Transit Talk: New York's Bus and Subway Workers Tell Their Stories


"Robert Snyder has compiled the tales and the war stories, sketches of the varied jobs and those who work on the buses and trains of the New York city mass transit system. These are the engrossing stories of the invisible workers-those who labor day and night to ensure a safe trip for the five million who ride the subways and buses of the city. Ever present, the workers have seen it all, and regale us with their experiences. It is an enjoyable read renewing our appreciation and respect for those who tend the ...
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"Robert Snyder has compiled the tales and the war stories, sketches of the varied jobs and those who work on the buses and trains of the New York city mass transit system. These are the engrossing stories of the invisible workers-those who labor day and night to ensure a safe trip for the five million who ride the subways and buses of the city. Ever present, the workers have seen it all, and regale us with their experiences. It is an enjoyable read renewing our appreciation and respect for those who tend the transit systems."-New York History

New York City may seem to be a place where everyone is a stranger, yet transit workers provide a human presence on a late-night bus or an empty subway platform. Few of us give any thought to these invisible workers-until something goes wrong. Transit Talk takes readers into the world of MTA New York City Transit employees, as they describe their lives and work, from the most visible subway conductor to the seemingly invisible mechanic.

There are nearly 44,000 transit workers like those you will meet in Transit Talk, and every day they help five million of us travel to work, to school, to weddings, to funerals, to hospitals, to vacations. These workers labor daily on subway tracks inches from high-voltage powerlines, risking their lives for passengers they'll never know. The city can feel large and fragmented, but the transportation system and its workers create common threads in the lives of all New Yorkers, threads we take for granted.

Nearly one hundred transit workers were interviewed for Transit Talk. These are the people who keep the country's largest transit system up and running. Together, their stories create a human tableau of life and labor in the city within a city that is the MTA New York City Transit. Transit workers find satisfaction in fixing a damaged subway car, gain wisdom from mastering a dangerous workplace, nurse emotional wounds from tending to someone injured in an accident, battle frustration from difficulties with management, and express satisfaction when reflecting on a productive career. They tell of how years spent in the same shop create bonds between workers. They talk of the burden of laboring in a twenty-four-hour system with night shifts and weekend workdays that take them away from families.

You'll hear joyous anecdotes of workers delivering babies in a subway car as well as painful tales of informing next-of-kin of a death on the tracks. The stories weave together vignettes about race, unions, and the relations between men and women in the transit workforce. The memories recorded here cover the last fifty years of the twentieth century, a time when the transit system acquired many of the characteristics of contemporary modern American industry.

Robert W. Snyder, a lifelong bus and subway rider and the grandson of a transit worker, is the author of The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York and coauthor of Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and Their New York. He lives with his wife and two children in Manhattan, where he is the editor of Media Studies Journal.

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Editorial Reviews

New York History

Robert Snyder has compiled the tales and the war stories, sketches of the varied jobs and those who work on the buses and trains of the New York city mass transit system. These are the engrossing stories of the invisible workersùthose who labor day and night to ensure a safe trip for the five million who ride the subways and buses of the city. Ever present, the workers have seen it all, and regale us with their experiences. It is an enjoyable read renewing our appreciation and respect for those who tend the transit systems.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813525778
  • Publisher: Rutgers University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/1998
  • Pages: 196
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.42 (d)

Table of Contents

Foreword: Notes from Underground
Introduction 1
Ch. 1 War Stories 7
Ch. 2 Getting on Board 17
Ch. 3 Stations and Fares 27
Ch. 4 Operating Trains 35
Ch. 5 Six Inches from Death 47
Ch. 6 Law and Order 59
Ch. 7 Driving Buses 71
Ch. 8 Shops and Yards 87
Ch. 9 Matters of Color 97
Ch. 10 Work, Women, and Men 107
Ch. 11 Union Talk 119
Ch. 12 Moving into Management 129
Ch. 13 Generations 139
Ch. 14 Into the Future 153
Notes 159
Index 167
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First Chapter

Chapter One


If it happens, it happens in the subway.
Lionel Bostick, Assistant Station Supervisor

    Transit workers have a name for their greatest tales: war stories. When they tell these stories, they find meanings in their jobs that transcend civil service titles or job descriptions, becoming the stars of their own comedies and tragedies as they present their particular vision of the most profound and universal human experiences, from birth to rescue to death.

