Who’s Afraid of the Subway?
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On the third Saturday night in April, four days after the first mass shooting on the New York City subway in nearly 40 years, the West 4th Street station felt mostly like it always has. Half a dozen NYU students walked in from Sixth Avenue carrying cans of Four Loko and blasting music from a speaker. A stocky bro punched a digital billboard that already had a spiderweb crack obscuring an MTA public-service announcement encouraging passengers to say something if they see something. Guitar Dennis, who busks there most weekend nights, riffed on “Another One Bites the Dust” but was drowned out by a trash train that barreled past, disappointing everyone who’d hoped it was their ride home.
Elsewhere, a man who didn’t seem to have his wits about him staggered dangerously close to the track. Another had his pants fully unzipped; he wasn’t wearing any underwear. In the uptown exit to Waverly Place, a small group of men talked wildly to each other — “If you fire a gun, you don’t want to shoot above the waist” — as passengers squeezed past them, pretending not to hear as they made their way through the turnstiles. It was a familiar mix of revelry and threat.
But which was it? The subway is New York’s permacrisis. It’s always slow, dirty, or dangerous; more often than anyone would like, it has been all three at once. (It took just a week after the grand opening in 1904 for the subway to kill someone: Leidschmudel Dreispul, a Bronx man, run over by a southbound express.) In the years leading up to the pandemic, riders commiserated with one another about everything: the delays, the closures, the shit — and occasionally the crime. But for a remarkable stretch of time, many New Yorkers felt as safe on the subway as they did aboveground. Then, the pandemic emptied out the trains, ridership fell by more than 90 percent, and unfamiliar disorder filled the void. The city’s unhoused population, poorly served by an overcrowded shelter system and a lack of access to mental-health care, was spending more time on the trains and in the stations. Major criminal complaints to the NYPD are up 43 percent this year, but the increase is even larger (67 percent) in the transit system. Violent attacks were all over the news — an average of more than two people per month pushed onto the subway tracks in 2021 — some of them linked to mentally ill people living on the street or in the subway. In January, Michelle Go, a 40-year-old Upper West Sider, was shoved in front of an R train at the Times Square station. The man who pushed her was recently deemed mentally unfit to stand trial.
In certain ways, this was painfully familiar territory. In a city of 9 million, terrible things happen all the time. People living in subway stations and on trains wasn’t new, and many New Yorkers were now enlightened enough to know that someone in this situation should be viewed with empathy, not fear. The crime stats could be interpreted in various ways: as a city backsliding uniquely fast or a city facing the same national surge in crime rates as many other areas. (Either way, you’re far more likely to be hit by a car in New York City than pushed in front of a train.) That left many New Yorkers, returning to the subway more regularly for the first time in two years, feeling a confused unease about the fact that the trains seemed different, and they didn’t quite know what to do about it — a creeping return of fear and, alongside it, a meta-anxiety about what exactly you were afraid of. Does anyone really want the cops arresting somebody for smoking on the subway? Then, in the middle of this brewing conversation, a guy from somewhere else brought a Glock onto the N train and shot ten people.
My night at West 4th Street was the end of my third day attempting to ride every subway line in the city. Walking the station from end to end late on that Saturday night, I took a census: 42 people, almost all of them men, didn’t seem there to catch a ride. I felt bad for counting — worse, clearly, than the woman whom I saw pointing her phone at a shirtless man facedown in the middle of the uptown A/C/E platform in order to share the scene with a friend on FaceTime. Sure, it was raining, and the most obviously destructive person was a drunk Frenchman who tore through CAUTION tape an MTA worker had just installed in order to block off a stairwell for painting. But I wasn’t the only person to notice. “The biggest concern I’ve had is the incidents of women being pushed onto the subway,” a young woman named Dara told me while waiting to take an F train home with a friend after a night at the Comedy Cellar. She was standing in the middle of the platform. “That’s intentional,” she said. “I usually make sure I’m leaning against something. And I don’t take the subway past 12.” Midnight was approaching.
