New York Conversation July 2011

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.

“Fight!”

“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.

25 thoughts on “New York Conversation July 2011

  1. Incredible. I was at the beach today as well and tried to push my way onto this A train at Beach 90th. I had been waiting 45 minutes and it was the second too-crowded train. I am also shocked that this hasn’t been on the news yet but that the shooting in Brighton has been. Someone linked your post on twitter and that’s the only way I knew about it.

  2. We were in the same train car dude. I remember the ponytail dude and his gf. I remember he slapped her at one point. Me and my girlfriend decided to move to the front of the train when we got to Howard Beach and then when we saw people running away everyone exited through the emergency exit that led us inside JFK. Crazy shit. I can’t believe this didn’t make the news and was overshadowed by the Brighton Beach shootings.

  3. this is crazy! i stopped taking trains for fear of dealing with something like this. I am very surprised this didn’t make news. The Brighton Beach incident was very frightening knowing that I had just dropped my sisters off at the beach specifically to speak a couple of feet from where the incident happened, and it scared the living day lights out of me. You’re right about people living far and closing up there doors its become to the point where it drives people to relocate to safer neighborhoods. I’ve been considering relocation, and hating NY mainly for this reason.

  4. Thank you for writing this. I was trapped in Rockaway when this occurred, and tensions and tempers were rising there was well, once the trains shut down and the subway platforms got even more crowed. After about an hour, when the train finally started to move, we had no idea the chaos had only just begun. As the A train arrived at Broadway Junction and my friends left to transfer to the L, everyone began running from the far end of the platform to the stairs. Another fight had broken out, and from what I heard there were guns, knives, and a cloud of mace sprayed. I saw women falling to the ground crying, parents squeezing their bawling children, and endless screaming and panic. Eventually I ensured the coast was clear, and ran to look for my friends. Thankfully everyone was safe.

  5. Oh no way, I was on probably the train behind that, that got stopped at Beach 90th and the cops told everyone to get off. Hopped on my bike (had opted for the train because of the coming storm) and rode away but didn’t think anything else of it.

    The tone of this is whatever, though I can vouch for there being a *lot* of teenagers on a packed train, during a hot day.

  6. I don’t know how much of this is true but I just remembered when I was in the AirTrain platform waiting to go to Federal Circle to get to the E train, some little girl was screaming “They shot a fuckin cop!” and then later on when I got to where you have to pay $5 to get to the Subway side, a group of people that had ran away when I did were arguing with one of the workers how it wasn’t fair for them to pay $5 when they were running for their lives and one of them was saying that there were 9 dead bodies at Howard Beach. I left them arguing and they were calling the cops because they didn’t want to pay the fee.

  7. Haha yes I saw that group as well. I was actually in amongst them, but since we were the only ones who’d actually paid an AirTrain fare, the attendants let us out. I kind of figured at the time that those people might have been, um, embellishing the story a bit to justify having jumped the AirTrain barriers.

  8. I was on that train, and the train was packed but my group of friends started talking to the other groups and we looked outside right before the first gunshot. Right after the first one 2 orr 3 black guys ran off to the opposite side of the train station and then yyou saw everyone run but my train car was pushed and shoves all the way forward I guess we were next to the car where it all went down sso they were trying to get out without going outside . I was shaking soo much we enddded up going into another train car and the lady was telling us how this happens every year and she called the police and wouldn’t let us leave. Then the other shots were fired. It took us 3 trains and like 3 buses to get home

  9. I’m so Sorry you had to experience that! Some folks in this city are truly Animals! Glad you and yours got home safe.I recommend next time the temp hit’s 100 get a bike and head down to Fort Tilden Queens!

  10. This story is so amazingly told. And devastating at the same time. I felt such a panic as if I, myself, were aboard that train.
    It saddens me to hear of the horrible horrible events that took place yesterday, both at the beach and later on the way home.

  11. I am a Rockaway resident. I cannot believe how scary this ride was for you. These Animals that decend upon Rockaway during the hot days are summer are not what this community is about. They use our beach as a place to riot, have gang fights, and as a garbage pail. The residents of this town and those of Broad Channel & Howard Beach are appalled that these vistors ruin our neighborhoods and scare those that truly want to enjoy the beach. What kind of a person brings a gun to the beach? One that is looking to hurt or kill someone. Who thinks drinking a bottle of JD is a good idea on a hot day at the beach? One that is looking for trouble. Please note, that these animals are not from our neighborhoods. The lack the respect & the manners that we were bought up with. They don’t respect the beauty of our neighborhoods or the power of the ocean. I hope the next time you come to our beach you have a more pleasant experiience.

  12. I can’t imagine how horrifying it was for those on the train that had to witness the violence and filth that caused it. I am a Rockaway resident and I sat on the beach with my children that day and it made me sick to see these people who come to our beach and treat it and our community with such disrepect. The people who live here in Rockaway are sick and tired of the punks that come use and abuse our beaches. It is a shame. A shame for those of us that live here and for those who want to come to the beach to just enjoy a nice summer day. This was a beautifully written article, thank you so much for sharing!

  13. I am also a Rockaway resident and I am sickened by what happened in our neighborhood on Brooklyn/Queens Day. I had heard about it but your written, eye witness account really scared the hell out of me. Makes me want to get the hell out of here but I know that is not the answer. We need to take back our beach and get our politicians involved in finding some way to ensure that this does not happen again. The summer has not even started and I already wish it was over. I’m sorry you had such a terrible experience traveling from our beach and please know that it is not always like that here. I hope you’ll give us another shot (no pun intended):). It really is a nice beach community full of a lot of good, law abiding people.

  14. @Rita, Theresa, Bridget – thanks for all the messages, and I can certainly imagine how infuriating and depressing it must be for you to have these people descend on your neighbourhood every year. I might make another attempt, but not on a school holiday :)
    @oldfox – I hope that was tongue-in-cheek, because if not, it gets straight to the root of the whole problem. I don’t *want* my own gun. I don’t want to live in a society where everyone has a gun. This whole idiot NRA rhetoric about it being safer if everyone has a gun is a load of horseshit

  15. I haven’t been to the beach since we sailed the battle ship “PTEMKIN”, so don’t even think about suggesting a trip to the beach when we arrive in September (with due regrets to the good citizens of Rockaway and environs).

  16. On Wednesday 16 June [1971] the [Sporting Life] column did not appear again, quite probably because he had become so drunk at Ascot races that he had either vomited all over the Queen Mother or at least all over the flowers in front of the Royal Box. Bunny May was with him and remembered that they had been freeloading champagne off rich contacts all afternoon and were very drunk indeed when Bernard at the end of the day made the mistake of suddenly downing a large whisky on top of all the champagne. ‘As we get to the door of the bar by the lift we’re stopped by the security men,’ said May. ‘The lift comes down, the doors open, the Queen Mother, all in the blue, with the hat, absolutely charming, nodding away, and out she comes, and at that precise moment Jeff’s neck went back and up came the champagne, the scotch and the dried tomato skins all over the Queen mother’s feet. He did. Not a pretty sight. Things like this did not go down well at the Sporting Life. I just got hold of him and took him away. I thought he might get nicked. He didn’t say anything, he was pissed. Her legs were actually spattered with all the little tomato skins. There were lots of people standing around. And there it is. He’s done it. He’s just barfed.’ ”

    Graham Lord, ‘Just the One’ pp 166-7

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