Shortly before 9/11 my brother, Casey Franklin, moved up to New York City fresh out of Lawrence, Kansas. He wrote the article, “A-Train Angel” for the University of Kansas Magazine. He recently unearthed it and agreed to let me post it here. It’s one of the best examples of the kindness of a stranger that I’ve read. Enjoy! (Don’t you think he should write a blog? )
New York City is scary.
This thought kept looping through my head before my first solo trek into the city. I recently graduated from the University of Kansas and went to work for a magazine in Congers, New York, 10 miles north of the city. I loved that the magazine was just outside the city, because I so long to be an urban dweller. I figured now that I was so close to the city, it wouldn’t be long before I lived there. Here’s how I’ve always envisioned my typical morning as a New Yorker: I wake up in my spacious SoHo loft, stop by a bakery for a bagel where I happen to run into Christina Ricci (we talk over lattes – it turns out she’s shooting an indie film just down the street), and go to work in a high-tech skyscraper where there’s a fountain in the lobby with little cherubs happily spouting water from their mouths. For some reason the water-spouting cherubs have always been an essential part of my NYC fantasy. I can’t explain it.
In my first month here, however, I only went into the city once. On September 2nd, a co-worker drove in with me. The first thing we did was head to the World Trade Center so I could visit the top. Looking out over New York from 1,300 feet up was awe-inspiring. The thing that struck me the most was how quiet everything seemed. It was like the entire city had been stuck on pause, and I was one of the lucky few getting to see it in freeze-frame. It’s still hard for me to believe that view is gone now.
My friend asked an employee on the observation deck if anyone ever got past the fences that surround the edge and jumped off. The guy shook his head, saying, “Nah, this is a boring place. Nothing ever really happens here.” He talked to us a little more before we left. A week later, on September 11th, his was the only face I could associate with the tragedy, and I hoped the planes had struck too early for him to have been there. .
After the attack, I decided to stay out of the city for a while. There’s a lot more to New York than just Ground Zero, but I couldn’t help but think of the entire city as a mass grave. But a few weeks later, I had to attend a conference at the China Club in Times Square. And I had to get there alone. I’ve been known to get lost in JCPenney, so navigating Manhattan all on my own was a lot to ask. I just knew it was going to end up like Adventures in Babysitting, with me pursued by car thieves and dangling from the top of a skyscraper somewhere. As that fateful morning approached, I assumed an attitude of morbid resignation. I told friends not to worry if they never saw me again — I was probably just living as a mole man in the city’s subway tunnels.
I took a bus to the George Washington Bridge bus terminal, planning to catch a taxi from there. I figured all I’d have to do was step outside, wave my hand, and a taxi would pull up. That’s how it works on TV. Oh, naive little Kansas boy. There are, apparently, no taxis near the GW Bridge. Or if there are, they’re very well-hidden. I stepped up to the curb, arm poised for action, ready and waiting to see a taxi. And waiting. No taxis.
My heart sank as I realized I would have to brave the subway system. I’d been right all along – I was so going to end up a mole man. I descended into the subway, planning to ask the clerk at the token booth what train I should take. Until I saw her. Screaming at somebody through her little window. “Lady, if I’m too slow for you, use the machine!” The customer grabbed her token and walked away, mumbling something under her breath. “And don’t come back!” yelled the clerk. Okay, so much for Plan B. I quietly bought my token from her, trying not to do anything that would tick this woman off.
I found the directory, which said the A-Train would go right to Times Square. All I had to do was hop on the southbound train and get off at 420d Street. I boarded the next train and kept my eyes glued to the station sign at each stop. For a while. My attention drifted as I contemplated how cool it was that I was riding a New York subway train, surrounded by New Yorkers who were also riding a New York subway train. They all looked so blasé about it. Well, some of them seemed grumpy. A few looked sad.
I wondered if my subway neighbors were stealing glances at me and if so, what impression I was giving them. So, as one does, I began trying on specific facial expressions just in case random strangers looked my way. I stared out the window, going for introspective and somber, hoping people would think I had a tragic past and a heart filled with unexplored depths. I gradually shifted to an expression of hope and naiveté, so now folks would assume I was a young and innocent soul excited about the journey he was embarking upon in the big city. I got so into it that I completely stopped paying attention to the stops. Until I heard the words “Next stop, Brooklyn Bridge” over the loudspeaker. I had somehow traveled the entire length of Manhattan, completely missing Times Square. Before the doors closed, I jumped up and ran off the train, no longer giving any thought to my facial expression (although it was probably a funny one).
I had ended up at the Financial District, where the World Trade Center used to be. The exact part of the city I had hoped to avoid. Even in the subway station, the difference was palpable. Everything felt heavier, quieter. There were makeshift memorials with pictures of firefighters and policemen, and crayon-drawn cards from children that said, “Thank you” and “God bless America.” I couldn’t resist the urge to go up and see what the streets were like.
The change in the city was extreme. Everywhere I looked were signs for missing World Trade Center employees. Along with pictures, they all said what floor the person had worked on. Streets were closed. Solemn police officers manned the roadblocks. As I turned the comer of Nassau and Fulton, I saw it. An enormous pile of rubble, a mountain of steel and stone, just a few blocks away. As I stared, I heard a policeman yelling at a man who was taking snapshots of the wreckage. “This isn’t a tourist attraction!” he shouted. I felt perverse for staring, and hurried back to the subway station, the image of the rubble stuck in my head.
I boarded the A-train again, determined to avoid further distractions. Little did I know that it wouldn’t matter. I had accidentally boarded the southbound train again. (Cardinal directions are tricky!) Thinking I was heading back toward Times Square, I took the only empty seat on the train. Next to me was an elderly man in dirty, disheveled clothing. Alcohol and grime emanated from him in waves of funk, and I immediately regretted sitting next to him.
The man turned to look at me, saying in a loud voice, “You don’t live in the city, do ya?”
“No,” I said, laughing nervously. “Is it that obvious?”
He said I had that confused look about me that visitors get. He kept talking, and at first I was embarrassed. He was loud enough for half the subway car to hear. But soon I stopped minding. His name was Jack, and he told me how sad he’d been since the attack. He lived near a fire station, and some of the firefighters he knew were missing. On the 11th, he’d heard the first plane flying in. He’d been drunk, he admitted, but even he’d been worried about how low it was flying.
I eventually started suspecting that I was headed the wrong way. I asked Jack, “Will this train go to Times Square?”
Jack looked at me, a smile forming at the comers of his mouth. Then he threw back his head and let out a huge belly-laugh. Throwing his arm around my shoulder, Jack yelled, “Honey, you’re goin’ the wrong way! You’re goin’ to Brooklyn!”
Once he stopped laughing, Jack said, “God sent me to find you! I’m gonna tell you
what you need to do.” He then told me exactly what I should do at the next stop, which train I should get on and what stop would be the best for the China Club. He was like my guardian angel. My smelly, drunken guardian angel.
As I left the train, Jack said, “Thanks for letting me talk. Sometimes we need to talk to
each other, just to remind ourselves that we’re all still here.”
Following Jack’s directions, I finally made it to Times Square. Now I have this fantasy that whenever I get lost in the city, I’ll run into Jack. “Lost again, honey?” he’ll say with a wink and a smile. “Don’t you worry. I’m gonna help you find your destiny!”
Okay, so my new NYC fantasy isn’t exactly as posh as a SoHo loft and random encounters with movie stars. But Jack is my favorite Big Apple experience so far. He helped me stop seeing the city as a labyrinth of subway tunnels and rubble, anger and depression. I’m excited to
be near the city again. It seems a little more human to me now. And a lot less scary.