    Joe Caracciolo, a maintenance supervisor, was riding a train to check on his men when the train unexpectedly stopped on the Broad Channel Bridge. He and the motorman walked to the last car to investigate the trouble. On the way they passed a woman and two teenage girls. The woman said: "Oh my God, somebody help me. Oh my God, somebody help me."

    I just turned around, I said, "What's the problem?" So one of the girls said, "She's having a baby." That's when I said, "Oh my God!"
    So I went over, to just talk to her, be nice to her, make her feel all right. And what had happened was she had just started getting severe pains. I had one of the girls time the pains, the other girl wiping her forehead with a handkerchief, and we started doing Lamaze method. ... And after that--she wouldn't lay down, she was just breathing with me. She started punching me because the pains were getting severe.
    I started joking around with her. I said, "What are you hitting me for? I didn't have nothing to do with it. Hit your husband--he's the one that did this to you. I wasn't even there to watch."
    So after a while I said, "Come on, lay down, get comfortable." She wouldn't lay down, she wouldn't do any of this.
    All of a sudden she said, "It's time. The baby's coming. I got to lay down." It's the truth.
    So she lays down on the seat ... pulled her pants down, the bag came out, the baby's head came out, and the baby flew out. It landed right in my shirt. That's how the baby was born.
    Then I lay the baby on top of the mother, make a little joke, "Congratulations, you've got a beautiful baby boy." I says, "Name him Charles from the C Train."
    She says, "No, what's your name?"
    I says, "Joe."
    She says, "My son's name is Joseph."
    And we couldn't get the baby to cry. So after it took a while for the baby to cry, then it started turning blue on us, and I turned around to the conductor, I said, "I don't care how you do it, or what you do, you've got to get this train to the station, the baby's here. And I want police and paramedics there."
    And they uncoupled another car, they pushed us into the station, they had the cops and the paramedics waiting for us when the doors opened up, they came in and they cut the cord, and they started breathing down the baby's mouth with a tube and everything turned out all right. Everybody worked. It was unbelievable. It was like little Joe's lucky day--everybody did something to bring that baby into the world.
    I just happened to be there at the right place at the right time. But as far as I'm concerned, everybody--the two teenage girls, there was a Jamaican woman that came out of nowhere, there was the cops, the paramedics, the motorman who got the train going back in, the conductor--everybody just worked together. It was really nice. But when that baby was born and he started crying and everybody started hugging and kissing everybody--it was the greatest feeling in the world. I mean after it was all over, it was, like, unbelievable. For ten, fifteen minutes, I was on the train with the United Nations! And everybody's friend! And everybody was hugging and kissing everybody, it was unbelievable. Then it was all over, and I wanted to kidnap the baby back to New York.
    Then I called up 116th Street, I called up the office to tell them where I was and what had happened, and nobody believed me, and I said, "I'm serious!" and they finally started believing me. Then I turned around, and the baby was gone, the mother was gone, they took them all to the hospital. ... There were so many people that helped out, but according to the mother and the husband, I was the next best thing since sliced bread ...
    To this day, she says I was the only one that made her comfortable."

    Roland E. Shelton Sr. was working a midnight tour as a train master at Grand Central when he received a call that a man was down underneath a train at 137th Street on the Number 1 Line. He went to 137th Street, and was asked to go to the man's house and tell his kin, including his eighty-seven-year-old mother, that he was dead. It was two in the morning. He went with another man and a police officer.

    And that was the hardest thing that I have ever done in my life, and it's the worst feeling that I have ever had, because you're there, you're helpless, you can't do anything. The family is crying. You're trying to help them out as much as you can. There's nothing you can do. That was one of the things as a train master that I hope that I'd never do again. In life, not as a train master, but in life at all. I found that very hard.

    If it is hard to explain a death to a stranger, it can also be hard for a transit worker to explain death to the people closest to him. Like police officers and fire fighters, transit workers sometimes learn to bury their deepest emotions to spare loved ones from stories of death and maiming on the job. Director of Emergency Response Jeffrey Van Clief once took his wife to a doctor's appointment at Eighty-sixth Street and Park Avenue. On the way home, a young woman jumped in front of the train. Her legs were cut off. Van Clief told his wife to go up to the mezzanine of the station while he tended to business.

