'Tunnel Vision'

Ann Tinkham


      It was the eyes that he couldn't shake—the look in her eyes before she jumped that led to a daily nightcap of Xanax and Bourbon. When it wore off, Lenny awoke with a pounding heart to dark, watery eyes asking for help when it was already too late. That was the kicker—the eyes pleading for help when they knew it was all over. Lenny respected people who left without a trace. But the jumpers left a trace in the minds of drivers like Lenny.

      In the subway business, they called subway jumping a PUT incident. Person under train. Lenny thought that the term was too neat for what actually occurred. Person under train sounded as if a person were merely—oops—stuck under the train, like a pant leg or an overcoat, or even a briefcase or an umbrella. Excuse me sir, can you please move your train off my foot? That's what a PUT incident sounded like to Lenny. If it were up to him, it would be called a GSOT. Guts splattered over tracks. In his sleep-deprived stupor after his PUT incident, he thought about proposing a name change during a weekly transit meeting, but he bit his tongue for fear of losing his job.

      The guys talked, and everyone knew that management put drivers under watch after a PUT incident. If the driver seemed to have some screws loose, the management team forced him to take temporary unpaid leave, which often led to permanent unpaid leave—AKA termination. Lenny thought about the unfairness of the double whammy. First he had to watch as some hard-luck case jumped in front of his train. Then he had to pretend that nothing happened for fear of management “expressing concern.”

      Lenny had heard from the guys that the late night/early morning shifts had the highest rates of PUTs. But as a newbie, he had no choice but to drive those shifts. His buddy, Cal, told him that early Monday morning was the worst. Folks dreaded the workweek ahead and saw no way out. Lenny understood that feeling, but never saw jumping into an oncoming train as the solution.

      After it happened, the Metro Area Transit (MAT) psychiatrist told him it was normal for PUT victims to undergo a mild acute psycho-physiological reaction a up to five weeks after the event occurred, with increased prolactin levels and sleep disturbance. He said that acute reactions were temporary and not typically linked to long-term sick leave, which was frequently determined by a high cortisol level and a high depression score. Lenny didn't really catch what should be happening to him other than the sleep problems. The shrink told him he was suffering from PUT-related PTSD. The letters sounded too tidy for what he felt like inside. He felt like a train had run over him.

      The reason he was sent to the MAT psychiatrist was that after the incident, his trains were running 20 minutes late. His boss pulled him into a closed-door meeting in a hot box office smelling of fire-breathing dragon coffee breath and told him it just wouldn't do. He sat on the edge of his desk with his arms crossed and said, “If you can't run on time, we'll have to reassign you.”

      The thing was, although Lenny wouldn't say this to his boss, he now had the feeling that everyone on the platform was getting ready to jump. So, he kept watch over people on the platform—imagining that the punk girl, the Rastafarian, the bent over old man, the teen in black leather were each about to jump. He pulled the brake each time he anticipated a jump. But rather than telling his boss he was busy saving lives, Lenny said, “I'll run on time, sir.”

      He was the last person to see her alive, and now he carried a part of her with him wherever he went. The worst part was that he lost a part of himself when she jumped and couldn't get it back. Her eyes asked for help, for him to stop the train and save her. But he couldn't.

      “Go back to sleep, Lenny. Please go back to sleep,” his wife would say when she looked over and saw his shining eyes in the darkness.

      “I could have helped if I had known. I just didn't know.”

      “It's not your fault, Lenny. Now close your eyes.” He tried, but the jumper's eyes prevented him from closing his.

      “It's not fair,” Lenny said.

       “No, it's not. But going over and over it will not change it. Did you ever think that perhaps she wanted to go? Who knows? Maybe you did her a favor. What if she had terminal cancer or lost everything she had in the world? Maybe she was a criminal on the run.”

      “She wasn't a criminal.”

  “How do you know? You didn't know her from Eve.”

  “I could tell by her eyes.”

      “Oh Len, please.”

      The jumper's eyes locked onto his, and then she leapt. It was 3:03 am when Lenny cranked the brakes and screamed into the intercom. “Woman Under! Woman Under!” Had he known she was going to jump, he could've stopped the train in time.

      Later, Lenny was reprimanded by his supervisor. “The code for Man, not Woman, Under is 12-9. You don't say ‘Man Under' when someone is down for the count.” Lenny felt that he was lucky to have produced some words—any words, let alone remember some stupid code meaning someone was being run over by a train.

      “I'll remember next time,” Lenny promised.


      “She would still be alive,” he said to his coworkers before the weekly meeting.

      “Yeah, and then she'd find another train to finish the job,” said a seasoned driver with a mouthful of jelly donut. “Forget about it, Lenny.”

