Three years ago I began writing down my memories and experiences in the American south as advised by my colleagues at Ch12 WDEF News in Chattanooga, as well as close friends.
In this second excerpt of six from my debut book "Through Irish Eyes," I refer to my time living in New York City in the summer of 2011. A period when we Celtic Tiger Kids were fleeing Ireland by the thousands with no jobs and no opportunities as the economy crashed and university tuition fees rose.
Many who left that summer never came back and others went on their J1 summer visas knowing they would be staying on illegally in the US once that summer ended.
Chapter 3: The New World
Somewhere in middle Manhattan in the intense heat of June, an elderly wrinkled Hispanic woman shuffled into our subway car at a generic white tiled platform. She had a walking aid and oxygen mask and moved slowly in pain. Tanned with tightly combed white hair, dressed in a pale cream hospital gown fighting back tears of discomfort.
She gingerly edged her way into the middle of the crowded train. No one moved, no one stood up to give her a seat, many pushed their magazines, newspapers and Kindles further into their self-absorbed Ray-Ban faces. Others reached for their phones and iPod’s adjusting the volume louder. It was sick and sad. I gave her my seat; she nodded, smiled and carefully sat down.
After a few more stops she began to cough heavily, wheezing deeply and forcing the mask closer to help her aging lungs. No one looked up, no one wanted to help, no one wanted to care. As the train hurtled from stop to stop heading north to Astoria the temperature began to rise and the indifference spread.
As the train swayed so did the woman, falling forward onto the ground in front of dozens of us. Guess what? You’re right, indifference, once again and passengers looking the other way. I gave her my arm and she stood up and slipped, almost falling again.
I glanced around quickly hoping someone would help both of us now. Still nothing.
When the subway stopped, I ran out shouting at a cop to come help. He glanced up from his phone saying, “Calm down, it’s not our problem, they can deal with it at the next stop.”
I looked back and the doors were closing, the train churned onwards. Demanding of this indifferent cop and the ticket booth to call ahead to have an ambulance ready to help her, I was met with ambivalence and doubt in the eyes of all. When did we lose our desire to give a damn about others?
That was one of many bizarre subway experiences. Sometime in the middle of August on a morning commute heading down to the Lower East Side, I felt sure my life was going to end. An elderly man wearing a long leather trench coat and sunglasses starting shouting about Jesus in our carriage. It started off relatively calmly and no one noticed or seemed affected. He stood on his own near the middle doors bellowing out psalms.
After maybe a minute or so he started to get in people’s faces moving throughout the crowded morning workflow screaming and spitting about salvation. At some point, he changed the topic from faith to racism: “You white folks never had to suffer like me, you all need to die for what you have done ... you don’t understand, you don’t care ... Look at me, all of you, look at me!”
We all did the opposite, looking away to empty windows and worn flip-flops. My sister and I met eyes and I saw the fear in mine reflect back in the panic of hers. As the man moved slowly around gesticulating wildly, I saw the bulge of a small handgun protrude through his jacket. My eyes were fixated on this gun, thinking, right this is it. It’s been a wonderful 22 years of life but now I will die on this subway, a victim to a lunatic amongst 25 strangers.
All around me stood mostly white middle-class couples and businessmen, worried looks on their faces as our potential killer stalked patiently around the middle of the car. His voice becoming an almighty piercing flow of emotion, anger and angst.
To my left was a very tall clean-shaven stockbroker type who was using his suitcase as a shield to protect those of us behind him. To my immediate right were two older ladies who had started to cry, sitting their heads in their hands sobbing.
Standing behind my sister and I was a couple. A short Italian-American middle-aged man and his tall skinny Latina wife, both in their mid-40s. He reached out slowly to my sister and patted her on the arm as once again the crazed screamer circled the center of what could be our collective coffin.
I stared straight at the middle-aged man who was shorter than I, maybe 5’2’, buff, receding hair, anger in his tightened fists; he murmured under his breath, very quickly to both of us and the stockbroker, “If he shoots us, we rush him together, I’m not dying today.”
The subway ground to a halt as we entered a station somewhere near 60th street and then our capturer shouted one last quote from the Bible and ran out the middle door pushing people aside trying to enter.
We all exhaled and held each other. Nothing was said, no applause, no response from anyone on that car, we all pretended it didn’t happen because for those few minutes everything flashed before our eyes. My brain was a series of darting worries:
What if he shoots my sister and not me? What if he takes us all hostage? Where are we on the subway map to get to the nearest hospital? How many bodies can a bullet shoot through at close range? How many people are between me and this man at all times? Would they be able to fly our bodies home to Ireland? How would mam and dad deal with this? Why did this nut case choose our carriage? Are we being punished?
The stop after, we exited and rushed up to the sunlight or the little of it that crept around monstrous skyscrapers. I never thought that a Starbucks cafe could look so delightful. I gulped in air and looked at my sister, we didn’t exchange words on the issue, we just went to work, we could go to work, we were alive for another day for another chance for some other reason.
For more information on the author: www.jamespmahon.com
Through Irish Eyes is available in Kindle form on Amazon.
It is available for international order from Book Hub Publishing.
This article was submitted to the IrishCentral contributors network by a member of the global Irish community. To become an IrishCentral contributor click here.