    I had to check the train, help take her out. Unfortunately she passed away on the way to the hospital. Made sure no damage was done to the train. ... Sometimes a body can do a lot of damage to a train. It will rip your pipes out, rip your wires down. ...
    I got everybody's name, I got her age, where she lived at, the cop on the scene, the motorman, the conductor, emergency medical people, what hospital she was going to. It's a big process you're going through. Then you check the car and make sure that everything is okay ... and then you call all this in. Like I say, I was on my way home when this thing happened. I went upstairs, told my wife to give me a towelette, cleaned my hands up.
    I went home and I sit down and I eat. And my wife is staring at me. I say, "What's the matter?"
    She says, "How can you sit there and eat?"
    I say, "Why, what's the matter?"
    She says, "I don't know if you realize what happened."
    "What do you mean? What happened?"
    She says, "A woman got run over, got her legs taken off and you're under the car with her and helping everybody down in the car and you come home and you eat a big meal like that."
    She says, "I think about it and I can't even eat."
    I say, "I'm hungry."
    She says, "Well, is this what you feel?"
    I say, "No, this is part of the job. The first time that this happened if you can remember it was a man that got electrocuted and how I felt when I came home. I felt terrible when I came home."
    Second time I felt a little bit bad but not as worse as the first time. As it went on I got used to it. If you're in the scene, if you're in the area, then it becomes an everyday job. It's part of this job. If you can't take this type of work, leave it.
    The only one that affected me was I had a little boy about twelve years old fall between the cars and take his leg off. That bothered me because I felt that that could have been one of my grandchildren.

    Out of attempts to make sense of death can come the knowledge that makes for safety. Paul Prinzivalli, an instructor in safety and general track duties, uses the story of an accident to remind his workers of the need for constant caution around the trains. Once, he relates, he saw a man rushing for one train bump a man into the path of another train.

    As he nudged him, the train came, he nudged him far enough for the side of the train to hit his head. Boom! It hit his head, he cracked it, blood splattered. He [the man who nudged him] made the local just before the doors closed up, he worked his way in, it pulled out. He didn't even realize he'd killed a man. That man was a DOA. On the platform dead.

    Some of the most memorable stories that transit workers tell are about lives saved--a reminder of the interdependence of total strangers that makes city life civilized. Joseph Tesoriero, a maintenance supervisor, recalls that once he was replacing wooden flooring at a station in Brownsville, Brooklyn, near the end of the New Lots Avenue line, when a train pulled in. At that point on the line, the last car is usually empty, but there were two passengers in the last car: a seated woman and a man standing in front of her. A mugging was in progress.

    Out of the corner of her eye she spotted us, and she started yelling for help. Just as that happened, the doors of the train were closing. We tried to hold the doors--you know, you can't pull the doors back, you can only pull them back so far--and I'm screaming to the conductor, "Open the doors!"
    So this fella that was in the car, he didn't know who we were, whether we were the police, so he just stood, he froze. Because she already had her pocketbook out, and you could see her wallet was open. She was reaching in when she saw us. So she got up, we [got in and] finally grabbed him. We squeezed her out between the doors. And this poor woman, she was scared to death. She was hugging the three of us, like we knew her for life. She was petrified. She told us she was a social worker and she was going to visit somebody. We brought her downstairs, we hailed a cab, and we sent her back to Manhattan.

    Paul Prinzivalli tells of a rescue, performed one night after work, when he convinced a troubled woman that she was not alone in the world.