By and large, few people at West 4th seemed to be pestering anyone else; the trains came eventually, and riders went on their way. But I had watched earlier as a young man wearing slippers and no shirt, with a four-foot metal pipe resting on his shoulder, walked up to the magazine stand on the downtown B/D/F/M platform, stared the manager in the face, grabbed a bag of Utz chips, and walked away. The manager asked him to give back the bag. The man idly swung the pipe through the air. A group of 20-somethings edged farther down the platform. The manager, an older South Asian man, went back to his stand and opened a thermos to pour himself a drink. After the thief wandered elsewhere, I asked the manager if this happens regularly. He shrugged.
What was he supposed to do? And what should a thoughtful New Yorker want for the subway system? More police or fewer? More social workers to better serve the unhoused population, or more forced evictions from stations to get the rest of the city moving more freely again? And was it embarrassing, antisocial, racist, and a betrayal of your city to admit you’d rather pay for an Uber? One of the proudest New Yorkers I know told me she now avoids the subway after 10 p.m. She didn’t feel great about it but couldn’t take it anymore. She had finally seen one too many penises.
For hours after the N-train shooting, the 36th Street station in Sunset Park was hidden from passing trains by a blue tarp. Cleaning crews were still wiping up the blood from a deluge of bullets that somehow had not killed anyone. When I arrived two morning commutes later, things seemed back to normal on the platform. A kid was wearing a Batman T-shirt and holding his dad’s hand next to a man carrying four Ikea bags filled with snake plants. I eventually found myself giving directions to a couple visiting from Pittsburgh. They had been trying to get from their hotel in Tribeca to the Empire State Building but went in the wrong direction and got off only after their teenage son noticed they were pulling into 36th Street (in Brooklyn) without having stopped at 34th Street (in Manhattan). Tuesday’s shooting had not been a deterrent, and they didn’t even realize this was the scene of the crime until I told them. “I’m from Bosnia,” one of the tourists said. “I lived in a war.”
Up on the street, a few cops milled about, but the row of TV trucks had dwindled to one from Telemundo and another from Fox 5. The sidewalk around the subway entrance was covered in chalk art by the artist H. Caleb Honschar, who had created an impromptu rainbow-colored memorial:
YOU MAY TRY TO KILL US BUT YOU WILL NEVER KILL OUR NEW YORK SPIRIT
FEAR STOPS HERE
P.S. 371 CHILDREN, PLEASE OBEY YOUR PARENT(S) AND TEACHERS
The only other hint of Tuesday’s attack was the presence of several members of the Guardian Angels standing around the entrance. The group was founded in 1979 by Curtis Sliwa as an organization of civilian crime fighters. (Sliwa ran for mayor last year against Eric Adams on an I’m-even-tougher-on-crime platform.) “It’s quiet so far,” said Jose Mastarreno, a Guardian Angel from East New York who was wearing camouflage-printed pants, a mask with the Puerto Rican flag, and the group’s signature red beret. He joined the Angels in 1983, when he was 16, after seeing the group on TV and thinking, I could be a hero, too. “By the way, my name is Terminator,” he said of his nom de guerre. “You get to pick your name.”
Terminator had helped Sliwa open branches in Florida, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., but he always found there was more than enough work to be done back home. “Even if you make a lot of arrests, there’s always nut-heads out there,” he said. “You never know what might happen.”
A scream broke out nearby. Terminator tensed up. A young woman burst out of a pizza shop wearing bejeweled purple Crocs and a mask printed with Louis Vuitton logos. “It’s a big-ass rat,” she screamed — another perpetual New York threat. Terminator stood down.
The Angels had moved away from their early strategy of making citizen’s arrests, which created a rift with the NYPD. They now saw themselves primarily as visual deterrence. “We’re making our presence known, letting commuters know somebody’s watching,” said Jose Gonzalez, who runs the Brooklyn branch — he’s Terminator’s boss. His code name, Crazy J, is a result of things he did as a child (“I can’t talk about that”) and the use of his martial-arts training in the line of duty (“Nothing I can really talk about”). When not on patrol, he is the business-development manager for Archangel Global Security.
