Like most semi-stable adults, I’ve always gone about my banal daily routine and hoped for the best. Sure, I grapple with anxieties, but most of them are amorphous and future-oriented—not grounded in the here and now. I’ve never had a concrete reason to doubt I was safe. Not until the fall of 1999, when an otherwise-ordinary subway ride devolved into something frightening.
It was a weekday afternoon on a semi-crowded Q train crossing the Manhattan Bridge into the city.
I was headed into Manhattan to meet a friend for dinner. My fellow subway goers were a typical motley crew: a teenage couple in hooded sweatshirts slouched together on a grimy seat; an older woman in hospital scrubs; a yuppieish 30-something and his wife, hovering beside their baby in an expensive stroller.
We were halfway across the bridge when a cluster of people began to congregate around the door that led to the next car. They peered through the window. Someone yelled, "There’s a guy with a knife!" Unsure what to do, most of us stayed quietly in our seats, a herd of dazed, motionless cattle looking blankly at each other. It was pre-9/11 New York—the city had yet to huddle in a protective hive of mourning, trauma and patriotism.
The guy with the baby told his wife to stay put before he joined the growing crowd at the window. "Oh, my God," he murmured, before shouting, "Call 911! He’s cutting people."
Some panicked soul screamed, "There’s a baby on the train!" at no one in particular. This jolted most of my fellow riders into action. In a sweeping wave of movement, many of us headed to the other end of the subway car.
But in a clear rebuttal to the self-absorbed New Yorker stereotype, some of my fellow riders didn’t flee. Instead, they steeled themselves, then walked directly onto the next car to help.
It was the pre-cell-phone era, so instead of calling the cops, an anonymous quick thinker decided to pull the emergency brake, forcing the train to a lurching halt in the middle of the Manhattan Bridge (the perfect place to be stuck on a subway with a psycho slasher).
It must have been shock—somehow, despite the very real danger around me, I felt calm. No panic, no tears; just detached curiosity and concern about what was happening next door. Some tightly armored part of me took over. It’s a remarkable thing, the brain—all its spontaneous tricks and defenses.
I was curious, though, so I joined the group of rubber-neckers gathered at the door. Stretching to see past the yuppie dad and a middle-aged Mexican man, I glimpsed a puddle of blood on the floor and a box cutter abandoned nearby. Most of the passengers were huddled at the far end of the car. I saw blood on a few faces. A guy in a black hoodie and jeans was lying facedown on the yellowish floor, protecting his head with his arms as a group of men (including some I recognized from my car) stood above him, beating him with their belts. After forcibly subduing him, they used their belts, as well as the shirts they’d just taken off, to tie the assailant to one of the metal handrails. I felt like I was watching Lord of the Flies.
A uniformed black woman—the train conductor—strode briskly onto our car. "What’s the problem? Someone pulled the emergency brake."
A few people blurted snippets of what we had seen next door. The conductor didn’t seem fazed. "The police will be waiting at Canal Street," she assured us before disappearing into the danger zone. I moved to sit at the safer end of the car, tense and quiet. I looked out the window at the gray river below me and the skyline before me.
Minutes passed. The train didn’t move. The conductor returned to our car. Her shirtsleeves were rolled up; her bare arms were red from fingertip to elbow, like she had dipped them in a vat of blood. I don’t know what she did in there—help the victims?—but it was messy. She didn’t speak as she made her way back to her booth.
We started moving. Finally the train crept into Canal Street. The instant we pulled up to the platform, the doors opened and a small army of cops rushed in. I saw paramedics help people off the next car. I caught glimpses of slashed-up faces and necks, but no dead bodies. A cop led the hoodie-d guy off the train in handcuffs.
The local news covered the slasher attack, and I gobbled up all the details I could find. None of the eight or so victims had died. The perpetrator was just a kid: a teenager who had been depressed in recent weeks. According to one of the newspapers, he’d screamed, "I’m so stressed out! I’m so stressed out!" before he started cutting people. Much ado was made about the Joe Schmoes who stepped in to help subdue the crazed kid—they were lauded as everyday heroes, and I guess they were. I thought of them years later on 9/11 when I read stories of workers going back into the towers to help colleagues escape.
Still, my illusion of everyday safety was marred by my close encounter with the subway slasher, and it was blown to bits on September 11. Both situations taught me something that stayed with me after I left New York in 2005: that when the proverbial shit hits the fan, good intentions aren’t always good enough.