The thing is that it happens so quickly.
It’s been hot for days in NYC, and the heat makes people crazy – it’s hard to sleep, subway platforms are stifling and unpleasant, the days long, the nights longer. The air feels dirty. The city sweats under a blanket of smog and haze. And so plenty of people, NY Conversation included, head for the beach. In NYC, this is an undertaking, a two-hour mission that involves a long trip out on the A train to the Rockaways.
For an Australian, the beaches here are strange. For a start, almost no-one swims – they strut and preen and bake in the sun, and so by the time 5pm rolls around, everyone’s hot and tired and drunk. There’s an edginess to the platform at Rockaway Park Beach as we wait for the train to come and take us home. And the weather’s changing – there’s the tension you get in the air with a coming storm. Minutes tick away, and more people arrive, toting towels and bags and chairs. People push and shout. Cops walk up and down the platform, ushering the crowd back from the edge. When the train finally arrives, after a 30-minute wait, there are so many people waiting that it’s difficult to move.
But we’re lucky: the train stops so that a door’s right in front of us. It means we get seats, although some sullen wannabe gangster kids are loath to surrender them. The kid next to me, who must be all of about 14, moves over reluctantly, and insists on sitting with his legs spread wide, pushing me into the corner. Whatever. I’m not going to argue. People continue to cram onto the train. It’s way overcrowded, uncomfortably so.
It seems no-one on the train is over 18 – which makes sense, as it’s school holidays and most people NY Conversation‘s age are at work instead of skiving off to the beach. The train stinks of turgid testosterone. There’s one guy in particular we noticed on the platform, a ponytailed kid with a pumped-up, edgy air about him that implies he’s been doing more than drinking, grabbing his girlfriend by her cheeks and talking into her face: “I love you, I love you, I love you.” It’s discomfiting – there’s something of violence about him. His friend offers around a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, boasting about having a gun in his bag. “Niggas think I’m jokin, but I’m for real, man, for real.” The kids next to us start goading him. If you got a gun, then get it out. Show us. For real.
Someone has a stereo and Jack Daniels’ guy hollers in Spanish for them to turn it up. There’s much high fiving and testosterone. Then the train veers left, sending everyone who’s standing stumbling into one another, with much shouting and cursing. We pull in at Howard Beach. More people try to pile on.
And something happens. It’s hard to tell what. The guy with the Jack Daniel’s disappears out the door. The doors close. Open. Close. Open. There’s shouting and pushing outside. One door closes. People are shouting. I see a little girl’s face through the single open door, looking at me with an expression that’s hard to read. She looks like she’s appealing for something. Then both doors open again. From somewhere, three large women with prams explode into the carriage, throwing people left and right. They look terrified. More shouting. A flash of steel, and suddenly the guy with the girlfriend is holding a knife, shouting in Spanish.
And then the gunshots.
Four of them, in rapid succession. It happens so quickly. It’s not dramatic at all. I barely even hear them. They’re just another noise in the chaos. But suddenly everyone wants out of here. People are scrambling for the back door, the one that leads between the two carriages. They trip and stumble as we shove our way through. The next carriage is also clearing out. The main thing is not knowing what’s going on. Where’s the guy with the gun? Which way did they go? Who got shot? Why has no-one called the police?
We wait for a minute, uncertain of what to do, and notice that people are hunched low to the ground. Outside, the sky’s darkening, fat with imminent rain. More shouting. We get out, get back in again. Someone is crying. People start moving again. We poke our heads out. A scrum of people is running down the platform towards us.
“Nigga got shot!”
“That fat boy, they tore him up real good!”
Clearly, the overwhelming instinct now is to get the fuck out of here. Except for one thing: the fight, and the carriage we fled, they both stand between us and the exit. Howard Beach is an above-ground station, but it’s out in an industrial wasteland somewhere between JFK and the backblocks of Queens. The platform is lined with cyclone fencing and razor wire, so just climbing down isn’t an option. We’re already way toward the back of the train – there’s nowhere else to go, really. Except the little gate that leads down to the tracks. Several dozen people are down there already, trying their best to get as far away as possible. We take deep breaths and leg it down there. Down by the bottom step, a woman with a baby hunches in a hole in the cyclone fence, on the phone to a husband or boyfriend, sobbing and looking terrified. Someone got shot. Someone got stabbed. How is she going to get home?
My hands are shaking.
There’s still no sign of the cops.
The solution to getting away is brilliantly simple, though – over the tracks, stepping carefully on weathered sleepers and jagged rocks, touching none of the rails for fear they’re electrified. And a dash up onto the other platform and away. As we climb the stairs to our salvation – the AirTrain, which goes to JFK and thence to the E train, which will eventually take us home – a policeman finally arrives, toting a massive fucking shotgun. Guns, always guns.
It happens so quickly, and it happens for no reason. And the more I think about it the angrier I get because it’s so depressingly fucking stupid. This sort of adolescent dick-waving happens everywhere – it’s an idiot facet of human nature that manifests itself in macho fuckery the world over. It’s our animal nature, as Shantaram puts it. You can blame it on lack of education or social disadvantage or whatever, but really, it’s just that young boys do dumb shit that they hopefully live to regret.
But these people should not have guns.
And when they do, it’s scary. It’s really, really frightening. And I get to thinking: this is why people put up fences. Why people stay in their “safe” neighbourhoods and lock the doors securely at night. Why people are reluctant to visit us uptown. This, maybe, is why it costs $10 to go to Long Beach. Because this shit is scary. And so people retreat and recede, and the result is a compartmentalised society wherein there isn’t one city, there are many cities within, and you never see the insides of the others unless you’re on the wrong train at the wrong time. The A train is not for the fainthearted, they tell me. You learn the places to avoid and the things not to do. There’s no way I’m going to the Rockaways again. It’s sad.
As we get off the AirTrain, the sky is the colour of, well, the barrel of a gun. People in sports coats pull drag-bags and tote laptop cases. The disembodied station announcements and the air of impersonal, mechanical efficiency seem almost impossibly incongruous.
It’s raining hard outside.