My father started training as a subway operator in the spring of 1983, the year after I was born. That ought to give you an idea of how hard up we were. The late ’70s might have been the city’s boiling point, but the early ’80s were when it spilled over, especially underground; they were the darkest years of the subways, the years of gangs and Bernie Goetz, and filthy, run-down trains with graffiti layered so thick over windows that you could only see through them when they were broken. Ridership was at historic lows, and it wasn’t just that the service was lousy; crimes in the trains were so frequent, the mayor suggested putting courts in stations just to deal with them all.
Train operators and conductors were exposed to the dangers more often than most. You couldn’t predict what you’d have to deal with on a given day in the tunnels; almost every shift saw muggings, fights and general craziness. My father heard of one conductor who had a live rat thrown in his window by a nut at Union Square; another was attacked and almost blinded by a twelve-year-old wielding a beer bottle. Some thieves were so bold they’d hang around in the conductors’ cars until the end of the line, rob the last passengers, and stick around to hold up the conductor for his watch if he came out before anyone else showed up. And when bodies were stashed in the tunnels, it was the operators who tended to find them.
So the job wasn’t too hard for my old man to get, or to train for. Normally it takes half a year or so to train someone to be a driver, but the city was desperate then, and unofficially they’d sometimes move people through faster to make up for the attrition. By the time my father came on, they were sending the better new drivers out after only a couple of months, just giving them a few extra ride-alongs with experienced guys before throwing them in at the deep end. My father was one of these, and it was on one of his first training rides that the thing took place.
He was driving with an old-timer, an operator named Deron Brinks, who had him taking a train through one of the tunnels it didn’t usually travel. I ought to mention that the system’s made up of two divisions of trains and tunnels, the IRT and the BMT—it goes back to the early days of the subways, when two companies were warring for the city’s business. Even after the two got consolidated into one service, the tunnels didn’t match, so each division had to maintain its own trains. BMT trains are wider than the IRTs by a foot or two, so they can’t travel along the narrower tunnels built for the IRTs; the IRTs can run through BMT tunnels, but it leaves a big gap on either side, making them unsafe for passenger service.
Brinks and my father were bringing one of these narrow IRT trains down a BMT line toward one of the service yards, to get it worked on. Incidentally, the train they were driving normally ran the Lexington Avenue line—the infamous Mugger’s Express, as it was called back then. Even with cops patrolling it, it was a mess; and if it’d been in service that day, my father would’ve been even more nervous than he already was. As it stood, the run was pretty low-pressure. They were in line with trains in service, so they had to stop at the express stations to keep the timing right, but they didn’t have to pick anyone up, which left them free to concentrate on what Brinks called “the touch”—maintaining speed in the tunnels, braking around the curves, and pulling in and out of stations safely. People on the platforms would give them dirty looks when they saw the Out of Service signs, but it was late at night, so there weren’t too many of them.
Brinks had been driving the underground most of his life, having been one of the few who resisted quitting when the city granted early retirement pensions, and he knew the ins and outs of the system pretty well. Perhaps as a result of such a long time spent going in and out of darkness and danger, he had a steely demeanor that it seemed nothing could surprise. For instance, it was always a particular nightmare of my father’s, as it is of mine, to see someone hit by a train; but it had happened to Brinks more than enough times to harden him to the experience. A surprising number of people jumped or fell or got pushed in front of the trains back then—they still do—and while you could sometimes keep from going over them in the stations, there wasn’t much to do about it when you were doing forty out of a tunnel—“’cept close your eyes,” as Brinks said. And Brinks had been around long enough to recall driving the trains back when not all of them had even been equipped with headlights to see by—a fact he imparted tonight as the two of them were passing through a particularly long and dismal stretch of tunnel.
“They wasn’t even on all the time after they put ’em in, neither,” he said above the clattering of the tracks, pointing to the switch near the brake handle. “That’s why you can still switch ’em off and on, in these old trains. They used to have signs up, near the crossings, warning us to turn our lights on. And you got used to it, too,” he added, as my father shook his head in disbelief. “You don’t need a whole lot of light when you can’t turn! Besides, there was some light—the running lights, and a little bit from inside—just not enough to see too far ahead of you, in case something was there. And if it was, maybe you didn’t want to see anyway.”
My father told him it sounded like a disaster waiting to happen.
“Well, it didn’t wait long,” Brinks laughed. “That’s why they changed it when they started doing all the new construction. There was all sorts of people getting hit back then—people, and other things. Watch this turn, now,” he cautioned.
