Our Subway Subconscious

In light of the recent tragedies plaguing New York City’s public transit system, Stuyvesant students and New Yorkers alike have been made increasingly aware of the dangers of our daily commutes.

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In light of the recent tragedies plaguing New York City’s public transit system, Stuyvesant students and New Yorkers alike have been made increasingly aware of the dangers of our daily commutes. Growing up in New York, we have been exposed to both a city full of culture, but also of danger. We’ve grown up bearing first-hand witness to homelessness, drug addiction, and subway violence. When we enter school, all of that danger is supposed to be left at the door—once we step onto the Tribeca Bridge, our minds are meant to instantly pivot to our next academic challenge. We are asked by Stuyvesant staff to reach out with whatever school pressures or family issues we are facing; they assert that our mental health comes first. But our journeys between home and school, the two places we are meant to feel the safest, are fraught with danger, affecting our mental health just as much.

For many Stuyvesant students, danger seems to lurk behind every subway stairwell and within every train car. We are told to just focus on our history papers and upcoming AP exams, and to trust the police when they say they’ll protect us, but that can prove to be extremely challenging. For women in particular, daily commutes present a host of ceaseless terrors. Show me one girl in this school who has not been called baby or sweetheart or [EXPLETIVE] when she was just trying to get home safely, or one girl who has not been told to come here or what are you doing later? or felt eyes on her body knowing that she can’t turn around. Show me one girl who can use safety and subway in the same sentence without including lack thereof. We try to move forward. We try to focus on more important things. We try to keep our gazes ahead and our heads down, but forgive us if we come to school with our limbs dragging dead weights behind us. For we have already survived a journey; we may not have enough energy for the day to come. 

There is often a dilemma of how to react when put in these dangerous situations. On one side, there is the typical New Yorker coping mechanism that most of us were taught: ignore and reduce your line of vision to your phone or the ground in front of you. On the other, there is a far more reactionary response—one that involves speaking out, calling for help, or even confronting the offender. Unfortunately, neither of these is a blanket solution. Each situation looks different, and thus each requires a different level of action or inaction. This decision-making can often be the most stressful part of being put into these situations, as there are what feels like millions of variables to consider. We have all seen the extreme and avoidable consequences for perpetrators when someone speaks out, but there also looms the threat of inaction—the image of those who get abused silently on subway trains and platforms while bystanders stand around just watching. The line between inaction and action is a blurry one—one that is ever-changing and uncertain, one that most of us don’t trust ourselves to cross. We cannot solve this problem as a school newspaper, a student body, or even as a united community. But we can begin to acknowledge our collective mentality and the fears we carry with us every single day. To begin opening this conversation, The Spectator editorial board has compiled a collection of some of our own experiences as a testament to the violence we all have experienced.

“There was a time when I accidentally bumped into someone on the train with my backpack. He cursed at me for a solid five minutes and when someone actually stood up for me and said ‘Calm down. The person you’re yelling at and threatening is a child,’ the man followed them off the bus after threatening to rape them. It was a very scary situation to be in and I was very scared for the only person who had stood up for my safety. Luckily, I’m pretty sure they ended up okay, but it was genuinely terrifying.” —Anonymous

“In October, one of my middle school friends was shot by another student while she was walking home from school. She was across the street when another student fired two bullets in her general direction, one of which punctured her spinal cord and left her permanently paralyzed. The student with the gun carried it with them into school and could have done far more damage. For two days after, the high school in question installed metal detectors and manually screened students before school every morning, but after the weekend passed, the DOE treated the incident like nothing ever happened. Despite the calls to action by the girl’s family and the school community, the chancellor refused to pursue additional security measures or visit the high school. Long story short: shootings can happen to anyone, anywhere, no matter how innocent and distant from conflicts they make themselves, and seeing a friend of mine lose their motor functions forever and face death for a week was heart-wrenching.” —Khush Wadhwa

“There’s definitely a class divide involved with when and where safety incidents happen. I commute by the LIRR but occasionally take the subway with friends, and the cost and nature of the LIRR make the services safer than the subway. Officers walk around Penn and Grand Central Stations with rifles to promote a sense of security but rarely have to enforce anything. Whereas on the subway, violent fights between commuters are almost commonplace, and yet there’s no law enforcement or services to ensure the safety of others on the train. I find that to be problematic for the majority of Stuy students, who take the subway for the entirety of their commutes.” —Khush Wadhwa

“It was broad daylight at around 4:00 p.m. when I took a subway train with two of my friends who were female seniors. The train had no empty seats, so we were standing up, chattering away about funny text messages. After two uneventful stops, a man walked into the train. He was clearly unkempt with a tainted, stretched-out shirt hanging over his body. His eyes looked glazed over and he walked into our train car unnaturally. We weren’t alarmed at that point. Homeless people were normal on the subway, so we continued with our conversation. Suddenly he started speaking, but his speech was animal-like. In his mind, he was clearly saying something because his intonations and pauses resembled words; however, the sounds that came out were indistinguishable, barbaric screams. His glazed-over eyes looked toward us, but still, I was hopeful that we weren’t the direct targets because I could convince myself that he was just acting in a generally disruptive manner. However, he then started pointing at us and walking toward us in wobbly steps. The conversation with my friends stopped; we looked at each other uneasily and tried to look away from the man. I looked around the train car, hoping someone would help, but everyone kept to themselves, seeking refuge in their phone screens. My mother always says ‘The scariest people are the people that have nothing to lose.’ I had always dismissed her as overprotective, but now I understood. When I looked at this man, I couldn’t see a human being capable of human morals; he was too far detached in every aspect possible. To think that this man had given up on being a human being was terrifying because it meant I didn’t know what he would do next; what he was capable of doing. As he further advanced toward us, headlines flashed past my head: ‘Michelle Go dies on Subway Tracks,’ ‘23 Injured in Brooklyn Shooting.’ I was suddenly well aware that I wasn’t any different from any of those victims. It was perfectly plausible that I would be the next statistic, the next headline, and it would be a normal day in NYC. To my relief, a man spoke up and told him to back off. He stood as a barrier between us and the man, a distance that had become only a foot by that point. The man screamed even more aggressively, clearly even more disturbed. Luckily, another friend and I would be getting off just one stop after. I contemplated asking my other friend to get off with us because I didn’t want to leave her alone; I didn’t because perhaps my brain was hazy/stunned because I just wanted to get away from the threat. Perhaps I believed that because my friend was a senior, she would know to ask me if she wanted me to do something, perhaps there was some other influence I’m not accounting for. However, after my friend and I got off the train car, the man followed suit. I was initially gripped by terror as I ran up the stairs amongst the huge crowd. However, I saw the man through the slits on the stairs and he was fishing out of garbage cans. It was only then I felt relieved because not only was the threat removed from me, but the threat had also been removed from my friend who was still on the train. I don’t want to imagine a situation where things could have escalated, but to think that this man was still out there, and could have just as easily walked into the next incoming train to harass others, has permanently made me a little uneasy about public transport.”—Suyeon Ryu

“Last year, I got off the 2/3 at Atlantic Avenue and made my way to the D/N/R platform. I was waiting for my train when a young male came up to me, probably in his 20s or 30s, and started asking me how my day was. At first, I thought he was just trying to be a friendly person, people you rarely see in New York nowadays. He then came closer to me and at one point touched me and asked if he could come home with me and meet my parents. This completely freaked me out and I wound up getting on a different train than I was supposed to, just to get away from the situation.” —Anonymous