The woman next to me on the subway is reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I’m not normally one to talk to others on the subway, but I can’t resist a good read. “What do you think so far?” I ask her, nodding at the book.
She seems as surprised to be spoken to as I am to be speaking to her. “Uh, um, it’s great?” Her voice has the uptake at the end that signals she would prefer to be left alone.
I sigh and return to my own book, slightly disappointed in myself that I am so desperate for human companionship that I’ll talk to strangers on the train. I have read precisely one page when the train slams to a stop so quickly that all of the passengers tumble into each other. One woman falls to the ground, and the man across from me quickly helps her up.
“That can’t be good,” he says.
“What?” someone asks.
“The only time the train ever stops like that is when someone pulls the emergency brake.”
The words have no sooner left his mouth than the door at the opposite end of the car opens and people begin to flood through. One of them is a tall brunette in a black jacket, pushing a stroller. “There’s sparks coming from the heater back there,” she announces to our whole car.
Of course, we all strain in our seats to look towards the back of the car.
The conductors radio each other using the overhead intercom.
Conductor One: “Someone pulled the emergency brake.”
Conductor Two: “Where?”
One: “Towards the back of the train.”
A man I can only assume to be the second conductor enters our car from the opposite door of where everyone flooded in. “Did one of you pull the cord?”
The stroller woman points behind her. “The heater was sparking.”
Two disappears in the direction stroller woman was pointing. Seconds later, we hear over the intercom, “Hey, we have a fire back here.”
Someone in the car squeals, while the rest of us remain huddled in our seats. Do we get up? Move towards the front of the train? Go out a window?!? I look out the window; we are at a crossroads on the tracks, a major interchange where trains come and go and switch lanes. The express train to Brooklyn is approaching on the right, and the express train to Queens is coming from the left. I hope they’ll see us. They come to a stop a safe distance away, and I say a little exclamation of thanks.
The side door to the car opens, and a handful of police officers pour in and jog in the direction where the second conductor disappeared. The train still isn’t moving. I can’t see anything; I wonder how bad the fire is. I wonder what will happen to us, if we will have to get out and run out the emergency subway exits. Past the waiting trains, past the inevitable tunnel people. Or if they’ll just make us sit. The baby in the stroller is crying. I don’t blame it. I wage a silent debate with myself over whether I should read my book or be ready to spring to action, and I elect to remain in a state of readiness.
“Hey, buddy,” we hear Two on the overhead. “Pull up to the next station so we can evacuate. We’re close to it, and there’s a bit of a situation back here.”
I can see smoke through the doorway to the next car. The woman next to me sees it too. She sets down American Gods and says, “Well, shit,” at the same time as I say, “That’s just what you want to hear over the loudspeaker.” Our words are the only words in the car. We all stare at the door as the train slowly lurches to life and winds for an agonizing minute that feels like an hour into the next station. The doors open as the train comes to a stop; I have never seen people exit so quickly. The American Gods woman and I walk a few paces to the opposite track and then turn to watch as smoke billows from the now open fire car. “Well, shit,” she says again.
“Well, shit,” I agree.
We stand to the side and watch as emergency workers come running down the stairs. There’s a hiss as they attack the fire, and the smoke increases. It isn’t going out right away. We are all ushered up the stairs and out into the open air. The American Gods woman goes one way, and I go the other. I will walk to my destination rather than try to catch another train, all the while wondering what would have happened to us had we not been so close to the next station. If we had been on a longer stretch of underground tunnel. If the people hadn’t noticed the sparks and pulled the emergency brake.
Everything is moment to moment here; this is what it means to live in New York. We share stories every day with people that we will never see again; we tell each other’s stories, and then we forget each other. We move on. Tomorrow, no one will remember that there was a fire on the C train. But today? I’ll own this story.