(A shorter version of this post appeared in the Metropolitan Diary Section of the New York Times on March 10, 2015)
Like most New York City subway stations, the Atlantic Avenue Barclay Center platform is a cement pier-like structure in the center of a long tunnel. On either side of the pier is a five or six foot deep well where the trains come in. Down in those wells are the subway tracks—including the third rail that carries the electricity and which can electrocute you if you touch it. There’s also trash, paper cups, broken plastic bottles and fast-food boxes, all usually squished and tattered from the rusty metal wheels of the trains as they run in and out of the station. Occasionally a rat crawls fearlessly along the tracks, eating what’s been dropped. Posters and loudspeaker announcements warn riders to stay away from the edge. If you do drop something, they admonish, don’t ever jump down into the well after it. Call a subway worker. The posters list how many people fell into the wells last year—and how many people died.
One Thursday afternoon last spring I was standing on the platform waiting for the R train. It was getting on towards rush hour so the platform was crowded with people of all ages and races—a typical group in New York City. The R always enters the station a bit slowly, and as it came around the curve and chugged inexorably down the track towards the stop, everyone shifted, moving to the best spot to board the train. Suddenly a man dressed in a plaid button-down shirt, a cabled sweater vest and khakis jumped down into the well not fifteen feet from me. I thought—‘Oh no—he must have dropped his cell phone!” I couldn’t think of any other reason why someone would actually jump down into the well with the train coming.
Everyone near the man swarmed to the edge of the platform, shouting in five or six different languages. The train began blaring its horn and it must have started slowing down, but it takes time to stop all those heavy subway cars. I am going to see someone crushed to death, I thought. But I couldn’t turn my eyes away.
Then, as if he’d practiced for just such an occasion, another man leapt onto the tracks. He wrestled the jumper to the side. A third person dragged him onto the platform and someone else pulled the second man to safety just as the R rolled to a stop.
The jumper lay on the ground, looking exhausted and defeated. He didn’t react to any of the people yelling at him; it was clear then that he’d been trying to kill himself. Someone must have run to get the police because before the passengers finished exiting the train, two officers had arrived. They talked to the jumper, who just kept shaking his head, as the rest of us boarded the train.
Most people don’t talk to anyone on the subway. But on that day, everyone in my car was talking to everyone else. It didn’t seem to matter than we all spoke different languages. “Why did he do that?” we asked each other. “He’d lost his job,” someone said. “He was homeless.” Still, people were angry. Maybe, as some of my more cynical friends have suggested, they were just irritated that their commute could have been interrupted.
But I think they were frightened of coming so close to horrific death. And they were furious that this man had risked the lives of the rescuers. Those secret superheroes probably did not know each other, but they reacted instinctively as a team. I went home that night inspired by this breathtaking example of the unselfish generosity of strangers.