Hell on Wheels
[Editor’s Note: This is just one of thirteen essays in our newly-released collection of first-hand reports about the reality of race, Face to Face with Race.]
I was born in Hungary, from which I escaped in 1982 at age 18. I settled in New York in 1984 with the intention of becoming an artist, but after nearly a decade of struggle I realized I might never make it. In 1993 I enrolled in the City University of New York, while I supported myself for four years as a conductor on New York City subway trains. There can be only a few jobs that so quickly introduce an immigrant to the realities of multi-racialism. Beneath the streets of New York I have seen and done things that very few whites will—I hope—ever see or do.
Conductors operate the doors of trains, make announcements, give information to the passengers, and oversee the safety of people on trains and platforms. Most of the time they stay in a small compartment, or cab, in the middle car of the train. There are many cities that operate subways with only a driver, but New York City is a challenging place, where putting only one person on the train would expose the system to violence and chaos.
Attending college while working under ground is not a dream come true, but conductors are well paid. The starting salary is $30-40,000 a year, with a top salary of $40-50,000, which can be reached in three years. Conductors who become drivers can earn $50-70,000 a year, depending on overtime. The high salaries are a result of the monopoly the Transit Authority (TA) enjoys over city transportation. The union is a mostly-black workforce, which cannot be tampered with by any politician who wants a career in New York. Even as far back as the 1930s, the all-powerful TA got through the depression without laying off a single employee.
I went to a high school in China Town to take the civil service exam for the job. Once inside, I noticed that I was the only white person there. Except for an Asian-Indian woman who sat in front of me, I saw only black people, even though there were at least 40 of us taking the test. “How come I’m the only white person here?” I wondered. “Don’t white Americans want a job that pays $40-60,000 a year and doesn’t even require a high-school education?” Perhaps in answer, one of the blacks in front of me turned around and gave me a bizarre, hate-filled look—a look I would often encounter in the years ahead.
The test was easy—surprisingly so—and I wondered if it was possible for anyone over the age of six not to pass it. I clearly remember one of the questions; I find it impossible to forget:
If you are a bus driver and find that a kid jumped onto the back of the bus, traveling on the outside, what are you going to do?
a) I will suddenly brake, then accelerate, repeating this process until the kid falls off and learns a lesson.
b) I will just ignore the kid and keep on driving as if unaware of the problem.
c) I will stop the bus and personally make sure that the kid gets off.
As part of the test, we also had to find various places in the city, such as the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the United Nations, with the help of a city map provided to us. This is similar to having Parisians find the Eiffel tower with the help of a map. Needless to say, the test went well and I congratulated myself for having settled in a country where well-paying jobs are so easy to get.
I began learning about the reality of America’s racial dilemma right at the beginning of my training program at the Transit Authority. There was a huge black fellow in our class who had the habit of physically bumping into me at every opportunity. I could feel that he did this intentionally, trying to make it hurt more than an accidental collision would, but not enough to make it look like an assault.
The class consisted of about 80 people, with only a half dozen whites. Most of the training was given by an old white veteran who kept telling us funny and scary stories about transit workers on duty. We were told to watch out for assaults by passengers. “Every one of you will be spat at,” he insisted repeatedly, “I guarantee it.” After the class training, which lasted about four weeks, we spent two weeks on trains, operating under the supervision of experienced conductors. Right on the first day, a strong black man who stood on the platform, whose right arm was bigger than both of my thighs put together, made a sudden attempt to punch me in the face as I leaned out the window to observe the platform. The conductor who supervised me assured me that such things are very dangerous and happen every day.
Also during the break-in period, I saw a horrible incident in the East New York section of Brooklyn. A horde of black teenagers descended upon a black boy who was sitting quietly by himself. Within seconds, they beat him from head to toe, then quickly fled before the doors closed. We tried to talk to the boy, who was in bad shape, asking him if he wanted medical help or the police. When he said he didn’t want either, we asked about the attack. It turned out he was on his way to the first day on a job. The gang beat him up because they didn’t want him to work.
After the break-in period, I was qualified as a conductor and began to operate without supervision. It didn’t take long for our instructor’s prediction to come true. I was conducting a D train in the Bronx when I noticed a large group of black men gathered on the platform, just outside the conductor’s window. I felt their threatening presence instinctively, but the rules require that the conductor lean out the window and look down the platform in both directions before he closes the doors. I had no choice but to open my window and take the risk. As soon as I opened it, one of the men spat right into my eyes. I was wearing safety goggles but still got some of the saliva on my skin—regulations require that goggles be worn primarily to protect against passenger assaults.
Throughout the four years I spent as a conductor, blacks and Latinos would hide behind posts or other cover and spit at me—with astonishing power and accuracy. Other times they would throw things at me, try to punch me, or yell vile and sometimes inarticulate things at me.
