“Space Case”

In Manhattan, if you slip between a subway car and the platform while people are boarding or detraining, it’s called a space case.  Yes it happens frequently enough that the transit police have a name for it.

The platform at Times Square, where the S pulls in, is especially treacherous because the gap is wider than at other stations.  So much so, that once the train stops, an extra wooden step emerges from under the platform to help commuters avoid falling into the six foot abyss to the rails below.  Now the gap outside each opening door doesn’t warrant an extra wooden step, but they all warrant caution.  Because people are animals.

Suzanne was one of those freckled girls who wear every emotion on their face like a red neon sign.  Embarrassment, anger, fear, joy.  Her cheeks would just bloom, and the self-consciousness of her poker’s tell made it only worse.  Or brighter.  Tough and maybe unfair for her.  But pretty convenient for me, her manager.

It was a cold snowy Friday morning when she arrived a few minutes late for work.  I didn’t mind because she was very dedicated, I really liked having her on the team.  She was my first true mentee, and I could tell that she wanted me to be more than her mentor.  I was only four years older, but I was the boss.  And besides… But that’s neither here nor there.

Just looking at her that morning I knew her face wasn’t red from the winter wind blowing along Lexington Avenue.  The flash in her eyes confirmed anger.  I went to her desk to ask what was wrong.

“People are animals.  Fucking animals.”  In the eight or so months Suzanne had been working for me, I don’t think I ever heard her curse even once.  Well, at least not the f-bomb.  Quite a choice of words for the workplace.  For a preppy little blonde from Connecticut.  She was one year out of college, living in a Chelsea walk-up with her gay brother and his straight college roommate.  Good way to adapt to the city, so maybe the soft edges were getting jagged.

“What happened?  Are you hurt?”

She explained that when she was getting on the S — the shuttle that runs between Times Square and Grand Central — some asshole (my word) pushed her.  It could be pretty uncivil in rush hour, I’d experienced it plenty of times myself.  People jam in because everyone’s late for work and if you get left on the platform, you have to race to a different platform to wait for the next shuttle.  So, in the scrum to get through the door that morning, Suzanne got pushed, rudely.  I’m not surprised. They’re animals down there.

But then she explained that the asshole actually used his elbow to propel himself forward through the crowd and into the subway car.  That elbow connected with Suzanne and pushed her backwards.  To maintain her balance, she took a step to the right.  But there was no more platform to the right.  And with nothing to grab onto, she dropped like a stone between the car and the platform.  A space case.

Fortunately, she had a backpack slung over her shoulder and that stopped her descent.  Otherwise she would have been on the floor of maybe the most unsanitary place in Manhattan – the subway tracks, home of vermin, garbage and assorted unimaginables.  Not to mention the electrified third rail.

So, there she was, wedged against the subway car, her elbows splayed at her shoulders, her backpack now jammed under her chin.  And this happens in an instant.  And she’s in shock.  And no one notices, or if they do, they don’t care.  People continue to pour into the train.

Finally, when the electronic chimes ring to announce the doors are closing, the unlucky few who couldn’t squeeze into the car take a step back.  One of them, a middle-aged woman, looks down and locks eyes with Suzanne, who’s trying to mouth the word ‘help.’  The woman lets out the most terrifying scream.  Which somehow releases Suzanne’s fear, shock, paralysis.  Now Suzanne is screaming for help.

But none of the animals on the train get off to help.

Three men on the platform come running over, one shouting, STOP THE TRAIN, STOP THE TRAIN.  Which wasn’t moving yet, but it’s good to be safe.

It was awkward and it hurt, but the men were able to grab Suzanne’s arms and elbows and hoisted her back onto the platform.

Are you okay they asked a hundred times all at once, and Suzanne realized a small crowd had gathered around her and they were all asking.  She turned to the train and saw that it was still packed to the rafters, no one had gotten off.

“Fucking animals.”

The shouting man shouted again, this time triumphantly, SHE’S OKAY, SHE’S OKAY.

Chimes.  Doors close.  The shuttle moves out, taking away some anonymous, oblivious asshole, sardined in a cattle car.

Suzanne regained her composure, blurted a series of thank you’s, and headed for the other platform, trying her best to get lost in the next wave of rush hour commuters.  She knew her face was ablaze with embarrassment.  And she knew if that adrenaline ever subsided, it would be replaced by anger.

And that it did.  So, I thought it best to get her out of the office to let her cool down.  I offered to buy her a cup of coffee in the office cafeteria.  When she stood up at her desk, something about her skirt caught my eye.  Yes, I probably would have been looking anyway.

“Did you know that your skirt is ripped?”

Looking down Suzanne realized for the first time that her skirt had a good ten-inch tear running up the side.  To my shock she burst out crying.  Hysterical, uncontrolled sobbing.  Then without a word, she ran off to the Ladies room.

I thought about what to do.  She worked for me, she was on my team.  I felt responsible.  If it had been a guy, and he ripped his shirt or stained his tie, I could run out to Brooks Brothers and make a quick purchase.  But what could I possibly do about replacing a skirt?

I also wondered about how to take control of the situation and help my maybe-inconsolable employee.

I wish I could say that I ultimately brought Suzanne into a private conference room and lectured her about maintaining decorum in the office, and that crying hysterically at her desk was a scene to be avoided.  Her reputation was at stake, and there would be negative impact on the productivity of her fellow office mates.  As her mentor, I felt the need to communicate what would be in her best interest.  Career-wise.

Okay, I did deliver that lecture, but it wasn’t in a private conference room.  It was in the back of the taxi as we drove over to her apartment to pick up another skirt.  She was still quivering from all that crying, so I did have my arm around her.  And I did stop the lecture once she looked up at me with those red cheeks and put her mouth on mine.

I took a step to the right, but there was no platform.

photo credit: Serge Lambotte @atlbxl