Subway Heroism

subwayMishaps on the New York subway are relatively rare, but when they happen they tend to shed light on the true nature of New Yorkers.

This month a middle-aged man fell onto the subway tracks in Manhattan and a ballet dancer leapt to his rescue.

This isolated act of heroism was sufficiently newsworthy that the New York Times assigned two reporters to cover it.

According to a story by Michael Cooper and Ashley Southhall, the dancer rescued the man “with a lift they do not teach in dance school.”

“At first I waited for somebody else to jump down there,” said Gray Davis, 31, a dancer with American Ballet Theater, in a telephone interview on Sunday. “People were screaming to get help. But nobody jumped down. So I jumped down.” Once on the tracks, at the 72nd Street Broadway-Seventh Avenue station, Mr. Davis said, he picked up the man, who was unconscious, and lifted him to the platform, where others pulled him up. Then, hearing a train in the distance and unsure which track it was on, he faced the next problem: getting back up on the platform himself. “I never realized how high it was,” he said. “Luckily, I’m a ballet dancer, so I swung my leg up.”

Despite the safety net provided by your fellow strap hangers, the joy of subway riding is not universal. My spouse, who rode the subterranean rails constantly when she was growing up in Manhattan, now shuns them. When she was a uniformed Catholic school girl commuting between home and St. Michael’s Academy (the number 7 at 90th Street/Elmhurst Avenue to 74th Street to the E train to 34th and 8th), she had her share of unpleasant encounters with unsavory male strangers.

I can understand her aversion, although I think she underestimates the power of massed Catholic school girls. When a couple dozen of them squeeze through the sliding doors like a pubescent pestilence, shrieking at each other, they can be very scary. I usually get off at the next station.

Many New Yorkers shrug off the griminess of subway riding, and politicians try to model how much fun it can be. Mayor Bill de Blasio, the Times reports, enjoys walking between cars as they hurtle and sway, something a country boy like me would never dare.

When I’m on a subway car, I try to stay in place, preferably sitting but, if forced to stand, grasping the pole with sweaty hands.

Recently I was on the Number 1 train careening toward the Bronx. The train screeched to a halt at a station and several passengers jostled each other to exit.

The last rider to exit was a young woman pushing a wheeled baby carrier. The baby slept soundly as the woman attempted to thrust the carrier out the door, but the plastic wheels got jammed between the car and the platform.

Panicked, she began rocking the carrier back and forth, but the wheels were firmly stuck. The door began to close and the baby opened his eyes.

The woman screamed. An obese woman sitting across the aisle slapped the head of the man dozing beside her. “Help that girl!” she roared. The man hesitated, but the woman pushed him roughly. He stood sleepily and began to make his way to the door. So did several other passengers, including me.

“Get on each side and lift the wheels,” another woman bellowed.

“You’re okay, Sweetie, the train won’t move with the door open,” a third woman yelled.

Four burly men had already pushed ahead of me to surround the woman and her baby. One stretched his foot onto the platform to make sure the door would not close. Two others grabbed the wheels and forcibly lifted them. They gently escorted the young woman out of the car onto the platform.

The passengers erupted in cheers and applause. The young woman turned to her rescuers and smiled through her tears.

“Thank you,” she mouthed. “Thank you so much!”

“God bless you, Sweetie,” the obese woman yelled.

“Take care of that little precious,” another shouted.

Some passengers were still applauding when the door finally slid shut, creating a rare moment of silence.

The obese woman took a breath. “How stupid can you be, taking a baby on the train like that?” she demanded, rhetorically.

“That mom’s too young to know better,” said someone else.

“If that’s how she takes care of a baby, she shouldn’t be a mother.” The train began to accelerate and other rude remarks were drowned out in the metallic roar. By the time the car arrived at the next station, the passengers were isolated strangers again.

Looking back on this little drama – which had a happy ending – it occurs to me that it was one of those New York stories that reveal their true nature.

When Garrison Keillor lived in New York, he said he was constantly defending the city to his fellow Minnesotans. Sure, he said, you could get mugged in New York. But more likely, New Yorkers would pull you aside to whisper some cautionary advice. “Don’t walk around with your wallet so visible in your pocket,” they’d warn him. “Someone could grab it.”

And before you could say thanks, you would hear your protector whispering behind your back: “Stupid idiot. He walks around so everyone can see his wallet.”

Minnesotans are very much like the rural New Yorkers I grew up with in the central part of the state. I know what goes through their heads.

Minnesotans who think you’re stupid would never say it in your hearing.

But they’d think it.

About Philip E Jenks

Philip, a synodical deacon in the ELCA Metropolitan New York synod, is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Dr. Martha M. Cruz, are the parents of six adults and are members of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y. They live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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