One attack involved a black man of about thirty, who threw a large, glass bottle at my face. I managed to close the window just as the bottle struck—it hit with such force, that pieces of glass stuck in the acrylic window of my cab all the way to the end of the trip. As we came into the terminal, I spotted a black supervisor on the platform and couldn’t help asking: “What am I supposed to do when someone attacks me as I operate, and the attack is really nasty?” “If you have an injury, you pull the cord and call command to send for the police and the ambulance,” was the reply. “But what if you have no injuries? What if he almost killed you but you lucked out?” I continued. “Then there is no problem,” said the supervisor, “you keep on going.”
On another occasion, when conducting a “D” train in the Bronx, a boy in a crowd of high-school students threw a heavy stone right at my face with great accuracy and force. I instinctively held up my hand to shield my face and was injured severely enough to go to the emergency room. At the hospital, the nurse told me that a bus driver, also injured in an assault, had just been treated and released a couple of hours earlier.
When operating during the “school hours,” the early afternoon when students come home from public schools, rowdy students—none of whom was ever white or Oriental—would routinely disable the trains. They would break windows, pull the emergency brake, and tear open the seats so they could cut out electric switches. If the train crew couldn’t fix the problem, we would discharge the passengers and transfer the train to the storage yard for repair. When we discharged trains, black and Latino passengers would threaten violence, accusing us of deliberately disabling trains so that we could “go home early.”
My ordeal did not end with the work-day. The commute home was just as agonizing as time on the job. In the late hours, when I usually made my way home, the trains were largely bereft of normal, working people. Often there were gangs of “youths” roaming the trains, walking from car to car, jumping on seats, starting fights, and harassing passengers. I often locked myself in the conductor’s cab, as I did on the job.
One night, after work, as I was climbing the steps from the subway platform in my own neighborhood, a tall black man came running the other way and crashed into me. He was so badly dressed he looked like a bum. He was carrying a box of Chinese take-out food, which he dropped when he slammed into me. There went his dinner. Although the collision was entirely his fault, he began threatening me, cursing me, and demanding money. I looked around to see if there was anybody else in the station—not that one can expect help from whites in situations like this—but there was no one.
I don’t know how long we argued, but it seemed like an eternity. Keeping him from attacking me took all the energy I had. I finally managed to break away and run home. Exhausted, I collapsed on the floor and began crying, in a way I don’t remember doing since I was a small child. What broke me down was not so much this particular incident but the sum of all the assaults and humiliation that took place before it—the attacks, the spitting, the name calling, and, ultimately, my complete inability to do anything about it. Violent self-defense would certainly cost any white transit worker his job.
My job offered me the opportunity to see parts of New York whites seldom see. The United States may be the only country that has never been attacked, but still has places that look as though they went through a war. This once-glamorous cultural capital has neighborhoods, the size of cities, that look like Stalingrad or Yokohama right after a carpet bombing.
The job also acquainted me with blacks I would never otherwise have known. My black colleagues never seemed upset by the behavior of our “customers,” nor did they try to avoid working in horrible neighborhoods. One reason was that although they were not entirely safe, they did not face attacks of the same severity or frequency, let alone attacks with racial overtones.
In their off hours, the blacks often held little parties in our filthy, stuffy, underground crew rooms, where they celebrated birthdays or Kwanzaa with cheap cake and fast food. Non-blacks were ordered to leave the room before such events; most blacks believed that segregation on equal terms was better than integration.
The blacks also talked about what a scandal it was that the schools do not teach that Jesus Christ and the ancient Egyptians were black. Every day, during lunch breaks, I witnessed heated debates about such topics. I also learned that anything wrong in black neighborhoods is the fault of whites. My colleagues believed that slavery caused illegitimacy and welfare dependency, and that the government simply refuses to spend money on neighborhoods where they live. “When are they going to take the money and clean up the Bronx, Brooklyn, and upper Manhattan?” they would ask.
Whites never engaged in open debate about such things, preferring to scribble their opinions on the walls of the bathrooms provided for transit workers. “Kill all Niggers,” was the harshest sentiment I ever saw, along with such admonitions as “Do your country a favor, kill a liberal!” Working underground seemed to degrade everyone.
In addition to the pressures of the job, I was forced to put up with the anti-white atmosphere of City College. One of the most anti-white teachers was an otherwise intelligent English professor named Hannah Rogers. After a few classes filled with insults to whites, Prof. Rogers made a little speech that went something like this:
‘In the beginning, before the white man came along, the colored peoples who once owned this land lived here peacefully, cohabiting with each other, with nature, and with the animals. Then came the Europeans, who killed the people and the animals, and destroyed nature. Now, however, the people of color are beginning to reclaim the land that belongs to them, and there will come a day when the colored masses rise up, and the white people who managed to enslave every other race will be destroyed. The land will be taken back so that the people to whom it belongs can return to living in peace and harmony with each other, and nature. I only hope,’ she concluded, ‘that when that day comes, the whites who were good will be spared.’
