getting around

I Was a Teenage Subway Terror

April 13 in Queens, one day after a gunman opened fire on the subway in Brooklyn. Photo: Andres Kudacki

The term rush hour evokes a dizzying subway scene full of suits holding briefcases headed to midtown. And New York City at 8:30 a.m. is certainly that, but it’s also full of another legion of riders: students. Bumping into other bleary-eyed commuters with their larger-than-life backpacks, teens are on their way to school across the five boroughs. When the subway shooter wreaked havoc on a Sunset Park subway station, five teenagers were among the victims, including one with a bullet injury to his hand.

The specter of subway violence never felt too far away when we were teens. I remember one episode in eighth grade in particular. It was 1999, and a bunch of us had gathered in our middle school’s cafeteria in different states of angsty repose, slouching over the long table picking tiny pepperoni off half-frozen pizzas. “My cousin’s friend got slashed by the Bloods,” shouted one tween boy over the crowd. “I bet it was my cousin who slashed him,” said the class clown, boastful. Everyone there chimed in with a story of someone’s brother’s cousin’s uncle who’d gotten slashed or done the slashing.

The story went that a hopeful Blood would ask for the time from an unsuspecting fool on the subway, the fool would look down at a watch, and boom: The straphanger’s cheek became bloodied. The gang recruit would hop off at the next stop, fleeing the station, useless subway cops none the wiser. For days, the hallways of Manhattan East stayed abuzz with news of more slashings and warnings: Don’t wear red; don’t look anyone who’s wearing red in the eyes; if you see a girl walking toward you wearing red, immediately run to the next car. To protect myself, I started brandishing the file from my mom’s 50-cent nail clipper on the subway — a weapon surely sharp enough to deter someone trying to get into a gang.

Fear of the subway was in the air then. Rudy Giuliani had succeeded in ousting David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor, by running a brutal campaign that stoked fears of rising Black and Latino crime. According to Giuliani, ours was a public-transit system tormented by drug users, muggers, and murderers. Law and order, he decreed, was what New York’s subways desperately needed. By the time I was sitting in that cafeteria, Giuliani had ramped up the prosecution of low-level crimes. The subways became a hotbed of police activity, with kids getting arrested for jumping the turnstile, asking for money, or loitering. In high school, my friends and I were often stopped and detained too: for being too loud, for being too boisterous. Once, I got stopped for being truant on a day I didn’t even have school.

Getting nabbed by the police was a more pressing fear than getting slashed by a Blood. And we turned that fear into sport. Ducking cops underground became just another teenage rebellion. We traveled to parties in packs, taking swigs of beer out of brown paper bags and smoking cigarettes in between cars. We responded to any unlucky elder who dared to shush us with a string of expletives and threats. This was our place to be a bit bad and unrepentant: one of the few places that we, who owned nothing, felt we truly owned.

Now I’m the elder on the subway, praying that the band of teens next to me on the platform doesn’t get in the same car. Still, I want them to be able to live their whole teen truth as loudly and obnoxiously as they want, and I worry that their mostly harmless rebellions will become a source of fear for those who don’t know or can’t remember what it’s like to be young in New York — or, worse, spark a fatal standoff with a police force hopped up on pressures about quality-of-life crime.

But mostly when I watch kids on the subway now — from a nice distance — I see something else. One New Year’s Eve, our train didn’t come in time to make it to the party we were going to, so we counted down on the street, kissing and hugging strangers at the stroke of midnight. Right after, we got back on the subway to head to the next spot. I saw this older guy from my parents’ building, a member of the ’90s band the Spin Doctors. A little buzzed and feeling dangerous, I broke out into song: “If you want to buy me flowers / Just go ahead now.” My friends chimed in. Soon, the whole car did. It was a magical moment, a subway moment, and I can’t remember for my life whose party we ended up at.

I Was a Teenage Subway Terror