A lesson in what people think when they panic.
With the end of the school year upon us I am reminded of my daughter Amanda’s graduation from NYU just a few years ago. In attendance at Yankee Stadium, along with fifteen thousand students, their families, friends, and a pug smuggled in under a student’s purple graduation gown (at least, I think it was a pug dog) was myself, my two sons, Amanda’s boyfriend, my ex-wife, Arlene, and her boyfriend, Dennis, with whom she has lived with for almost a decade. Did you get that? Almost a decade. Put that in your pocket, you’re going to need it for later.
Once the ceremony concluded, we desperately tried to find my daughter among the sea of purple-cap-and-gowns that swam about outside the stadium. Once connected, we made our way to the PATH train because we had planned a luncheon at a restaurant in Jersey City. It was only while I waited for the train that I learned that Amanda needed to go back to her apartment in the city for a few things since she would be coming home to Jersey for a couple of days. We all boarded the train. After one stop, Amanda, her boyfriend, whom we’ll call ‘Paul’ (because that’s his name), and my youngest son got off the train, which left myself, my other son, my ex-wife and her boyfriend behind to finish the journey. The doors closed and we were off to Jersey City.
At least, that was the plan.
I always stand in subway cars, regardless of whether they are full or not. I hang onto the strap handle and just lazily sway back and forth with the rhythm of the car, soberly drunk while standing still, going sixty miles an hour. At the 9th Street station the train stopped and the doors opened. I looked over at a very pretty woman with dark hair who stood at the other end of the car. Oddly, there appeared to be something that hovered in the air between us. I would easily attribute this to my age and poor eyesight (I equate my vision with someone who has spent hours in a heavily chlorinated pool, underwater, with eyes open), but that thought was wiped clean when I turned and looked out the open train door; the station was filled, from floor to ceiling, with white smoke.
A disembodied, unintelligible voice came over the loudspeaker, but we didn’t need to be told what to do next. Arlene saw the smoke, jumped up from her seat, said something just as unintelligible as the loudspeaker, and then disappeared, like a magician’s trick, into the white. My son, Dennis, myself, and the others on the subway casually walked out onto the platform and headed for the exit.
It was a long walk from the platform to the street. A first tunnel ended with a right turn into another tunnel that turned left that led to stairs that would take us up onto the street. As we moved through the smoke in the first tunnel a sound echoed toward us; it was someone screaming, yet we could not make out the words. My son, Alexander, turned to me and asked, “Is that Mom?” We waited a heartbeat, and then heard another scream.
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s Mom.”
We call our son Alexander. His mother and I never call him Al. My name is Al, so it was a little odd when we finally made out what Arlene, my ex-wife, was screaming.
“AL! GET OUT OF THERE! AL!”
“I don’t know who this Al is,” I said to anyone within earshot, “but he sure must be embarrassed.”
We continued to move through the smoke, towards this hysterical voice that filled the tunnel with dire warnings.
“AL, YOU NEED TO GET OUT OF THERE! HURRY UP!”
Initially funny, I started to wonder, what is waiting for us on the other side? Should we not be so cavalier? Should we be worried? Does Armageddon wait for us just beyond the smoke?
We reached the stairs and looked up. Arlene was slumped against the wall just outside the exit, her hand clutched her shirt at the collar, eyes red from crying, knees bent, ready to collapse. What was the composure of everyone else at the station exit? They were texting or talking on their cell phones, or looked at their watches wondering how late they would be for their next appointment. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and all was right with the world.
Once up on the sidewalk I spotted the pretty woman with the dark hair again; I walked over to her.
“That was exciting,” I said. “Now you have a story to tell.”
“This?” She smiled, “We’re New Yorkers. This doesn’t bother us.”
She looked around, found Arlene who now paced the sidewalk, back and forth, a tin rabbit in an arcade (three shots for a dollar, win a stuffed animal) motioned toward her with her cell phone, and said, “Except for that woman.” “Oh,” I said, pointing to Alexander, “You mean his mother?”
The Fire Department came, the Fire Department left. It was nothing more than a small fire on the track; apparently it happened all the time. A man in a blue shirt told us we could go back down and wait for the next train.
“I’m not going in there,” Arlene said, much as I imagine a cat would say when being coaxed back into a cold bath.
I told her that I was not about to spend a hundred dollars for a cab to go over the bridge, and that we had people waiting for us at the restaurant. No one else seemed to mind the residual smoke that hung in the air. One by one the passengers descended the stairs, old and young alike; they vanished, like Alice, into the hole in the ground.
After much debate Arlene was persuaded to return to the train platform. We needed to jump the turnstile since I had already used up my metro card on the initial trip. A train came along but now that we were the fourth stop on the line, it was crowded and we needed to push our way in. I grabbed a strap handle and tried to position myself between the door jam and the seat bench. Alexander settled in near me, leaning against a metal pole. Arlene dropped herself into a small wedge next to a young couple and landed just on the edge of the seat, her hands rubbed her knees, her feet shuffled, as she waited for that next starter pistol to go off.
Last to find a place was Dennis. He maneuvered carefully through the crowd, and then grabbed a strap handle and hovered above Arlene. At this point we were all quiet. We felt that initial jolt as the train left the station, then settled in as it serpentined under the city streets and headed for the Hudson River. Dennis (check your pocket – almost a decade) who had not said a word this entire time looked down at Arlene, who was still pretty shaken from the events of the day.
“Funny,” he said, glasses riding low on his nose, “that whole time, I never heard you call my name.”
You can read more of Al’s stories at his blog, Conflict and Scotch.
Photo credit – Dan DeLuca/Flickr