I went through through the turnstile at the 8th Street Station for the Frankford-Market El. The El runs underground in the Center City section of Philadelphia, emerging north and west of downtown to ride on steel trestles to the ends of the line. I saw the crowd in the platform was bigger than usual. I hoped that they were just a lot of people like me who had left work early, but knew there was small chance of that. Yes, it was a Friday, but it was a normal Friday, not a holiday weekend. I stared down the tunnel searching for the lights of a train. There were none.
I saw the crowd was even bigger across the tracks on the westbound side. Equipment failure? It would not surprise me. SEPTA, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, also known as Schlepta and the Septic System, was notorious for frequent breakdowns. Be it bus, trolley, subway, El or regional rail, a rider had to rely on luck to get anywhere on time. A coworker, a fresh transplant from Virginia, had caught on quickly. Within a few months of moving to Philadelphia she began referring to SEPTA as “the bane of my existence.” This was when everyone knew she had become a true Philadelphian.
I leaned out over the track and took took another look down the tunnel. Still no lights. A loud horn blared. I heard the rumble of wheels. I stepped back just in time before getting my head clipped, probably ripped off my body, by a train heading westbound on the eastbound side. The cars were crowded. The train came to a halt. The doors opened. People tried to push their way on while others tried to push their way out of the doors.
A voice came over the loudspeaker.
“All westbound passengers board on the east platform.”
Most of the commuters on the west bound platform stood where they were. They might as well. There was no chance of getting on this train. It was packed. The train pulled out leaving sullen crowds on both the east and west bound platforms.
The voice was on the loudspeaker again.
”All westbound passengers board on the eastbound platform.”
Nothing was said about trains going eastbound.
A guy in his twenties was standing near me. He was getting upset. Real upset. He asked me, “Am I on the right side? I’m trying to go east. I need to get to Tioga.”
I told him, “You are where you should be. It’s SEPTA. It looks like they’re running both eastbound and westbound trains on the same track.”
“Damn. I’m already late.”
He took his cellphone out of his pocket made a call. He explained to someone that he was running late. Told them about the situation with the trains.
Another train came westbound on the east track. The crowd on the platform was growing. The time I hoped to save by leaving work early had evaporated. It was full rush hour madness with trains only going one way.
Another announcement about boarding on the east side to head west. Grumbles. Anger. Strangers became instant friends, united against the common enemy, SEPTA, the bane of our existence.
A woman in her fifties said to me, “I left work five minutes early. Begged my boss so I could leave. Now I’m stuck here. I should have stayed at work.”
I told her, “I left early too. Been here twenty minutes.”
Another west bound train. Then another. No trains eastbound.
The young man on my right made another call. Pleaded with someone to understand.
I was about the same age as the woman. We shared our misery.
“Broke down yesterday morning.”
“And last week.”
“Three buses went by me Monday morning. Ignored me standing at the stop.”
Another man on the platform burst out, “I only need to go two stops to Second Street. This is crazy.”
I told him, “Hey. This is SEPTA. If you can walk the distance, walk it. Never rely on SEPTA to get you anywhere on time.”
The woman nodded.
The man said nothing. He just walked off, exited through one of those egg slicer turnstiles. He could walk the six blocks. Should have done so to begin with. I mean, it wasn’t snowing or raining. It was 47 degrees. If I didn’t have to go all the way to the end of the line, I’d walk it. Anything up to two miles. Get the exercise.
Another westbound train on the east track.
The announcer came back. This time with more information.
“Due to a medical emergency between 5th Street and 15th Street all trains are running on the eastbound side.”
Medical emergency, I thought, did someone have a heart attack, fall and break their leg, or was it a euphemism for a jumper? There were always “jumpers” somewhere along the line. Happened a few times a month. Though not all were true suicides. Some just fell on the tracks. Maybe got hit while looking for a train as almost happened to me. No one from the transit authority would tell you straight out anymore that it was a suicide. It was always “a medical emergency.” Sometimes a cop would tell you the truth, if there was a cop around. I once asked a cop standing on a platform with a crowd of delayed commuters if it was because of a jumper, and he said, “Yeah. Heard it on the radio. Nothing can run until the sponge crew is finished.”
It wasn’t always like that. I was 18 the first time I had to deal with a jumper delay. That was in the 1980s, when I commuted between college and a job at the Central Library at 19th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This was before death by light rail became such a common occurrence. SEPTA shut the train down for hours. I saw the ambulances rushing to 15th street station. At first no one said anything, then one of the fare-takers told everyone, “It’s a suicide.”
It was all a bigger production back then. Television crews, firetrucks, everyone talking. There was always a small article in the Inquirer the next day. But that was a long time ago. There was only a jumper a few times a year. Back then it was always shuttle buses. Getting on and off of buses until you could get back on the train further down the line.
Nowadays there’s rarely shuttle buses. Less production. No TV cameras. No blurbs in the newspaper. Times have changed. There are so many murders, so many suicides. It’s all so commonplace. The opioid crisis, stress, bad romances, poverty, the job market, global warming, politics, pimples. There’s so much that can push someone over the edge. There’s so much death to cover and only so much news to fit into a half hour broadcast. Newspapers barely exist and are much smaller, thinner, lighter with coverage of world, national and local events. There’s not enough room in the pages for stories like this.
