Danger On The Subway

In the spring of 1966, as a naïve, energetic nineteen-year-old woman, I placed my life in extreme danger without even the faintest idea of what I was doing. Strong-willed and stubborn, I was used to setting my will to achieve a goal and pushing aside every barrier that came my way. I always considered myself a spiritual person, but when it came to making decisions and achieving my goals, I depended on my own will power. I sometimes followed the decision with a prayer, but it was always an afterthought, secondary in importance.

In my sophomore year at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, I decided I needed to get a specialty education so that I could begin working at a good job as soon as I finished college. I chose nursing and selected Columbia University in New York City. I could graduate with an RN and BS. Saying a tearful good-bye to my then boyfriend, Barry, I left the security of small town Oneonta and traveled to New York City for an admittance interview. I had never been to the big city and didn’t know what to expect. I set my will, braved buses and subways and arrived at the school in the afternoon.

The interview the next day went well and I decided this was the next step I would take in my life. I would transfer to Columbia Presbyterian Nursing School in the fall. That night I became homesick for all that was familiar, especially Barry. I got out the bus and subway schedules and realized if I left the dorm at 3:30am, I could get a 5:00am bus out of Grand Central Station and be back with Barry by 10:00am. The next available bus to Oneonta would arrive in the evening. I set my will; I was getting on that earlier bus.

I got up at 3:00am, quickly packed and quietly crept down to the front entrance of the dorm. The way was barred by a big security guard who was sound asleep in a chair immediately in front of the door.

He woke with a start as I tried to exit, took a moment to focus his eyes on me, and finally said gruffly, “Where do you think you’re going, young lady?”

I politely explained my plans to him, “I take a subway to Harlem, then transfer and take a subway to Grand Central.”

A look of alarm came across his face. “I can’t let you out of these doors!” was his urgent reply. “You’re risking your life going to Harlem in the middle of the night!”

“You can’t stop me!” was my stubborn reply. “I’m a guest here, not a student.” I stood there resolute.

To my surprise, his eyes filled with tears as he looked at me and said, “I’m afraid for your life. Please let me say a prayer for you.” He took my hands and said a fervent prayer for my protection. My will was so set, however, that I hardly heard his prayer.

I pushed open the door and set out into the night. The early morning air was cool and I zipped my coat up higher. I got on the subway at 168th St. and got off at Harlem. As soon as I exited the train and stepped onto the litter-strewn platform, the enormity of my mistake hit me. With growing panic, I looked around as the train sped away. Not only was I the only white person down there, but I was also the only female. There were no police. I later learned that the situation in Harlem in the mid 60’s was so dangerous that no policeman, regardless of race, would take the subway night shift in the section I was in. I had always had a deep respect for Afro-Americans, but the situation I had put myself in was definitely dangerous.

A nearby group of young gang members turned around to gawk at me, obviously taken aback by the audacity – or maybe they felt insanity – of this young woman who had just entered their dark world. A pair of drunken men swayed back and forth passing a bottle between them. As if that wasn’t enough, I even noticed a young man sitting on a bench injecting something into his arm.

To my horror I realized that my own will power was not going to be enough for this nightmare. I stood frozen with fear, my legs suddenly feeling unsteady beneath me.

Then my mother’s words came to me, “When you’re afraid, just repeat the 23rd Psalm and it will give you courage.” In a quiet but urgent voice, I began, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want…” I repeated these soothing words as I walked past five gang members with knives in their hands, past rowdy drunks who stumbled across my path and past a desperate-looking man shaking so violently he could barely stand. I repeated, “Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me…” as I climbed stairs filled with the stench of urine. At the top of the stairs a young man almost knocked me over as he ran past, trying to get away from a second man who was pursuing him. I crossed platforms and, while I waited for the next train, it felt to me that I had an invisible shield of protection around me, a loving good Shepherd that was bringing me back to safety.

Once back in secure surroundings, I felt the full impact of what had just happened to me. Tears welled up in my eyes. I knew that I could never go back to my old way of being. Asking for God’s protection and guidance in any situation had become more important than setting my own will. I had learned to trust in God’s protection and plan for me as the most important priority in my life. On that dark and gloomy subway on an early spring morning, God, the infinite presence of love, had become primary rather than secondary in my life.

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