Crazy J is among the New Yorkers who think the city is reverting to its crime-ridden past, and quickly. He had a few pet explanations. “How’s this bail reform working?” he said, referring to legislation in New York that allowed fewer people to spend time behind bars while awaiting trial — reforms that conservatives have used to paint progressives from San Francisco to Albany as soft on crime. He noted that the Sunset Park shooter, Frank James, had been arrested on at least ten occasions. “A lot of times these cops, before the ink is dry and they can finish their arresting report, the guy is out,” Crazy J said. He thought a different proposal to make the subway free, pushed by some progressive urbanists, was laughable. “Are you out of your mind?” Crazy J said. “You can’t make this a free transit system when all the Uzi-toting, dope-sucking, psychopathic killing machines are gonna be using those same trains.” I asked him if he had really seen an Uzi-toting, dope-sucking, psychopathic killing machine on the streets of New York lately. “Listen, with these untraceable guns, you’re seeing everything,” he said.
For all his law-and-order bombast, even Crazy J admitted that policing couldn’t solve every problem. It’s why he was volunteering on the streets to begin with. Doing more to solve the mental-health crisis was a priority for Crazy J, and I watched as he spent 20 minutes patiently listening to a man ranting outside the pizza shop. When the conversation ended, the man thanked him and kissed his hand. “All they want is to be engaged,” Crazy J said. “I’ll see that guy again, and he’ll remember that.”
He pointed to an NYPD officer standing at the entrance to the train. “This is how to fix the subway: that officer, downstairs, patrolling what goes in and out of the turnstiles,” he said. “You control the turnstiles, you control the crime.” Many criminologists and activists say this is an ineffective strategy and a tax on the city’s poorest citizens, but the Adams administration has embraced the idea. Subway arrests are up 64 percent this year: 17,000 tickets for fare evasion and another 1,400 for smoking. At 36th Street, I watched two officers cite a middle-aged Asian woman wearing a T-shirt that said ALL FOR ONE. She had apparently snuck in without paying. The woman didn’t seem to speak much English, and it wasn’t entirely clear she understood what was going on. A nice white lady heading down the platform stopped on the stairwell, peeking over the ledge to film the interaction with her iPhone, while another nice white lady walked up to the officers and earnestly thanked them for their service. The woman on the stairs left before the exchange was over in order to catch her train; a few minutes later, the officers ticketed someone else.
After the N-train shooting, Mayor Adams promised to double the number of officers in the subway on top of the additional 1,000 cops the NYPD had devoted to the system earlier in his administration. As I rode around the city, the cops did seem to be all over. Most appeared to be doing the same thing as everybody else: staring at their phones or off into space. Even if a more visible police presence might deter some criminals, it was unlikely to deter someone like Frank James or save Michelle Go. (There were two officers patrolling nearby when she was pushed.) Every officer I approached declined to talk to me, and none of them asked why I was spending hours milling about various subway stations.
I was, however, stopped by one of my fellow citizens. One morning, on a mostly empty Coney Island–bound train, I noticed two teenagers who appeared to be playing hooky make a movie on a GoPro. I was trying to eavesdrop and scooted a few seats closer to hear. Bad move. An older woman got the kids’ attention. “Look out,” she said. “There’s a creepy older man over there watching you.” She was talking about me. I fumbled for a business card. “Don’t show me no card,” she said. “Show me the police.”
The following afternoon, I took a 3 train to its terminus at New Lots Avenue, in East New York, hoping to talk to the people who have been riding the subway the most throughout the pandemic. “The thing that bothers me is the emphasis on the fire department, first responders — they are the ones that are looked at more as, what do you call it, frontline people,” one train conductor told me. “And it’s like, Why is MTA personnel not being recognized in that way?”
The conductor, who declined to give me his name, was standing in an open doorway of a train that was being washed by one of the many COVID cleaning crews still sanitizing subway cars at the end of their trips. MTA workers have been among the New Yorkers hardest hit by the pandemic. In March 2020, the agency briefly chose to prohibit employees from wearing masks; more MTA workers died of COVID in the pandemic’s earliest months than employees from any other city agency.
But the virus was just the beginning of the woes MTA employees would suffer. Almost as an aside, the conductor told me that this year, he had “my third 12-9” — code for hitting someone with a train. “Why aren’t we being given a psychologist to speak to when we have this 12-9?” he said. “You have to just go back to work.” (The MTA says it does provide mental-health support to employees.) After the N-train shooting, John Samuelsen, the head of the Transport Workers Union, which includes MTA employees, told Brian Lehrer there have been five incidents of assault or harassment per week on transit workers. “If five teachers were getting assaulted a week, or politicians, they would bring in the National Guard,” Samuelsen said.
