I want to say it was the summer of 1991 when my friend Beth and I had our mishap on the J/Z train to Marcy Ave in Brooklyn. So many of my memories from those days have a song attached to them; in this case it is Heavy D’s “Now That We Found Love,” in case you want to hum along. (Of course, Beth may read this and say that is was 1992 or 1993; eh, memories don’t always have to be 100% factually accurate.)
I know this for sure: Beth and I were headed to Domsey’s, a huge vintage clothing warehouse in a section of Brooklyn that was considered seriously sketchy at the time but is probably now filled with hipster parents pushing those strollers that look like a hollowed out egg with a baby perched inside. Other than going to Domsey’s there was never an occasion to ride on these unfamiliar trains that stopped at places like Cypress Hills and ultimately, JFK airport. It was a relatively short ride but it felt like we were traveling to a faraway place, totally unlike Manhattan. That was, of course, part of the fun.
As usual, Beth and I were chattin’ it up — we liked to dissect situations and people and say to each other what we wished we’d said to others but hadn’t thought of at the time. We talked about guys, music, fashion, friends, movies, who was there and who wasn’t there, who slept with whom, our lack of cash and what we could do about it, and who was having the next party or who could put us on a list somewhere. We were young and cute and confident.
Beth and I were amusing each other with our stories to such an extent that we realized with surprise that not only was the train stopped in the tunnel (this was not unusual in the least), but we appeared to be the only ones on the train (this was odd). How we could have failed to notice that every single other person had exited the train is beyond me. We stood up and each walked to one end of the car, to see if the doors were open. Both were locked. There was no one in either of the other cars that we could see, or beyond that.
It was clear, then: this train was not just stopped at a signal, it was stopped. As in, not going to move. I had poked fun at my roommate, our friend Clare, for getting so into her New Yorker article while riding the subway home from work that she ended up at Coney Island on more than one occasion. Now I understood. Beth and I sat back down on the bench and looked at each other.
As I write this now, in my kitchen in 2012, I can feel myself becoming physically uncomfortable. Even twenty years later, the thought of being trapped in one subway car of a seemingly empty train makes me feel claustrophobic and anxious. My neck muscles are tightening.
I believe this one event has stuck with me for so long is because it foreshadows the intense, debilitating claustrophobia that I was to develop a few years later, when I would not have agreed to even take the train to Domsey’s, or anywhere else that was not 100% essential, like work and home. Even these trips could take me hours, as I would take each train for just one stop, and then get off and wait for the next — if you have eight or ten stops to go, this quickly becomes an untenable way to travel. I became ritualistic, sitting only in certain seats and waiting for the next train if “my seat” was occupied when the train doors opened at my stop.
So you would think that maybe I had a nervous breakdown on that one summer day in 1991 with Beth. I can almost picture myself banging on the doors, screaming for someone to come, and then sitting on the floor and hyperventilating. But what we did that day was nothing along those lines. What we did, without giving it any thought, was this: We started laughing. Uncontrollably. In between our hysterical laughter we gasped things like, “Holy shit!” and “What the hell do we do?” And then more laughter.
After who knows how long — it could have been three minutes or thirty — a conductor opened the door to the car and stopped short when he saw us.
“LADIES!” he barked at us. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” We laughed as we tried to answer him.
“This train is out of commission! You didn’t hear ANY OF THE MESSAGES?” We laughed as we shook our heads. He very angrily used his walkie-talkie to call someone else. “We got a couple girls on the train back here. We need to pull into the station.”
He walked us through the empty and eerily quiet cars, unlocking the doors as we went, until we were in the first car of the train, which had pulled only a few feet into the station, just enough for us to get out. He shook his head in annoyance as he walked away.
As for us, we waited for the next train and continued on to Domsey’s, undeterred. In fact, I think I bought my cream-colored leather jacket that day. I wore it constantly, until it was stolen from a club one night when I was having too much fun to really care.