A few years ago, the New York City subway was regularly snarled by an elusive trickster who liked to surf the exterior of carriages, sneak inside, and pull the emergency brake. The brakes were activated 37 times in the first four months of 2019 alone, mostly in nonemergency situations, each screeching halt stalling the train and the one behind it and the one behind that, the delays rippling across the system to interrupt the commutes of thousands of people. The subway surfer was something of a legend, glimpsed in viral videos clinging to the side of the C train as it sped from one station to another. I’m pretty sure I saw him myself once, on the back of a D train as it left Atlantic-Barclays, a hooded figure suddenly appearing where a person should not have been, backlit by a fluorescent window and resembling the Grim Reaper. “Oh my God, that’s him!” exclaimed the woman next to me.
Was I scared? No. Was it scary? Yes, a little — to imagine him barreling through a black tunnel with nothing but air and two inches of ledge separating him from the tracks; to have encountered a dark apparition of what is normally offstage, the life on the other side of a chain of events that culminates in a garbled message over the intercom announcing that your train has been delayed. He was eventually arrested and turned out to be violent as well, slamming a woman at DeKalb Avenue into the side of an idling B train later that year. Yet it is quaint to think that this is what passed for chilling behavior back then, before the pandemic emptied the subway and it became the site of a spate of anti-Asian hate crimes.
It is true that the subway is nowhere near as violent as in the bad old days of the 1970s, when graffiti blared from the walls and muggers stalked the compartments. But it is also obvious that the subway has changed in recent years. Stations have gone to seed. People are sleeping in the carriages and smoking on the platforms. Reports of crime have gone up even as ridership has plummeted. Felony assaults, in particular, spiked by nearly 25 percent between 2019 and 2021, most dramatically epitomized by the mentally ill man who shoved an Asian woman into an oncoming train in Times Square in January.
This is not normal, nor is it acceptable. There are far less dangerous subway systems around the world, some with barriers on the platform to prevent people from falling or being pushed onto the tracks. Such a reform to New York’s subway system, however — and really any reform that is more than cosmetic — is basically a pipe dream, thanks to the exorbitant costs, the age of the infrastructure, and the dynamics of state government. There is a sense that nothing is being done. There is a sense that the city is failing us. All of that finds expression in the subway, which during the pandemic became the social safety net for the unhoused, the unwell, and the many others who needed assistance but simply weren’t getting it — everyone crammed together on narrow platforms and in metal boxes.
The fear that the subway engenders, on one level, is about personal safety. I’m not afraid to ride the subway, but during the lowest depths of the pandemic, when passengers stuck out like lonely monuments on an otherwise barren landscape, I was conscious of my Asianness and often preferred the double layer of anonymity afforded by mask and sunglasses, looking something like H. G. Wells’s Invisible Man. Even now, it seems like common sense to stand in the middle of the platform when waiting for a train to arrive. But the fear is also about something much deeper. When you glimpse a compartment that is empty but for a poor raving soul; when a person follows you through the station screaming obscenities; when you hear that a man died surfing between cars at your station — it is a manifestation of the desperation and madness that have always undergirded the city. It is proof that, right beneath New York, beneath the glittering dream of capitalism that it represents, is a nightmare.
The Adams administration doesn’t want you to see this. Its policy is to almost literally sweep these undesired elements under the rug. I see things all the time on the subway that frighten me: people who need but aren’t getting medication; eyes that burn with a dull fire of loathing; an old man struggling up the stairs with no one to help him. The subway is a picture not merely of who any of us might become but of who we are right now, and if you care about New York and the people who live here, you should be concerned. You should be scared.