None of the MTA employees I spoke to blamed the NYPD or anyone else for James’s attack, but all of them wanted help dealing with the unruly passengers they encounter. “We don’t feel unsafe,” another train operator told me, using a double negative that seemed meaningful. “But if there’s anything that can be done about the homeless situation, that’s our biggest concern.” Most were in favor of having more cops throughout the system. “I think the police have let it get out of control,” the New Lots conductor said. He specifically wanted them “nipping things in the bud before they happen” — by which he meant manning the turnstiles.
A ding went off across the platform. “That’s my train,” he said. I hopped onboard. A few stops later, we arrived at Sutter Avenue, the last inbound station before the 3 train dives underground. The station had several pieces of art on the wall. One, commissioned by the MTA, features stenciled cutouts in various shapes, including the ailanthus tree, which the agency notes “is found in unlikely and inhospitable places” and was meant as “a metaphor for the courage and determination of the people of Brooklyn.” A newer installation, scrawled in red marker, has its artist’s statement built in: REMOVE CRAZY HOMELESS FROM NYC TRANSIT.
Two days earlier, and less than 24 hours after the N-train shooting, a 16-year-old was knifed in the arm while riding the 3 train into Sutter Avenue at eight o’clock in the morning. While many MTA employees seemed keenly aware of the incidents taking place across the system, I found a lot of riders to be oblivious or unmoved. “I don’t care about the subway!” a woman in scrubs told me at Sutter Avenue. “I just want to get home.” Fair enough. I had a longer conversation with Luis Gilbert, who moved to Brownsville from St. Lucia three years ago. He didn’t take the subway very often, partly out of safety concerns. “You don’t know what to expect, and there’s literally nowhere to go,” he said. But his eyes grew wide when I told him about the stabbing at his station. (A few days after we spoke, two unhoused men would be found dead on the tracks there.) The only incident Gilbert had dealt with lately took place above-ground: On the same day as the stabbing, he had been shopping at Target in the Atlantic Terminal when a teenager was shot in the head on the street out front.
I got off the train at Franklin Avenue and walked over to the shuttle train that connects the 2/3/4/5 trains in Crown Heights to the A/C a few blocks north. The train was 20 minutes away. Renée Nealy, a lifelong resident of Crown Heights, was complaining about the wait to her cousin, Calypso Hall. Both Nealy and Hall grew up in the neighborhood and in many ways were desensitized to the problems with the train. But they admitted the pandemic had made everything worse. (Hall is a spoken-word poet; she doesn’t recommend Zoom open mics.) “They definitely need to provide mental-health services that’s not just, like, sweeping people away from the subway,” Hall said. When we got off the train at the other end of the shuttle, I asked if they were aware that a week earlier, in the middle of the day, a passenger had attacked an MTA employee at the Franklin Avenue shuttle station, grabbing her hair and threatening to kill her before punching her in the face. Nealy remembered seeing CAUTION tape but hadn’t thought much of it. “I used to have the Citizen app on my phone, but it was too much,” she said. “It was always alerting me to something.”