      “How can you tell? I mean what are the signs that someone is about to jump?”

      “Who knows? If people want to die, they'll find a way. You can't analyze every person on the platform. It will drive you nuts; then you'll end up a jumper—like the driver a few years back who couldn't take it anymore and jumped in front of another driver's train. Can you imagine doing that to one of us? I mean, hell, you can OD, shoot or gas yourself, call that guy, Keborkan, whatever,” said a driver devouring a glazed donut. “You know, if you wanna do it.”

      “The name's Kevorkian. He's in prison. Not much good he's going to do anyone there,” said a guy delicately eating a donut with sprinkles.

      “Whatever. I'm sure there are Keborkan types out there that will help you if the price is right. Anyway, why people choose the subway, I'll never understand. Why make a driver do your job for you? Be a man about it. Hear what I'm sayin'?” said the glazed donut guy, stuffing his donut into his mouth and chasing it with bitter coffee. The other guys nodded and then shook their heads in disgust. Lenny's head was frozen stiff, like the rest of his body. He stared at the Driver Appreciation bulletin board, blinking to wash away the tears that were forming and not cooperating with his attempted stiff upper lip. His lip was anything but stiff now; it was starting to twitch and tremble.

      Lenny was known for eating three or four donuts at the weekly Transit meeting, but today looking at the boxes of bear claws, jelly donuts, glazed donuts, cinnamon buns, and danishes turned his stomach.

      “Len,” Cal was offering him a bear claw.

      “Not hungry.” Cal gave him a “what the fuck” glance and jammed the entire pastry in his mouth for a cheap laugh. Lenny shook his head and walked toward the lined up meeting chairs.

      The director of the Transit Authority kicked off the meeting, “We've got a lot to cover, and so I'll do Q&A at the end.   You all have undoubtedly heard that we had another PUT incident on the green line at South Street. Lenny here was the operator that morning. That's 34 this year and we haven't even made it through the holidays. Jesus. Usually have several that celebrate Hanukah, Christmas, and the New Year with a leap.” People changed positions in their stiff chairs and cleared their throats. Lenny felt as if he might have to run out of the meeting so the other guys wouldn't see him if he broke up.

      “The Commission is suggesting soothing music for suicide prevention. They say it works on animals. Not sure how they've tested that one. Elevator music in chicken coops? Mozart in pig pens.” The meeting attendees chuckled between donut bites and coffee gulps. “The Commission is open to suggestions. If you have an idea, drop it into the anonymous suggestion box on your way out. They're also talking about putting up safety fences. Hey, we really are setting up a subterranean barnyard down here.” Everyone laughed but Lenny. All the other guys could take it; what was wrong with him? Why was he so weak? Why should he care so much about a jumper?

      One driver had 23 man unders; another 18; still another 5. After it happened to Lenny, Eighteen told him, “You get used to it after awhile. My first three were the hardest. Then after that, I figured I did them a favor.” Twenty-three agreed with him by nodding and picking his teeth with a toothpick. He added, “Don't take this the wrong way, but after you've had enough of them, they're like bugs on a windshield. Nothing a little wiper fluid can't take care of.” Eighteen and Twenty-three chuckled, but Five said under his breath he was looking into another line of work—one that didn't involve enclosed spaces, speeding trains, and suicides.

      As Lenny sat in the meeting, his mind wandered. He wanted to put something in the suggestion box so that others could learn from his experience. He jotted his idea down on notebook paper and tore it off, careful not to show it to anyone. Cal elbowed him to see it and played at swiping it from him, but Lenny quickly stuffed it in his pocket. On his way out, he dropped it into the tight slot of the suggestion box.

      Several weeks after the meeting in which Lenny contributed to the suggestion box, he and his lunchbox and thermos were cornered by members of the MAT management team, who called him into the conference room. A manager held up the suggestion and asked if it was his. Lenny moved closer to make sure.

      “Yes, sir, it is.” He was surprised that they were following up with him, given that the suggestion box was anonymous. But then it struck him that they might ask him to elaborate on his suggestion—give them ideas for making it happen. With his contribution, he was now being sought out by the management team.

      “Lenny, we're going to have to ask you to take a leave of absence.”

      “What? Why?” Lenny's heart started to beat wildly. “I thought this was an anonymous suggestion box.”

      “Yes, but when we read this, we had to intervene for legal reasons. Plus, we don't want an attitude problem spreading to other drivers.” Lenny felt shame wash over him; they knew now that he didn't cut the mustard.

      “OK.” Lenny and his lunchbox started to walk out. Then he turned around and said, “Could I have my suggestion back?”

      “Certainly.” The manager handed Lenny his slip of paper. As he walked out, he reread his words: We need to provide free bags on the platforms to cover jumpers' eyes.