A Ride on the L, Disturbed by Blood on the Tracks

closedKen Stein

Last Monday my wife and I were returning home to Williamsburg when the L train suddenly jolted to a stop somewhere between the Third and First Avenue stations. The train was packed, having filled up at Union Square, and we all moaned in chorus at the delay.

As we waited, I teased Wendy about cyber-stalking members of her favorite band, the Bad Plus, who we’d just seen perform. She’d once found a bread recipe on the pianist’s wife’s blog and made it for a dinner party we hosted. It was an innocent appreciation, and joking about it kept me from thinking about having to use the bathroom. After about fifteen minutes, though, passengers began eyeballing each other and sharing the obligatory mutual response: Two full weekends of having to take the shuttle because the train is out of service, and now this.

The elderly woman seated next to me seemed worried after an MTA worker rushed through our car. I told her the exact same thing had happened to me the previous weekend: “Someone probably pulled the emergency brake again.”

When the loudspeakers barked to life, I expected the usual rote apology, but instead heard a garbled message from which I could only make out the words “keyhole” and “front.” We all looked at one other with scrunched, curious faces.

Moments later the air-conditioning system shut down. Then the lights dimmed – some clicking off entirely – and we were all made suddenly aware of being in a cramped metal box in a tunnel underground. The overhead voice returned and instructed us to walk toward the front of the train.

Bomb scare? Derailment? Mole people? Were we going to have to walk down the tracks? Did everyone know about the third rail? Many of the passengers looked nervous but kept it together, helping each other hold open the heavy gray doors we passed through.

As we entered the last car, the First Avenue station became visible through the windows, as did the expressions of faces swarming outside. People were freaking out – yelling, shoving, pushing. The incoming and outgoing platforms told different versions of the same story: To our right, firemen rushed down the stairs, axes and plastic stretchers raised overhead, and forced their way through the amassing crowd. To our left, only a few individuals remained on the Manhattan-bound platform, and they weren’t moving at all. They all just stood there looking at the same spot underneath the train. Or not looking. Or taking pictures with their phones.

Understanding the situation more clearly now, Wendy and I funneled through the single open door and into the throng. Couples huddled and cried. Kids perched on garbage cans, hoping for a glimpse of the body. EMTs in no obvious rush arrived with bags of medical supplies. They feigned a professional concern, but this was already a done deal. And it was palpable – this idea of death thirty or forty feet away, hidden by the train but apparent in everything else.

We passed two cops questioning a group of women on a nearby bench. One spoke with calmed assuredness as the other gestured like someone trying to draw a pet out from under a porch. They needed information, but the women were inconsolable. They wept uncontrollably and clutched each other and pulled their children closer. I felt a surge of emotions: sympathy for these mothers, sadness for and anger at the person who committed suicide in front of them, and a fourth, hazy response to the hoard of onlookers meandering about in close quarters – the rubberneckers and gawkers, the amateur iPhone photojournalists, the tweeters and uploaders and Face-boasters.

It was these people to whom I found myself responding most intensely. People who, delighted to find themselves in attendance of a spontaneous macabre convention, did not wish to leave. Would not budge. They helped only to further the hallucinatory experience we were all a part of now, shouting their exhilaration back and forth to each other as we forced our way through them and up the stairs.

Back on 14th Street, Wendy and I debated the best strategy for intercepting a cab among the sea of raised hands, but in the end decided to call a car service. After hanging up, my eye went to the Facebook app icon glowing on my phone’s screen. It occurred to me to update my current status. I mean, who at that moment could compete with a train death?

Bad people usually don’t consider themselves to be bad people. Oftentimes people will say that although one’s behavior may be bad, the person acting badly is not actually a bad person, as if people could be separated from their behavior, as if we all were born with good-natured cherry centers coated in pragmatic or circumstantial filth. I don’t know if the impulse to update my Facebook profile with the news of the suicide makes me a bad person or not. But I do know I felt guilty for considering it, which meant that I had a responsibility to investigate the incongruity.

