National News

On the Subway, Help Is Not Coming

Posted January 16, 2018 8:13 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Nothing like a bit of hilarity to start the day. Or so it seemed: the chortle of an unseen man in a subway station, the humor that provoked it a mystery, out of earshot of a passing commuter. There was a pause, then the sound restarted. And again. Each time, it came closer to crossing the tonal boundary between laughing and crying. Its evolving meaning stalked me along the mezzanine of the 181st Street station of the A train.

A man sat on the steps, his feet on the uptown platform, weeping.

Well groomed, neatly dressed. Old enough to have a dusting of snow in his sideburns. Small bag over his shoulder. Between gusts of audible misery, he shuddered.

He deflected a greeting with his hand.

I’m fine.

You’re fine?

His nose was running. He resumed sobbing. A train was coming into the station. The platform edge was about 10 feet away. He coiled as if to stand, but remained seated, and wound his fingers around the rods holding the banister. His legs were drawn to lift himself, but his fingers locked onto the rods, the impulse to get up thwarted by another to stay put.

No, no, no.

That was his voice, one-syllable wails over the approaching roar of the train. When it pulled in, he fell into another round of sobs. A few passengers got off and, not surprisingly, took a different flight of stairs.

Maybe he’d like to go sit on the bench on the mezzanine.

No, I’m fine.

That was so untrue it was absurd, and when that was pointed out, a smile crossed his face for an instant before he fell to weeping again. Passengers crossed the mezzanine. Finally, one saw me waving. Could he tell the booth clerk that a man needed help?

I’m fine, I don’t need help.

A moment later, an announcement over the public address system asked a station supervisor to come to the booth. Good. This situation would soon become someone else’s problem.

The man offered his first name but only looked blankly when asked where he was coming from, then where he was going. Yes, he nodded, he was having a bad day. A bad week? Yes. He was not volunteering any more information, which was no one’s business, a sentiment he welcomed.

A station agent came down the stairs. My friend was in distress, I said. Hearing this, the agent seemed to think we were traveling together and pantomimed a gesture to another train that had arrived, as if we should get on. The description of the distraught man as a friend had confused matters for the agent. It seemed like a direct question to the unhappy man could clear matters up.

Have you thought about hurting yourself?, I asked him.

No, I would never do that, he said, forcefully.

Aside, to the agent, I gave a quick narrative, explained why it seemed possible that this stranger might jump in front of a train. She nodded and suggested to him that he go up to the mezzanine. Then she left, presumably to get help.

After a couple of minutes, the man agreed to go upstairs. Surely, medical assistance or the police would be along before long. The bench was a good place to wait. Any minute, the cavalry would arrive, and I could leave. But another train pulled into the station, and suddenly the man said, I’m OK, I’m going home. He dashed down the stairs and boarded the train.

There was no longer any need for an emergency response to the station, not that anyone had broken land speed records getting there. Two people were in the station booth, neither of them the woman who had come down to the platform 10 or 15 minutes earlier.

The supervisor stepped to the microphone and got an update on the distressed man.

Oh, he left? the supervisor said.

Yes. So there would be no need for an ambulance, or police, or whoever was coming.

They’re not coming, the supervisor said.

They’re not?

The man said he was fine, the supervisor said. The man did not ask for medical.

Every variety of the human condition turns up in the subway system, and perhaps we ought to temper the impulse to hand off the most complicated problems to transit employees. They are not social workers. Yet the demands of the world shout there, 24 hours of the day. People need a place to sleep or shelter out of the cold. About once a week, someone dies in front of a train — by accident, by assault or on self-destructive purpose. The source of that man’s despondence was as much a mystery as when he seemed to be laughing. Whatever it was about, he was not fine. Neither are we.