Tuesday, January 19, 2010

In case of emergency, don't pull the emergency brake

The New York Times published a story detailing the confusion facing subway riders who might be tempted to pull the emergency brake during a fire or a heart attack or a grisly stabbing in front of a car-full of passengers.

Whatever riders do, no matter how gripped by panic and no matter how dire the situation on the subway is, they should remember to never pull that emergency brake. That's the lesson to take from the signs and the MTA itself.

Reporter Michael M. Grynbaum writes, "So what emergency, exactly, does this emergency brake refer to? The explanation, transit officials say, is simple. If someone gets caught between the train's closing doors, or between subway cars, and is about to be dragged to an unenviable fate, pull the cord. The train will stop, possibly saving a life. But in case of fire, crime or a sick passenger - in fact, any other situation that could fairly be described as an emergency - the cord should be left alone. Stopping the train between stations will make it harder for help to arrive."

The issue popped up again in November after a man stabbed a fellow passenger to death while the train was in transit. A passenger yanked the cord, stopping the train but also trapping everyone in the same car as the killer. Fortunately, the man didn't harm anyone else and police eventually arrested him. Some officials later criticized the man who pulled brake, apparently disappointed that he did not read the invisible fine print on the signs, which says people should ignore every instinct they have after watching someone get killed and should not pull the cord.

Last week I sat on a stalled train for 20 minutes. When we finally moved, the nearly unrecognizable voice on the intercom said a train ahead of us caused the delay "due to a passenger pulling the emergency brake." Pity and disappointment laced the conductor's voice, as if he couldn't believe another rider fell for the old pull the emergency brake in the event of an emergency trick. Hopefully whoever yanked the cord read the story in today's Times.

It's just another in a line of neverending confusing situations straphangers confront every time they step through the sliding silver doors. For instance, should you ever actually hold onto the railings with a bare hand? I do it all the time. Scientists who study germs and bacteria say no. And to prove the point they'd take a swab from the 1 train handrail and put it under a microscope, blowing the germs up 500 times their normal size in the same way 20/20 does when the show wants to terrify people into seeing how many mites, ticks and bugs live in eyebrows and pillows. Louise never grabs them without covering, much like she's never touched snow with a bare hand. When we get home, she heads straight to the sink for the most thorough hand-washing this side of an operating room.

Anecdotal evidence supports her phobia. A few years ago we took a late-night uptown train home. The car was half-full. Across from us, a young lady in her 20s sat upright while she cradled a young man sprawled out on the seats, his head nestled onto her lap in prime nursing position. As she lovingly caressed his brown hair, the gentleman shook his head gently, trying to forget the pain of life and the night of binge drinking. He looked ill, victimized by a sad inability to handle his liquor. He possessed the glazed eyes of the severely intoxicated or the recently punched. We watched with bemusement, arrogantly sober. We watched right up until the moment he sat up and vomited onto the orange seats on the opposite side, about four seats down from where we sat.

Remarkably his caring companion acted as if she had fully expected this. She patted him on the back, encouraging the final bits of food and drink out, oblivious to the fact her lover threw up onto a seat, and not into a toilet. At the next stop we jumped out and walked to the next car, leaving the terrible twosome behind. Certainly no one - hopefully - entered and sat on the vomit. But when someone cleaned up it was probably with a paper towel or a napkin or a newspaper. And 15 minutes later, another passenger surely put their bare hand on that seat, completely unaware of the horror visited upon that subway car.

I've personally seen every bodily fluid and function deposited somewhere on a subway, with the exception of the one used to make future subway riders. And I have no doubt that's been done, too.


Don't pull the emergency cord in an emergency, and don't touch anything with an ungloved hand. Also, try not to make eye contact. Read a book. Look up at the signs that quote famous philosophers and writers and scientists, and learn something. Contemplate what organisms are living on the floor. Watch day-old snot trickle down the railing. But don't sit there and stare. This isn't so much because you might incite someone who's just looking for a reason to confront a passive, frightened rider. It's more a plea from the other side, because there's nothing more disconcerting than sitting there as someone locks their eyes on you, burrowing into your soul. Is it a crazy person, preparing to yell? Someone who's attracted to you? And why are they now smirking while looking at your face?

Riding the subway's a daily adventure, if not a sanitary one. Once a month I complain about the rising cost of the fare, but for nearly six years I haven't had to make a car payment or pay for a gallon of gas. The efficiency and savings come with tradeoffs. There are no quick weekend getaways on the road. A commute that takes 15 minutes in a car can take up to an hour on the fickle trains. In the summer the tunnels take on a desert climate, but with worse humidity. My car was always pretty dirty, but at least I knew where all that filth came from, unlike on the subway. And if all that wasn't enough, they now tell us the only time a rider is allowed to pull the emergency cord on a train is when there's really no emergency at all.


Lisa, freezing sister in MN said...

Pretty sure I didn't wear gloves on the subway. Yuck, never thought about all of that nasty stuff. Earlier in the evening though it could have been my own vomit. Ha!

Shawn Fury said...

That's true. That's why you're not allowed South African wine any longer.

Dad said...

It would have been a tough choice between your car and the subway. Okay that is a pretty low blow but....

Shawn Fury said...

Old French fries and Kit Kat wrappers never killed anyone.