Haven’t spent much time on the subway lately? Here’s what it’s like. For starters, I typed this sentence while riding an A train, and no one tried to swipe my laptop. At the 183rd Street station on the 4 in the Bronx, where a shooting had taken place on the train the day before, I pulled out my phone to FaceTime in to a family Easter brunch without being bothered. Rush hour can be crowded, but nothing like you remember. There are still musicians playing strange instruments, lots of people playing Candy Crush, and an unfortunate number of riders watching YouTube without headphones. The OMNY fare system is pretty neat, and occasionally people are genuinely excited to be on the subway. “The Mets are back!” a guy said at the Citi Field station after the team won its home opener. “The 7 train is back!” There was poop on the floor at Hoyt-Schermerhorn and in Atlantic Terminal, near an ad for CNN+, but I also saw a number of people carrying bright-pink bags from a fancy Swedish candy store called BonBon. The start-up ads remain infantilizing: There’s now a credit card for people who identify as an “adult?” (yes, with a question mark). Many people were smoking either cigarettes or weed; of those who weren’t, most were masked. A pandemic winner: Manspreading has survived, rebranded as social distancing. In Elmhurst, I watched a young man cut in front of an older woman to make a train, then turn around and hold the closing door for her; riding the train was a reminder that many of the kindnesses that New Yorkers offer one another — lifting the front wheels of a stroller, sharing a swipe, giving up a seat — take place in the subway. The closest I felt to real danger was on the street, when I almost got run over during a game of chicken with a driver in Queens over who would enter an intersection first. The showtime crews are still around, as are the Hare Krishnas: Jimmy Guo, who moved from Illinois at the beginning of the year, had been spending four hours a day in the subway, six days a week, with his fellow adherents. He didn’t much care for New York — “It’s a heavy city” — but his newfound spirituality had him feeling at ease about everything going on underground. “If someone is meant to die, nobody can save them, and if someone is meant to live, nobody can kill them,” Guo told me at Union Square, his colleagues chanting nearby. “So I’m just down here doing what I love to do — spreading pure love of God — and if I can keep living, then I’m happy doing what I love to do.” He then asked if I could make a donation.
A day after Frank James’s arrest outside a McDonald’s in the East Village, I took the D train into Manhattan and walked over to Dimes Square, the Lower East Side hot spot where James was seen on the morning of his arrest. It was a glorious spring day, and I approached a trio of young people having a mid-afternoon drink on a boulder just off Canal Street. “The freaks are out,” Monty Yrigoyen, who works at Dimes Market, said. “Everyone becomes a freak when the sun’s out after it’s been 20 degrees.”
The group’s feelings about the subway were mixed. “The vibes are weird for sure,” Yrigoyen said. Alex Rapine, a writer and video editor who was wearing a pinkie ring, a Margaritaville T-shirt, and a corduroy cap printed with the name of a third-tier Parisian soccer club, said he had largely stopped taking the subway after a stalled train made him late to work at a ramen restaurant. (He went home, quit the job, and got more comfortable biking.) Kyrsten Morales didn’t love the train but didn’t feel like she had a choice. “It got empty during the pandemic, and then when it filled up again, it filled up with the weirdest people,” Morales said. “But I can’t get scared and take an Uber. I can’t afford it.”
Morales, who, like many transplants, got a call from her mother after the shooting, said she had been idly reading about James’s conspiratorial rantings on YouTube. “There’s no logic to it,” she said. “But if I were to make up my own logic to it, it would be that he said, ‘Shooters exist, and they need to exist, at the right place at the right time.’ He wanted to control where it happened and when it happened rather than the act of it.”
“And obviously not a single cop stopped him or caught him,” Yrigoyen said.
“He should have hopped the turnstiles; then he would have been caught — dead-ass!” Morales said.
This was largely beside the point. James didn’t jump the turnstile, and no one from Dimes Square or even Guardian Angels HQ was suggesting the police search every Black man who looks like he’s going to work at a construction site. The politics of the moment were scrambling everyone’s brains: If the cops publicized something, then to a certain demographic it couldn’t possibly be true. And yet it was undeniable that Black and brown and Asian New Yorkers were being disproportionately affected by the rise in crime and that many of them wanted more police on the streets and the subway. Several people who saw James at Dimes had been reluctant to call the cops; meanwhile, Zack Tahhan, a Syrian immigrant fixing a security camera at a nearby hardware store, went straight to the police.
One evening, I got onto the shuttle from Times Square to Grand Central and found myself a few feet away from a man who was raving to the rest of the car:
“The people with the power don’t ride the subway … They try to brush things on the rug … The city could be safe but the wrong people run it … I want to be the solution but I’m the biggest problem … Y’all have a good evening.”
After exiting at Grand Central, the man told me his name was Darryl Evans and he lives in the Bronx but spends most of the day on the train. “It’s good to see people out here,” he said, walking through the station. “I’m a people person.” He wore orange and blue from head to toe — he’s a Mets fan — and didn’t want to share much about himself. “You can say I’m 60-something,” he said. He was pushing a bike that had four tote bags hanging from the handlebars. “My nerves are shot,” he said. The bike was for balance.