Once they’d gone around it, my father asked Brinks what he meant by other things.
“Oh, just all sorts of animals,” he said. “Rats, possums, raccoons. A few of the Bronx lines had deer. I know this guy, sumbitch said he saw a wild turkey walking round the tunnel! I told him he seen a few Wild Turkeys, all right, maybe too many!” He smiled and made a drinking gesture.
Did he ever see people living down here? my father asked, remembering all the rumors he’d heard about tunnel-dwellers.
“Nobody—per se,” Brinks said carefully, “but signs of ’em, sure. You see mattresses down here sometimes—clotheslines—furniture—that kind of thing. Gotta be in a bad way to live in the dark like that! But those people, they keep to themselves. It’s what they’re doing here in the first place. And—well—here, watch the signal lights while we come in.”
They pulled into a station, the glare from the electric lights not quite comforting. An elderly woman waited on the platform, gripping a plastic bag in both hands. She was the only person there, and looked up at them when they stopped, eyes glittering; my father remembered she had a large cyst under one of her eyes, enhancing the meanness of her look. Brinks shook his head at her. “Sorry, lady,” he muttered. The woman’s toothless mouth worked from within the rags of her coat as she mouthed silent curses at them. My father felt a strange mixture of pity and revulsion, looking at her; she seemed painfully vulnerable, standing there at the end of the desolate, garbage-strewn platform—another cast-off thing, drifting in the city’s wake. My father averted his eyes until they were moving again.
“Good luck to her, huh?” Brinks said, looking straight ahead.
They were soon under the park, on one of the express lines. Perhaps the sight of the old woman had disturbed him, but at that point my father noticed that the atmosphere of the tunnel felt different. As they picked up speed on a long straightaway, his mind wandered to what he’d heard about this part of the system, about the tunnels that had been dug under some of the last wild areas of the city. They were known to be eerily quiet, these parkside stations; remarkably so, for crime-ridden Brooklyn. He’d even heard stories about the tunnel-dwellers here, that they—
“Stories is right,” said Brinks, cutting him off. “Just urban legends. Alligators-in-the-sewers-type stuff.”
My father reminded him that there really had been alligators spotted in the sewers; but he remained contemptuous.
“I’m telling you,” he shouted, “I know what you’re talking about, and I never seen nothing like that. It’s just rumors: people bored with the job, making up things to make it more interesting. See,” he laughed, giving my father a jab, “it might seem like a nasty place down here, but really it’s just a job like any other.”
My father said he guessed it was—and then it happened.
As they came over a rise, their headlights fell on something on the tracks ahead. Rather, two somethings: one thin white form, hunched between the rails with its back to them, seemed to be tugging strenuously at the other, as though the second were caught on something. The tugging figure was naked, and my father had the momentary thought that what it tugged at was an old suit of clothes, holding together somehow with a strange weight.
All this struck his eye in a flash; he hardly had time to register what he’d seen before they were bearing down on it. But Brinks was faster. With an unsettling firmness, he’d already put out one hand to hold my father back, while with the other he reached across the controls—for the brake, as it seemed. But the brake wasn’t what he was going for.
“Hey now,” he said hoarsely; and when my father turned to look him in the eye, he flicked the headlights off.
Instantly the tunnel was plunged into pitch-blackness. My father caught a lightning glimpse of the inside of the cab, and of Brinks’s tense face, illuminated a hellish red by the radio lights. The next moment his eyes shut instinctively as a grinding tremor ran through the floor. There was a deafening squeal of metal, and perhaps of something else; my father felt the train tip to one side as something caught in the gap alongside it, and they slowed. Then, all at once, the obstruction cleared—the train came free and righted itself—and they were again rushing onward through the tunnel as before.
Reaching past my father to turn the headlights back on, Brinks stared straight ahead along their quivering beam, on his face the dark look of a man uninterested in discussing things any further.
James Carpenter is a writer and freelance editor, recently relocated back to his first hometown of Seattle. He spent the previous 16 years in New York, where he was educated in illustration at Parsons School of Design and took up writing immediately thereafter. James shares a love of dark and supernatural fiction with his two brothers, with whom he co-hosts semi-legendary semiannual ghost-story readings that have been the occasion for many a tedious brief tale. These days, in addition to his professional work, he contributes essays and ghost stories to the newly formed Revenant Quarterly.