make sure there were bathrooms, ‘cause that was another issue that I didn’t think through. Then I got on the D back to Manhattan. There I saw this very eccentric-looking fellow, just sort of drumming on the benches by himself. I went up to him and started talking, and I introduced myself. He said, “Are you a Muslim?” A common conversation starter. I said yes. He told me all about his life — how he’d moved to New York from South Carolina, converted to Islam, and became the sous-chef at Nathan’s Famous. He offered to get me free hot dogs the next time I went to Coney Island, which was pretty cool.

I’d made a Facebook event telling people I’d be at Union Square at 10 p.m. A friend of mine actually did show up. He said, “Holy shit, you’re actually here.”

By 1:30 a.m. I was exhausted. All I wrote in my notes from 2:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. was “absolute delirium.” I was just sort of calculating in my head where the next above-ground train station would be so I could have a cigarette. I needed somebody to revive me. I got on the F and got off at Smith–9th Streets to call a friend of mine and beg him to meet up with me at a train station and feed me. We met at an S shuttle stop. He got me a sandwich, and we sat and talked. He left around noon, so I had four hours left.

The one question I asked people along the way was “Are you satisfied with the trains?” I expected them to just go off because that’s what I would do. But, instead, they were very complacent. They said, “Yeah, it’s fine. There are some problems, but we’re all right with it.” I didn’t know if the issue was me. Was I just being a child who wouldn’t let this go? Or were they so acclimated to this very inefficient system? The subway system is this hulking beast, this dinosaur, that’s constantly moving slowly in one direction and needs to appeal to all these different interests, but doesn’t seem to be doing so in the most efficient way. There was so much life going on underground and so many things happening.

After the sandwich with my friend, I went up to the Bronx and then came back to Bay Ridge, where I live. I figured it would be three to four hours and I’d be done. Turned out to be five. The MTA, you know?

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I Found a Severed Leg on the Subway