Someone got killed by a 7 train at Grand Central last night “after a piece of his clothing or the strap of his bag apparently became caught on a subway train that dragged him into a tunnel,” as the New York Times put it. The writeup was short but horrible enough. It’s one of those random and gruesome accidents that make a person wonder: could that have been me?
Maybe it could have. Do you walk on the yellow line on the edge of the subway platform? Or the gray edge of the subway platform with the flashing lights in it, if you’re in Washington D.C.? That’s apparently how this one happened: “Witnesses told the police that the man, whose name has not been released, had been walking on the yellow caution line along the edge of a platform.”
Don’t do that! It’s not the dead person’s fault that, by some fluke, something of his happened to stick out and the train somehow happened to catch it. This isn’t like someone was a dope and tried to play chicken with the train. But it happened in the part of the platform where something like that, however unlikely, can happen. Stay away from that part of the platform!
This seems like it should be obvious, but it objectively is not. Some people do stay off the edge, out of respect for trains, or for fear of the also unlikely and gruesome possibility of being pushed. But it’s easy to take the safety zone for granted, and lots of people do. When I was younger—not just a dumb teen but a full adult—I remember having a little bit of an attitude about the yellow stripe, as if on some level the point of it was to tell the train to stay away from me. I was in control of my body; I could use every available part of the platform.
Years ago, in London, my friends and I saw a drunk swerve into the side of a moving train and bounce off, harmlessly. I stupidly filed that away as evidence that transportation was fundamentally beneficent, that trains were for train places and people for people places, and we all lived in a state of harmony.
Eventually, I wised up. Maybe it was an increasing sense of my own body’s unreliability, or the accumulated knowledge of the actual subway injury and death rates, or just the awareness of how poorly the whole world was held together at the joints. Definitely it was having kids, whose own balance and judgment and attention were not to be trusted. The day came that I felt the warning bumps through the soles of my shoes and understood that they were real warnings, telling me I was standing someplace I didn’t want to be. I stood back and stayed back.
New York being New York, sometimes it’s necessary to step on the yellow. Platforms are old and narrow. When the walkway shrinks down to all edge, it might seem like a sign that the edge is basically OK. Take it instead as a message that the whole system is not really built to protect you. Squeeze through the bad part—carefully, when no trains are coming—and keep even more distance when it’s past.