Just after 5 p.m., the phone at my desk rings. It is my sister calling, offering to commute home with me on the Long Island Rail Road 5:33 out of Penn Station -- what we’d come to call “my” train.
Every evening, I sprint to catch that train, hurrying to my nighttime job, but my sister rarely shares my manic commute. If she takes my train with me, she will not recognize the faces that, for me, are part of the afternoon landscape of transit.
“I’ll meet you in the lobby in five minutes,” Kristy says.
“I’m not taking that train tonight,” I tell her. “I’m staying ‘til 5:30. Meet me at quarter to 6; we’ll take your train.”
Two minutes later, the phone rings again.
“Come on ... please?” she cajoles in the voice she always uses when she wants to borrow my clothes. But I’m not budging.
“There’s no way,” I say. “It’s almost 5:15. We’d barely make it. Just meet me at quarter to 6 and we’ll take your train.”
And that ends it.
I didn’t take the 5:33 that night a decade ago. But a man named Colin Ferguson did.
As the train approached Merillon Avenue, my station, he entered the car I always sat in. Silently, he pulled out a Ruger 9-millimeter pistol and fired. He reloaded twice, shooting 25 people and killing six before he was tackled by other passengers.
Wednesday, Dec. 7, 1993. Ten years later, it is a footnote to my life, a reminder of the incomprehensible randomness with which we stumble through our days.
We like to believe that we have some measure of control, that our lives turn out well or badly because of the consciousness of our actions and the wisdom of our choices. But on that night, my choice wasn’t based on wisdom. It was based on expedience.
Minor decisions, made every day. Take this train instead of that one, use the side door instead of the front, stop for a slice of sausage pizza instead of going straight home. These tiny activities make up the fabric of our lives, and we never notice most of them.
Can I assume that some force of nature saw fit to protect me, kept me alive beyond age 25 so I could accomplish something before I die? Or are life and death utterly capricious, just dumb luck?
That evening, the 6:08 carried my sister and me about halfway home, to a station in the outer boroughs of New York, before service was abruptly suspended. Major delays, they said -- no details available. I sulked and wondered how I could be so unlucky, shivering outdoors in a thin jacket, spending my rare night off in a crowd of disgruntled commuters.
Rumors filled the vacuum, the way they do when people find their routines upended. Somebody jumped in front of a train, people said. Probably shut down the main line.
I tuned most of it out. I was busy wishing I’d caught the 5:33.
My commute most nights was timed to the minute, racing from one job to another and grabbing dinner on the way. It was repetitious but comfortingly familiar. I’d eat and I’d read, always surrounded by the same faces -- the regulars who took the train with me.
I’d never actually talked to any of these people beyond a rare hello. But I had their wardrobes memorized. I couldn’t tell you their names or occupations, but I could tell you who fell asleep reading the Daily News each night and where it fell on their chests as they began to snore. I could describe the Indian man whose suits looked freshly dry-cleaned, even at the end of the working day.
That evening, to me, they were the lucky ones -- at home already, eating their dinners.
An hour passed before an announcement came: A train was leaving for the Huntington line stations. That was us. We squeezed in, determined to board.
The doors nearly closed on us and I stood flattened against the glass, but at least we were heading home.
We heard another announcement: The eastbound 5:33 was stuck at Merillon Avenue. We’d be arriving on the westbound track.
It defied logic. My regular train had made it all the way to my station and then got stuck? My sister was too polite to say, “I told you so.”
Then: “We suggest that while we are in the Merillon Avenue station, you not look inside the other train.”
Since I was a girl, I have always been terrified of missing something. So I had to look; for me, there was no choice. I needed to know what had kept us waiting for these hours.
I saw the belongings first -- backpacks and briefcases and newspapers people never finished reading, strewn around the car. Then I saw the police and the crowds outside. Then I saw blood -- more blood than I’d ever seen before, splashed against the glass in patterns as random as my continued existence suddenly felt.
We got off our train and waded through a snarl of television cameras and police. I was numb. My train. My car. All that blood.
And none of it was mine.
I spent the night awake, thinking about randomness. The next morning, I opened Newsday and saw a graphic, an aerial view of the place I had called “my train.”
Most of Colin Ferguson’s victims had been standing, with nothing to shield them from his bullets. I stared at the circles that represented them, knowing that as the train approached Merillon Avenue, I’d have been standing with them, nose to the door, ready to hurry down the stairs toward home.
I read the names and tried to figure out which regulars were among them. I felt guilty for not having endured this horror along with them and guiltier still for never having asked their names or told them mine.
Later in the day, I had to take the 5:33 as I always did. It wasn’t actually the same car, of course, but I remember feeling vulnerable and not much else. The car wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t full either. And the faces I knew weren’t there. Were they dead? Wounded? Scared that death came so close? Embarrassed at having survived?
It was weeks before I saw many of them again. Some, I imagine, stayed home. Some braved the traffic and drove to the city, feeling safer in their own cars than riding a train with strangers.
As the faces I knew trickled back, it was awkward moving beyond polite nods of recognition and addressing strangers with words usually reserved for your closest childhood friends.
“Were you there that night? Were you hurt?” someone would say, and no names were necessary. “I’m so glad to see you. I was worried.”
“Were you hurt?” Ten years later, I find I still cannot answer.
It was a year before I felt safe on a train again, or in any other public place without an obvious exit. I would ride staring down at the space under the seat in front of me, wondering if I’d be able to crouch low enough if someone began shooting.
I wish I could tell you I became close friends with some of the people from my train. I wish I could say we meet for lunch once in a while and exchange pictures of our kids. Nothing like that ever happened.
Maybe we were all too shaken. Maybe we weren’t shaken enough and returned too quickly to the rhythm of the railroad and the constancy of the commute. Maybe Colin Ferguson left us too suspicious of what a stranger on a train might really be capable of.
Today, there are times when I pause in the middle of a small decision. Do I cross the street on this block or that one? Do I take the baby out today or keep him home? In the pause, at the margins of my consciousness, I wonder whether it might just change my life.
But just like before that odd evening when I was 25, most times I never know.