    I left my office at twelve o'clock midnight. I was on the four-to-twelve shift that time. And I always ride the head car going toward South Ferry because I live in Staten Island. So I'm right in the head car, and we're coming into Franklin Street and I see a shadow leaving the platform limits, like looking out.
    Well, sometimes people do that, and sometimes jumpers do that, you know? All of a sudden, we're only maybe about a hundred feet from the station platform, she just jumps right out in front of us. A woman jumped right in front of us--and I'm there, because I could see it point blank--[the operator] dumped the train [applied the emergency brake]. ... He was very fast, thank God.
    And I'm listening, and I don't hear no noise. See, if the train goes over any objects that are sitting on the rail, you'll hear a little "thp"--like a thump, the vibrations come though--I don't hear nothing, I says, "Thank God."
    So now we're in the station about over three and a half car lengths, so I knocked at the [operator's] door real heavy. ... So I identify myself: "Look, I'm a foreman, stay calm, secure your train." Meaning that he's got to put the hand brakes on. I know he's going to be there a while. I ran over and pulled the emergency alarm. When I did that, I got on the phone, called up and said, "This is Prinzivalli on my way home. We have a person under the train. I don't know if she's living, I don't know if she's dead. Get emergency here right away. And I'll take care of matters until they come." I told the Command Center that. ...
    So, I asked the train operator again, "Control yourself." The train is secured--and I told the Command Center, "Keep the power off on the southbound local and southbound express," because you see when they jump, they keep crawling, if they don't get killed, and touch the third rail. ...
    So I ended up crawling--in my dress clothes, I'll never forget it--I banged my head, I've got blood coming down, crawling underneath, and finally I see this lady, well-dressed, laying in the trough. Now the trough is a drainage area of a type-2 track. She's laying in the middle of the trough, her eyes closed.
    So I went, "Madam, open your eyes please."
    She opened her eyes. ...
    I says, "Madam, do you understand me? Nod your head."
    What I was doing there is to find out if there's any spinal problems. So she nodded her head. Thank God, that means no damage to the neck.
    I says, "Can you move your right hand?" She moved it.
    "Move your left hand." Moved it.
    "Can you raise your right knee?" She raised her right knee. "Raise your left knee."
    "Ahh," I said to myself, "this is a miracle." She landed but didn't get hurt. She got a little dirty and all that. I says, "How do you feel?"
    She says, "Oh, I wish I was dead."
    I says, "Why did you do this?"
    She says, "No one loves me."
    I says, "I love you. Why would I crawl under all these cars? I tell you what: remain where you are. If you have any ideas, discard them from your mind. I'm going to have you removed and you're going to be all right. It was God's fate that you shouldn't go this way. Don't worry."
    So I came back to the station, crawling underneath, I ripped my pants, the train operator told me, "Hey, you got blood."
    I said, "Don't worry about the blood." I look around and the train operator is still a little nervous, and I see the transit cop, a newly appointed transit cop, nice brand-new uniform. I says, "Officer, see the pocketbook laying up against the wall? All right. Train operator, make sure nobody touches that pocketbook. And make sure nobody gets out of the cars. Just tell the passengers to stay calm and everything will be straightened out." There weren't too many people in the train at that hour.
    So I looked at the cop, I says, "Officer, come on down here. Assist me to remove a live human being from the tracks."
    "Who? Me?"
    "Officer, I'm not asking you, I'm telling you: get down here. Give your hat to the train operator and come down here."
    So we crawled under ... and we got in there. I says, "She's OK. You know what we're going to do? You get her under the arms, and I'll get her by the legs, and nice and easy, we'll put her on the ties and then over the rail and then we'll just go along nice and easy, crawling." Three car lengths we were--till we get to the station limits, and then with the assistance of the train operator we get her on the platform, nice and safe, before the ambulance crew came. That's how fast I worked it.
    So we got her on the platform, and when the ambulance crew came, I informed them that ... she did not faint. See, sometimes, people faint and then they misjudge it as a jump. She actually observed the train coming and jumped. "I saw her. I'm a witness, take my name, because she needs medical attention. She needs a lot of help because she's very depressed and she'll do it again if you let her out." I had heard stories about where people were removed from the track and then discharged from the hospital and then two hours later we found out the same party committed suicide, that nobody gave a truthful report on the condition. ...
    So it ended up I gave the train master a full report, everything's back to normal, and I'd missed my boat. I felt raggedy, like I was a homeless person. I was full of grease, my face--I didn't realize how dirty I was because there were no mirrors, you know. My God, when I got home, my face, I had grease here, grease underneath my arm, my pants were ripped, good gabardine.
    My wife said, "What happened?" Because she used to wait up for me when I come home, she was worried: she thought something happened. I didn't get home until after 3:30 in the morning. So I told her the story, we had coffee, I calmed down--I started cooling down a little bit.... The next day I didn't say nothing about it.... Several months went by, and I happened to meet the train master that I dealt with that particular tour. He said, "You, you did a great thing. You got a commendation, didn't you?"
    I said, "No, I didn't get no commendation."
    "That was beyond the scope of duty. You could have ignored it. You were going home."
    "Listen, I don't know about a commendation. I didn't get one."
    "Well," he says, "you know, I got a report that the transit cop got a day off with pay and a citation for being a hero."
    "Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. What did the transit patrolman say?"
    He said, "Well, he was the one that got assistance and removed the person."
    "Well, that's nice," I says. "That's a good morale builder for the transit police. I'm not against that. But to be honest with you, I ordered him to come down and assist me. I'm Supervision, not him.
    So, it's OK. Another couple weeks went by, and I got a commendation, beautiful write-up--with the truth in it.
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