Our Subway Fire


A few nights ago I made the mistake of looking at Facebook right before bed. The first thing I saw was an article my brother shared about the New York City subways, which are currently plagued by delays and breakdowns. He was mentioned and quoted. This is what I read:

[my brother] likes to recall his childhood experiences riding the subway in the 1970s, such as the time he, his mother and his sister had to escape a smoke-filled, burning 6 train and walk along the tracks until they were able to emerge at 77th Street. (“We took some oxygen from the ambulance, which was very exciting,” [my brother] recalled. “Then we just walked over and took another line home.”)

My blood pressure skyrocketed. I was already under the covers, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep, not after reading that. My brother is an editor at that paper and his Facebook feed is read by his co-workers and employees as well as my family and many mutual friends, but I couldn’t stop myself, I had to reply. (I can’t get the exact words because it’s all been deleted, but I’ll try)

I wrote: That fire was terrifying. The passengers crushed through the cars, which were so packed, we had to walk on the benches. There was a man yelling: move faster! I was sure the car behind us was already on fire.

I was six and my brother was nine. We crept down the bench alongside my mother who was packed in with the rest of the adults, shuffling too slowly through the cars as they filled with smoke. It was rush hour. We had been to the pediatrician on the Upper East Side and were headed home to Park Slope, Brooklyn, an hour ride away. My adrenaline surged as I typed another reply on my brother’s page.

We had to walk a long way to the station on the tracks in the dark. I fell and almost touched the third rail and a man grabbed me and yelled at mom like it was her fault. The station was filled with smoke and everyone was screaming as we escaped up to the street. There were fire-trucks everywhere. We were coughing so they gave us oxygen. There was a reason we had to take another train. I’ll message you! There was a reason we couldn’t get a ride.

Then, with my heart pounding and my hands sweating, I opened the message app and wrote:

Mom couldn’t call Dad because he was with [his girlfriend]. He wouldn’t give her the number. I can’t believe your memory of that fire is so benign. WTF?

I was thankful I have a sleeping pill scrip. Because I needed one. My whole body buzzed as I lay awake outraged that my mother survived that with two young children and that when we were finally safe and out of the station, there was no way for her to call our dad. They weren’t even separated yet, but my father was taking a night with his girlfriend and my mother wasn’t allowed to call.

I have lots of memories of my parents fighting – horrible fighting – of their announcement of the separation and him leaving, then the divorce, then the marriage to that same girlfriend he was with the night our subway caught fire. I never know when one of these will surface and upset me or what my reaction will be. My brother’s gloss-over undid me.

The next morning, I thought: did I post something crazy on my brother’s page? I didn’t out my dad – all I did was describe the fire correctly – it felt like we were going to die. I can still clearly see the track I almost touched and the live 3rd rail, because everything else was black. I fell and my hands hit that surface between the tracks where rats scurry, but it was more alarming when the stranger grabbed me around my waist. I dangled in his one arm as he berated my mom. He carried me several more yards.

I turned on my phone and there was a message from my brother. He lives in New York, so he’d already been awake for at least three more hours. This was our exchange:

Brother: Should I have told the interviewer that? The story was about the subway, not mom and dad. I told her tons more stuff than she used. Sheesh. I deleted it.

Me: I know. Sorry, I was about to go to bed and read that. I’ll delete my replies. But it was a terrifying fire.

Brother: I deleted the whole post, and the comments that followed.

Me: You can post it. I won’t comment.

Brother: It’s gone! Mommy started attacking daddy. It was insane.

Me: Really??

Brother: YES

 Me: To you or daddy?

Brother: To all the readers on Facebook.


There was something about this that thrilled me – my mother having the same response and going off on Facebook. I wish I could have read what she’d written, seen if my father had replied too, but the whole drama was erased. Also my brother and I share this history and something about our exchange made it seem like we were close. As kids, we were bystanders, conspirators even. Maybe that’s why I was so roiled? My brother’s quote was a cover up that spared my father who should have fucking been there to get us, or at least not with his girlfriend in an apartment my mother wasn’t allowed to call.

I called my mother. “I’m so glad it wasn’t just me that got upset. What did you write?”

“That your father couldn’t be reached to help us. It was horrible. And we didn’t just get on another train, we had to walk twenty blocks to the IND.”

I thought about what that must have been like. I have two kids and a husband who works out of town. I’ve been in that place where you realize there’s no use calling because the emergency is happening and there’s nothing he can do. My mother was only 35 years old. Twenty blocks in the dark with two kids who just escaped a fire – that must have been hell. And then getting back on a Subway and riding all the way home to Brooklyn. I don’t even remember that part. I guess my brother doesn’t either. The memory ends for me at the fire trucks, with the firemen who gave us oxygen as we sat on the curb thankful to be outside and alive. That was when my mother couldn’t call my dad for help. We were on our own, the three of us, from that moment on.

“What set you off?” I asked, thinking it wasn’t like her to go after my father about shit that went down in the 70’s. She knows it’s my brother’s feed, that my father will read it along with the newspaper staff. I didn’t even cross that line.

“I saw what you wrote,” she said and then paused. “Your brother made me promise not to tell you this.”

“What? Now you have to tell me.”

“Your father replied to your post.”

I raced through the words I’d typed – only stuff about the fire. Except for: There was a reason we had to take another train. I’ll message you! There was a reason we couldn’t get a ride. But would my father even remember why he wasn’t there?

“What did he say? I won’t tell him you told me. I swear.”

“Your father wrote: ‘Glad I missed that.’”

My brother deleted my mother’s tirade before my father could see it. “Why does he always protect him?” my mother complained.

“Dad doesn’t even remember,” I said, laughing almost, because it’s so absurd. Here’s this event — a big event — a subway fire — that my mother, my brother, and I still vividly recall. The details of our memories vary — maybe brother did think the ambulances were exciting — he was a boy who loved trucks and trains. Maybe he doesn’t remember my fall on the tracks because that was between my mother, my brusque burly savior, and me. My father, who’d taken the night off from parenting, doesn’t even know any of it occurred. Because he wasn’t there.


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