I was offended and shocked, but I learned something I had never suspected. I always thought “liberals” are the way they are because they live in white ghettos and don’t realize what is happening around them. Not so. At least some of them believe a civil war is on the horizon. They hope for it, they encourage it, and may even expect to gain from it.
East New York
Perhaps the most dreadful incident of my career at the TA was in the summer of 1993, while I was working on the A line. This is one of the lines that goes into the worst neighborhood of the city, the East New York section of Brooklyn. I never operated there for a single day without being assaulted or humiliated in some way.
On one hot afternoon, as I opened the doors at the Ralph Avenue station, I heard what sounded like gunshots. They were a lot quieter than in movies, and at first I thought it was just some noise coming from the equipment. However, I was unnerved to see a couple of blacks, wearing face masks, rush out of the last car, up the steps, and disappear.
There was no way to misunderstand the situation; an incident had taken place in the last car, and the rules required the conductor to investigate. No experienced conductor would ever go back to the last car in a situation like that, no matter what the rules say, but I was not very experienced. After making some announcements to the passengers, I gathered all my courage and walked back to the last car, pretending to be calm.
There were people standing in every door shouting about the delay. In the last car, I found a man lying on the floor with bloody wounds in his legs. I used my portable radio to tell the train operator what had happened, and began to walk back to the center of the train to my position. The train operator made a loud announcement requesting that all passengers leave the train, and I was to make sure that all the cars were empty before we closed the doors to wait for the police.
I was the only white person in the station. As the passengers got off, they stayed on the platform and began to form a row close to the train. I walked toward my position, fenced in by the train on the left and by the row of people on the right. I passed three cars and had two more to go, to reach the only position from which I could close the doors. I was supposed to walk all the way to the front, passing all ten cars, to make sure that no passengers remained in them. I sensed that I could not make it to the front of the train, and tried only to get back to my position.
As I advanced, the people seemed to move closer to the train, gradually narrowing the path until it became too narrow for me to pass without touching them. “Who got shot, black or white?” I heard a young man shout. Then I saw hands reaching out to grab me and fists aimed to punch me. Just as I was about to pass the third car, one of the punches hit my shoulder. At this point I realized there was a real chance that I could be—well—lynched before the police arrived.
My heart pounding, I jumped into the car and began running inside the train, trying to reach my position. I no longer cared about any passengers remaining in the cars; I just ran. There were two more cars to cross, each separated by a pair of heavy, steel doors that open slowly. I wrenched them open with all my might. Meanwhile, the crowd seemed about to follow me into the train. I finally reached my position and, without any announcements or sticking my head out to observe the platform, shoved my key in and hit the door close buttons. The lights indicated that half the doors had not closed, meaning that people were holding them. When this happens, normally the conductor opens them again to let people in or out, but I refused to open up. After several tense minutes, people stopped holding the doors and they finally closed.
I hid in my cab for perhaps as long as half an hour until the police finally arrived. “What kind of people did you see running in masks?” asked a black bureaucrat dressed in a business suit. I refused to answer, for fear that mentioning blacks could get me in trouble. He seemed to be familiar with this attitude on the part of whites, because he calmly and understandingly said, “They were black, right?” He nodded his head in answer to his own question, and made a note on a piece of paper.
Later, as we were slowly moving into the service yard, accompanied by a police escort, I reflected on the incident. I recalled how many times I have heard liberals claiming that 99 percent of the blacks who live in these neighborhoods are “hard working and law abiding,” with only a tiny one percent who cause trouble. Perhaps I’m prejudiced, but among the hundreds of people on that platform who looked as though they were ready to lynch me, I didn’t see many who looked hard working or law abiding.
During the same summer, there was another incident, while passing Kennedy Airport. I heard something that sounded like an explosion. I investigated but didn’t find anything that could have caused it, though the sound seemed to come from nearby. Then, as we pulled into the next station, I was notified over the radio that my train operator, a black woman, had had her windshield broken out by a stone block, the size of a child’s head, thrown from somewhere on the airport’s property. I then realized, that what I had heard was the sound of another stone smashing between the two cars, just missing my cab window. One of these rocks is heavy enough to kill a person easily. The train operator was lucky to be alive.
It is hard to believe, but I worked for two more years in the subway before I finally turned my back on that hellish job, in the summer of 1995. I now live in a privately policed community in Manhattan. I ride the subways only if an emergency requires it.