The City: Getting Things Done

Elevated train in Queens

So, I was playing tennis recently out in Queens, and afterward walked to my subway stop, an elevated concrete plateau above Queens Boulevard. A train had just departed, leaving the platform empty save for a body sprawled on the concrete, a young man lying in a fetal position. Like an idiot, I asked him, “you okay?,” as if anyone lying in a fetal position in wind-blown rain in mid-40-degree temperatures on an elevated subway platform would in any sense of the word be okay.

“I’m not feeling very well,” he said. He didn’t look very good either. We talked a bit. He had been riding the train on the way to work, had felt faint and nauseated, and got off the train for some air. Whereupon he felt dizzy and lay down on the platform. He was very concerned about getting to work. As he spoke he tried sitting up, but failed. I suggested he stay prone.

I left him for a moment to go down to the MTA kiosk on the next level, where I explained the situation to a clerk seated behind a bullet-proof window, and urged him to call for medical assistance. He took out a notebook and started asking me a series of questions—what did the young man look like? How old? Tall or short? Black or white? The details seemed irrelevant to the point where I briefly felt as though I were in a Monty Python episode, like the famous dead-parrot skit, and if you have not seen the dead-parrot skit you should Google it right now.

Abruptly, a woman in her 20s came up next to me, and burst into the conversation. She was nicely dressed, in tailored black coat and a crimson scarf. She scolded the man behind the window, “What are you doing? Why do you need all that? Call an ambulance. The man needs help. He was hit in the face and assaulted. He could be dying.” The now-galvanized MTA guy reached for his phone; the woman set off toward an exit.

Her account surprised me—so, the young man was the victim of a crime! She must have been standing on the opposite platform and seen the attack. As I headed back toward the stairs, intending to stay with the victim until help arrived, I caught up with the woman and asked, “Did you see it happen?”

She looked at me with scorn. “No. Of course not.” As she moved briskly away, she said over her shoulder, “It’s the only way to get them to come.”

And then she clattered through the turnstile, and was gone.

Breathtaking. Simply breathtaking.

A cop, clearly summoned by radio, arrived on the next train. The young man was sitting up now and seemed much better, but the cop urged him to wait and let the medics check him out. A siren in the near distance suggested an ambulance was on the way. The next train arrived and I headed for home.

I love this town.

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Erik Larson is the author of six New York Times bestsellers, most recently The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, which examines how Winston Churchill and his “Secret Circle” went about surviving the German air campaign of 1940-41. Erik’s The Devil in the White City is set to be a Hulu limited series; his In the Garden of Beasts is under option by Tom Hanks, for a feature film. He recently published an audio-original ghost story, No One Goes Alone, which has been optioned by Netflix. Erik lives in Manhattan with his wife, who is a writer and retired neonatologist; they have three grown daughters.

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