“My back is killing me. Can you help me?”

My client at Flic Spa was trying to point to an area under her shoulder blade, or if you want to be technical, the medial angle of the left scapula. You can’t reach that area by yourself, so God created us massage therapists to reach it for you.

We massage therapists must possess an inner core of helpfulness to succeed in our chosen profession. If you don’t care about others, you will suck at giving massages. Some people believe they are helpful, but sadly, they are delusional. “Why so glum?”

“My dog died.”

“Oh. I understand. My favorite TV show just got cancelled.”

On the other hand, some people don’t want to be helped. Years ago, I was standing near the edge of a New York subway platform, waiting for the train. Rush hour was upon us, and hundreds of fellow straphangers surrounded me, standing shoulder to shoulder. After yet another delay, the train finally arrived. The doors slid open to a cheery ding-dong and the recorded voice of a woman with a Midwestern accent.

A man standing next to me suddenly did something that, to this day, I still find hard to believe and difficult to recount, as though I were witnessing a paranormal event. Without hesitation, he casually stepped onto a metal step in between two cars, grasping the chain tethering them for balance. I was staring at him in wonder and he tossed me back a look of boredom.

I was shuffling towards the open doors when, without a trace of emotion or hesitation, he slid down the gap between the two cars and lowered himself onto the tracks. He shuffled his body until he was perpendicular to the tracks. He rested his head gently on a rail, right next to a wheel, as if he were getting ready for bed.

My mind immediately engaged in an internal argument, at once denying and affirming what I saw. Did he? No, he didn’t. Did you see that? No, you didn’t; it’s not possible. I instinctively moved towards him, propelled by an urge to reach down and pull him out. But the crowd herded me towards the entrance of the very subway car that would roll over and crush the man.

When I reached the threshold, I stopped. I leaned backwards and wedged myself snugly in the doorway, holding back the crowd behind me. I scanned the interior of the subway car frantically for the emergency brake. There it was! Ten feet away, a crush of people between us. A man in a blue business suit stood directly underneath the brake’s red handle. He was reading a newspaper.

“Pull the brake!” I yelled to him. My throat was dry, and I was surprised at the croaking sound my voice made. “There’s somebody on the tracks!”

The businessman didn’t – or wouldn’t -- hear me. I yelled again, my voice higher and more frantic. “Pull the brake! There’s a man on the tracks! For God’s sake! PULL THE BRAKE!”

The businessman finally looked up, caught my eyes and raised his hand slowly. He looked right and left, and as secretly as he could, tugged the red cord once, quickly and nonchalantly. He buried his head back into his newspaper. The train lurched forward and I shut my eyes, imagining the suicide man’s head partially crushed by a steel wheel.

A collective groan issued forth from inside the car. I backed out slowly. I looked down towards the train tracks to look for the suicide man. To my astonishment, he was standing on the platform, drenched in sweat. We locked eyes, and his expression changed from confusion to rage.

“Yo,” he yelled to me. “Yo! I’m gonna kill you!”

I was frozen in place. A small group of straphangers stood between the madman hell-bent on murdering me, the one who had just thwarted his suicide attempt. To my relief, two NYC police officers squeezed their way down the stairs and across the platform. They restrained the man, pushed him face down on the cement floor and cuffed his wrists behind his back.

The trains were held up for over an hour. The crowd swelled to an unimaginable number and spilled up the staircase and out onto the street. Eventually, service was restored, and I was able to board a train headed for home. I was shaking uncontrollably, but tried to regain my composure. The people around me began to talk about the cause of the train delay.

“Yo, some crazy dude put his head on a freaking rail.”

“No way! Was he trying to kill himself?”

“Uh, what do ya think?”

“Why here? Why now? He coulda killed himself at home, in private.”

“Yeah, he coulda took pills at home.”

“Yeah, he coulda sliced his wrists. At home.”

“Or shot himself. At home.”

A collective chuckle rose from the crowd. The car suddenly swerved left and the wheels protested with a deafening screech.

“Wait a minute,” I said, careful not to expose the role I played unwittingly. “That man was obviously sick. Maybe now he can get some help. Yeah, we were all inconvenienced, but everybody comes into a little trouble sometime. And I wanna think if I was in trouble, somebody’d be there to help. To help me.”

A silence fell over us. The train ascended onto the elevated tracks, and despite the lateness of the hour, copper colored sunlight suddenly flooded the car, rarifying the damp air inside. I let loose a sigh, content that maybe I made a difference, however small, in the city.

“Yeah,” said a woman behind me. “He coulda hung himself. At home.”

Featured Posts