Evans had grown up riding the subway — “to Coney Island, to Yankee Stadium, everywhere.” His relationship to the MTA went south in 1991, when Evans says he boarded a 4 train at 125th Street that never made it to 14th Street: The motorman was drunk and plowed into the tunnel wall, killing five people. We arrived in the underground tempest below Grand Central a little after 6 p.m. It wasn’t the rush-hour mob I remembered, but it was close. People were piling onto the 4 train to get to Yankee Stadium for the first pitch. Evans said that he did think the situation in the subway had gotten worse but that it could be fixed. “You need New Yorkers to give a damn about people,” he said.
Were you smoking marijuana?” Roy Bell asked me as we walked off a G train at Broadway over the weekend. “When we got off the train, I smelled marijuana.”
Bell is a member of Acapella Soul, a roving group of buskers who meet most days at 116th Street in Harlem, ride the A to Brooklyn and the G to Queens, then reverse the trip and call it a day. Richard Tillman, the group’s leader, has been singing underground since 1982, when someone on the street suggested he might make more money with a captive audience. “We were the first to do it,” Tillman said. “They used to arrest us for doing this.”
That got his bandmates talking.
“Why you gonna say that?”
“Because it’s the truth!”
“That was Giuliani.”
“Okay, okay — but it happened. There’s no shame in it.”
“I’m not arrogant — I’ve been around.”
In addition to their jobs as performers, Acapella Soul saw their group as a sort of for-profit community-improvement organization. “There’s a lot of tension down here,” Bob Lucas said. “And when we step on the train, people snap out of it.”
“We stop a lot of crime, too,” Bell said. “If we see something, we jump in. One time, this woman came off the train and slid in a puddle of feces into the track — baby first.” He meant that she was pregnant. “We jumped down there and picked her up, as big as the woman was,” Tillman said. Two weeks earlier, someone had thrown a bottle of urine at them. “We tackled him, and the police got him,” Bell said.
If there is a solution to the subway’s woes that pretty much everyone agrees on, it’s this: The more people start taking the train, the less crime there will be. Few criminals like a crowd, and New Yorkers have a way of looking out for one another, as evidenced by my near arrest for being mistaken for a child predator. Weekday ridership is now above 50 percent of its pre-pandemic levels, and the N-train shooting hasn’t seemed to halt the rising numbers. Weekends are doing even better, suggesting that the shift to remote work was depressing ridership more than concerns about safety. (Or that visitors are tougher than locals, a thought most New Yorkers wouldn’t want to consider.) What the guys from Acapella Soul were mainly saying was that the other 50 percent of New York needed to suck it up. “Put it down like it is,” Bell said. “It’s not a punk town. You gotta have gumption. If you’re scared to go outside or be on the subway, leave New York!” Several members of the group said they had served in wars overseas. “I woke up and the guy had put a bowie knife in my head, down to the eyeball,” Bell said. “The doctors had to leave it in there two weeks.” The point: Genuine tragedies do happen, but they are rare, and sometimes getting hit with a tossed bottle of urine is the price you pay for living in the greatest city in the world.
From this perspective, the subway was engaged in a public-relations battle as much as a crime-fighting one. One side was objecting to a policing surge on principle, even if having extra cops in the subway made some people, including many of the overwhelmingly Black and brown employees of the MTA, feel more comfortable. The Post was making the city feel like a war zone, even if the reality on the ground told a more nuanced story. At the Elmhurst Avenue E/M/R station, a reporter from Xinhua News, the official media organ of the Chinese government, had set up a camera pointed at the station entrance. When I walked past, he stopped me to ask if I would be willing to talk about “safety issues in New York.”
And yet sometimes our most irrational fears come true. During a walk between subway stations in midtown, I talked to another friend who had been thinking a lot about the film Ghost. In the movie, one of the first she saw as a kid growing up in New York in the ’90s, Patrick Swayze encounters a ghost who says he was pushed onto the track. “That made an impression on me,” my friend said. “It’s such a senseless way to die, and it just breaks the logic of how the world works in the mind of a 10-year-old.” My friend is Asian and roughly the same age as Michelle Go. “When she got pushed, I was like, Oh my fucking God, this is literally the movie,” my friend said. “So yeah, I find a wall at all times.”