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Standing Guard in the Subway
Standing Guard in the Subway
Somewhere beneath the East River -- My father was a captain in the 320th Infantry. He survived the Battle of the Bulge, but he’d have been horrified if he knew that his occasionally polite and completely civilian daughter has a new career: trench warfare in, of all places, New York City’s subways. They’ve always been patrolled by transit police and prowled by plainclothesmen. Now, we’ve got the National Guard in Penn Station and Grand Central, and New York Transit Authority works with Homeland Defense to harden weak spots at bridges, major stations, air vents and generators – all because an intercept used the word “underground.”
Though Dad rarely spoke of his Army service, I knew he had his training, his company, his Combat Infantry Badge, his sidearms – the one he was issued and the one he liberated, and General Patton, whom he revered. A REMF by training and disposition, I’m turning New York’s “check it out” lifestyle into the vigilance, 24/7, I used to need only when I took the E train after midnight home from the Opera.
I used to knock papers off seats because God forbid I sat in whatever they covered. I used to eyeball unguarded packages in case they were lost and needed to be turned in at the next stop. Now, I ask myself what’s in that backpack, that briefcase, that plastic bag stamped with “United We Stand”? I suspect people are eyeing my battered Coach carryall with a flag-scarf tied round it.
Meet my outfit: the gutsy, wary New York City straphangers for whom the Bronx is up and the Battery is down. The political activists who come equipped with bodyguards and motorcades may talk about a rainbow of skin colors, a mosaic of languages, cultures, and ethnicities, but down beneath the East River and by Ground Zero is where that rainbow lives. We took some hits in 1993 and again on 9/11, but here we are, and here we remain.
A woman in a battered ski jacket shoulders through the train trailing “excuse me’s.” She’s collecting money so her nonprofit organization can supply sandwiches, fruit, juices, and shelters and soup kitchens to the homeless because “there but for the grace of God.” Standing opposite me is a Chinese workman in a flannel scarf, eating an Egg McMuffin. A young Jamaican lady puts on mascara, swaying expertly in time with the jolting of the train. Two Russian émigrés bulge out of their winter coats, blocking the subway door. I stuff a buck in the collection tin, look away from the fast food, and politely ask the ladies to move. No sense in being rude: hell of a note if it were the last thing I ever did.
Nearby, a burly cable tech indulges in New York’s favorite pastime after baseball – complaining. His wife sent him out with an emergency shopping list that included water, duct tape, and salmon at $4 per can. He came back with Spam, too. “That wasn’t on the list!” she griped. Nearby sits a young man with a Wall Street Journal, a tycoon wannabe. Most of us wear black, Gore-Tex, leather, glossy fur. When we’re not napping or reading papers in Hindi, Hebrew, English, Arabic, or our many other languages, we keep our wits about us and flick our eyes from face to face. We really don’t want to see a thug with a bomb or canister. If we see him, though, we hope we’ll have the guts to yell “let’s roll!” and slam him on the dirty floor.
But we’re damned if we’ll show we’re nervous: our city and its attitude are a hard act to live up to. No one gets the satisfaction of seeing us scared: not our enemies, not the people who fly over, spend their money and then complain how those boorish Americans put on makeup, eat, and shove in shabby trains. We’ll take their money, show them a good time, and tell them to come back and visit us again. It’s our job, especially in an economy as tough as this one.
As Mayor Giuliani said, New York is open for business, and we’re New York, an army of millions united by a common subway, a common work ethic, and an uncommon pride.
Heinlein was right: the roads must roll.