My wife was in tears as we passed over the Williamsburg Bridge. We’d both had close friends and relatives who were suicidal, and known some who’d actually followed through with it, and reminders of these losses could be tough.

Back at our apartment, our conversation steered toward the disturbing human impulse of voyeurism, which seems both a natural urge and yet also a thing that should be challenged, undermined. We ticked off the multitude of differences between journalists (to which we added “of the moment” correspondents—civilians who unwittingly found themselves entrenched in historic dealings, like the Iranians and Libyans and Egyptians, etc, who tweeted the uprisings of the Arab Spring) and those commentators who documented their views on certain subjects for rather banal reasons, like gossip or idle chatter or a sense of being heard.

After Wendy fell asleep, I opened my laptop and searched for news of the suicide. I’m not overly morbid, but like most people after a tragedy, I tend to look for verification of what I’ve just experienced. I checked the NY1 website first but found nothing. Then I searched The New York Times, Gothamist, the Post’s police blotter. Zero. The major network television sites turned up nothing as well.

I Googled the words “L Train death New York Williamsburg September 19 2011,” and what came up was a slew of articles and videos I spent the next eight hours wading through.

A 21-year-old man from Williamsburg, Kentucky was struck and killed by a train earlier in the day. Eyewitnesses said he wasn’t paying attention, and was listening to his iPod. Next on the list were two older articles from Gawker and the Huffington Post about grizzly L Train suicides that took place in October of 2009 and January of 2011, and another one in May of this year at Union Square, during lunch, before a crowd of witnesses. I read a Daily News article stating that in each year between 2006 to 2009, there were 89 to 98 people hit by MTA trains. A motorman writing for New York Magazine confirmed this, saying it was about “90 people a year.” The thing is, these numbers aren’t released to the general public, so it’s hard to know if they’re correct. The next headline I clicked led me to a blog post written four days prior about another recent L Train suicide, written it seems as an open letter to the deceased: “Not only do the cops, firefighters, and MTA have to get involved, you’ve definitely scared the train conductor for life. And you just fucked my train ride home. I had to pay for a cab from 1st avenue to Williamsburg. Can’t people just take care business at home? Swallow pills?”

After searching the web until 7 a.m. (even visiting Yahoo Answers to hear about how train deaths affect the drivers, and reading a Progressive Railroading article about the same), I emerged with more questions than answers, and a deeper understanding of the difficulties train suicides caused the engineers, their families, and the unfortunate witnesses.

Only the next day did it occur to me to check Twitter.

NYCTSubwayScoop: “#L suspended b/t 8th Ave & Bedford Ave due to NYPD investigation of customer injury at 1st Ave. Expect delays.”

Injury? Was this person pinned? A sickness washed over me. No, I thought, they call everything an injury, even death. I read the other tweets in quick succession. One person referred to it as an “attempted suicide.” Another was sure the person died. The final tweet I read was from a Tumblr blogger: “OMG! Just witnessed someone jump the tracks & commit suicide on the L Train. Truly in shock & in disbelief! #fb.”

The #fb meant the tweet was imported to his Facebook account as well. This was followed by brief descriptions of the reactions of people around him, along with the phrase “God bless us all” and, later, “Whoa when u see something like that it gives new meaning to life! Saying a prayer for all those who see no way out. There is but HOPE. #fb.”

After considering what I’d read the night before (everything from the reactionary blog posts to the articles concerning train engineers diagnosed later with post-traumatic stress disorder) I came to the conclusion that when we find ourselves caught up in moments of extreme duress and crisis, we have a responsibility, before we pull out our phones and cameras, to ask ourselves whether our documentation will serve a greater need to shed light on a difficult or complicated subject, or if we’re simply engaging in voyeuristic opportunism. And if it’s the latter, I’m sure we could find less unseemly ways to impress our friends.