Besides, no one wants to say it anymore. Jumper. Suicide. No one wants to upset anyone, or encourage them to imitate. Don’t do it for the fame boys and girls. We’re not giving you the five minutes anymore. Still, they are much faster with the clean up these days. Get the trains back and running a lot quicker than in the good old days.
The woman next to me voiced my thoughts.
“Do you think it’s a jumper?”
The young man became more upset, emotional.
“A jumper? You mean a suicide? Someone jumped in front of a train? How do you know that?”
“I don’t know for sure. It just looks that way. They used the magic word ‘medical emergency’ and shut down a lot of track. “
The guy got in his phone again. This time video chat. I could see the face. A young woman. Girlfriend probably.
“I’m sorry. It’s a jumper. I’ll get there as soon as I can.”
His girlfriend sounded sympathetic, not like before. He was safe now. Out of trouble.
The announcer came on again. The faceless voice of SEPTA.
“They’ve finished cleaning up the track from the medical emergency. Trains will now be running west on the westbound side.”
“That’s it,” I said. “Jumper. They finished ‘cleaning up’, picking up the pieces, putting them in plastic bags, wiping off the track.”
“Thank God,” said the woman. “Now when will we get an eastbound train?”
A train arrived on the westbound side heading west. Ten minutes later the first eastbound train arrived. SEPTA made it an express. Some passengers got off, but not enough. Too many wanted to get on. I had to wait for a couple more eastbound trains before I could get on one.
I put it out the jumper of my mind. That’s what you do. You can’t break down because others do. You take the train. You go home. You go to work. Go home again. Know it will happen again. You just don’t think about it.
Less than a week went by when it happened. I worked late, and went to board the El at the 5th Street Station, near Independence Mall. There wasn’t a big crowd, but something was off. The wait seemed too long. It didn’t mean anything unless they said the magic words. Otherwise it was just normal malfunctions. I saw a guy, young, under 30. He was wearing blue overalls, the kind construction workers sometimes do. He was acting strange. His knees were bent, and he was nodding and bouncing from side to side. He had what looked like a thin brown cigar in his hand. Lit. He took a puff now and then. There may have been some tobacco in it, maybe even some weed. But there was something else as well. A more acrid smell.
My first thought was it was against the law to smoke on the platform. Of course that never gets enforced. There are too many more serious crimes to occupy the police. Then I began to wonder, as I sometimes do, why they had decriminalized smoking marijuana in the city and legalized vaping of weed at the state level, for medical reasons, but did not legalize edibles statewide for any reason. It would be a lot less distracting to see someone eating a brownie at a bus stop or rail station than to have to inhale second hand anything.
While I was going through this social and political debate in my head, the man in blue decided to hobble over to the edge of the platform and wobble and bounce there. Then he turned around. His toes on the platform. His heels over the edge. Bouncing to music only he could hear.
I had a bad feeling about this. I hurried over to him.
“Hey. You might want to get away form the edge. You could fall.”
He looked at me then looked where he was standing. His eyes got wider, waking up a bit, realizing how close he was to falling over. He grabbed a pillar and pulled himself forward. I backed up towards the wall. The man in blue came towards me with his bouncing swaying walk. He held out a hand. I shook it.
“Thank you,” he said. “I hate working. Hate my job. I swing a hammer all day.” He took a last drag on his smoke and threw it on the ground. “I tried to hold off. Tried to wait until I was home. But I couldn’t. The train was taking too long.”
“It’s okay. Do what you do, but try to be safe.”
He was still bouncing around. It looked like he was going to stumble back towards the tracks.
“Put your back against the wall.”
I showed him by doing it myself. Back to the wall. Arms spread out pressing against it.
He listened and did the same.
“Feel the wall. Solid. Stay against it until the train comes.”
He nodded. He stayed against the wall until the train pulled in.
The cars were crowded. We both stood for one stop. He looked like he could fall down at any moment, couldn’t keep his balance. I saw someone getting up to get off. I steered my ward into the seat.
“Sit. Take a rest.”
A man standing nearby spoke.
“I can’t understand this country. I come from Croatia. Why so many people do that stuff? Always someone like that on the train. There’s so much here. So much easier than where I came from. Why be like that?”
“Be easy on him,” I said, trying to keep my voice down. “He almost fell on the tracks.”
“Really?” Mr. Croatia was surprised. “You saw?”
I told him what happened.
“Jesus, we’d have all been late getting home.”
I told him that’s why I did it. To prevent another long delay.
But that was only partially true. Gallows humor. An evil joke. I didn’t want to have another long wait, sure. But who wants to see a man die in front them, maybe fall on the tracks and touch the electrified third rail, or fall and get run over by a train. I may be a cynic, a calloused bastard, but I’ve never seen an actual or accidental jumper do it, only gone through the inconvenience that they cause. I never want to see it happen. Who needs those kind of memories? Who needs that kind of guilt? I could never be the driver of that train. I could never be one of the clean up crew. I could never be someone who just stood on the platform and watched.
My ward got off at Somerset station and staggered down the stairs. The Croatian gentleman got off at the next stop, Allegheny. And me? I rode to the end of the line, hoping a bus would be waiting for me, in working condition, with space to sit or stand. A bus that would not catch fire or collide with anything, one able to get me home without further damage and at a reasonable time.
God, I thought, if I did anything good tonight, can you just grant me that?
And it came about just as I’d prayed. SEPTA or the Almighty must have been listening.