Cockroaches and rats aren’t the only things living in the New York City subways. The tunnels and tracks are alive with weird stories. The earliest subway line opened on Oct. 27, 1904, hauling its first fleet of passengers out of City Hall station. In the century since the debut ride, the system has expanded to more than 800 miles of track snaking through Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, giving subway stories plenty of time and space in which to bubble, baffle and percolate. Here are five weird stories commonly shared by subway workers.
5. Third Rail Bathroom Break
The subway’s infamous third rail, which powers the trains throughout the entire system, is creepy enough on its own. Thrumming along with more than 600 volts of electricity, the third rail is not something you really want to play with. But guys will still be guys and thus we get the tale of one man who decided it would be cool to urinate on the rail. Let’s just say a part of him ended up fried.
The third rail bathroom break story, which is circulated in transit employee safety classes, effectively illustrates the hazards of the third rail — by hitting folks where it hurts. “What about safety for the women?” one of the female trainees had inquired, to which the instructor simply replied: “Make sure you wiggle.”
4. The Mole People
A colony of folks known as the mole people, made up of homeless, vagabonds and others who have withdrawn from society, have a legendary place in the New York City subway system. While many inhabit abandoned and forgotten substations and tunnels, others have even more creative living quarters. A token booth clerk on the job 10 years recalled a somewhat spooky morning break he had around 4:30 a.m. in the Bowery station back in 1991. “It’s a scary station and especially at a time when there was no one around,” he said. “Just the bums and the junkies going in and out — they would just do their business and then they’d leave. But some people were not coming out.”
When the clerk went down in the station to investigate, he saw no one around. Moments later he heard a noise and happened to look up. Overhead were cartons and boxes tied to the subway station ceiling with people living inside them, like mole-people bats. “There was a whole community,” he said. While New York City has been on an ongoing mission to clean itself up, there’s no way it could ever reach all the subway crevices and crannies. The token booth clerk summed it up. “I know there are still (communities down there), and I know there will never be none.”
3. Stuck Between a Train and a Hard Place
One of the most popular subway stories — one that even made its way into a 1997 TV episode of Homicide: Life on the Streets — is the tale of the man pinned between the train and the station platform. The well-circulated story includes several slight variations in its telling, but they all have the same disastrous ending. A man was down on the subway tracks for one valid reason or another when a train began to pull into the station. The train’s motorman sees the hapless person on the tracks and slams on the brakes while the man starts pulling himself up onto the station platform. Alas, the train is too quick and the man becomes trapped between the train and the edge of the platform. Then comes the catch.
Because the gap between the train and the platform can be measured in inches, the man’s middle has become crushed as he became stuck between the two entities. Although he is still alive at the moment, the train’s pressure is the only thing keeping his intestines in place. As soon as the train pulls out of the station, the man is going to die. The coziest variation on the ending has the man requesting a cigarette and a beer — both of which he receives from police officers on the scene — even though such imbibing is usually not allowed on the subways.
2. The Smoldering Head
Decapitation stories are tops when it comes to creepiness. Just when we were getting used to the roaches, rats and mole people on the tracks, here comes the severed heads. One severed head was allegedly found along the A line, smoldering and stuck fast to the sizzling third rail. “It was a gruesome sight,” said a conductor relating the tale as he heard it. “The skin was turning grey and there was steam coming out of its nose.” Because the story is stocked with such creepy glory, we want to know more. But that’s it. No word on where the head came from, the victim’s identity or where the body ended up.
1. A Headless Body
The body without a head is another popular subway tale that frequently makes the rounds. As the story goes, the body belonged to a suicide victim who jumped in front of a train that was cruising on an overhead line. Although they’re most associated with subterranean tunnels, subway trains also travel aboveground over the streets once they exit Manhattan and reach into the bowels of Brooklyn and Queens. While the headless body was strewn on the overhead tracks, its head was nowhere to be found.
Until the next day. A man who had parked his convertible beneath the train tracks got in his car, only to discover the severed head in the backseat. The story may be apocryphal, but the New York subway is a popular destination for suicide-prone individuals. One public health study found that between 1990 and 2003, there were 343 “subway-related” suicides in New York City.
Ryn Gargulinski completed her master’s thesis at Brooklyn College on the occupational folklore of New York City subway workers. The above stories came from sources she consulted and more than 80 interviews she conducted during her research.
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