19 May, 2008

Risk Everything All the Time, Part 1

So, it's late on Monday evening and I’m shuffling through Jersey City to the Grove Street PATH station. Following a bit of work I’ve stopped for dinner and vigorous dialogue with a long-absent and dear friend with whom I can unself-consciously bring up kink and Kafka in the same breath. By this hour my constitution is propped up with a surfeit of bizarre boutique-y Malbec and rangy thoughts. It’s a clear night, a good one for surprise visits, which, despite my slight impairment, I still have in mind once I’m back across the river.

Descending into the station I note that the cops minding the station that night are all of the body type good for short bursts of activity on flat ground. One pauses coming up the stair to catch her breath, the other feigns impatience and shifts a plastic bag she has slung over her shoulder from one side to the other. I wonder if the perps they’d likely encounter in the subway are the kind who thoughtfully use elevators while fleeing. The crackle of the panting cop’s radio reminds me that they’re more like smart-cams with a reporting function – they don’t generally chase anyone down, they dial up an insertion team for that.

The hair of the very few Manhattan-bound passengers waiting on the platform begins to rustle as the inbound train pushes air out of the opposite tunnel. The train rumbles into the station shrouded in a thin fog which lifts and dissipates as the train slows, a phenomenon I happen to be facing and find strangely beautiful. The last several cars are dark, which is not that uncommon for NYC transit rolling stock, but this is a milky darkness. In the time it takes for the word “odd” to register in my thoughts, the doors open and people spill out onto the platform gasping and spitting, and gray smoke unfurls toward the vaulted ceiling.

New Yorkers (and their Jersey counterparts) don’t pay any attention to things that happen all the time; obvious attention-giving is how we tell tourists from locals. No one else on the platform was watching the inbound train arrive, and the station was well-filled with smoke and disgorged passengers stampeding toward the stairs by the time heads were turning. In either my Malbec-conditioned momentum or local-centric obliviousness I kept walking toward the evolving mayhem, which I thought later of myself exceptionally dull-witted. It wasn’t until the acrid smoke obscured my feet that it even occurred to me to change my direction and use my handkerchief to cover my mouth. There were a couple of passengers on their knees on the platform whom I gave a moment’s pause to consider helping before they were scooped up by one of their standing number to be merged into the panic that was heading my way. I stepped aside and made for the further (and less choked) exits. Coming my way were several New Jersey Transit workers carrying fire extinguishers, one yelling somewhat needlessly “Please evacuate the station!” I looked back to see their progress halted by dozens of bodies crowded at the bottom of the stairs. As I was not looking where I was going I bounced off a very soft chest; it was the stopped cop I’d seen on the stairs. As I turned I was met by kind eyes and a big bluesy voice asking me if I was all right - did I need help getting up the stairs? I nodded, and then shook my head and she somehow got my meaning, switching promptly to a more brusque “Then keep moving upstairs.” As I climbed the stairs now coughing a bit I thought I’d certainly caviled her.

On the concourse level the air was only slightly tainted by the fire. Passengers milled about looking progressively less traumatized, rallying to the point of laughing in many cases, beginning to shrug it all off. In the midst there were obvious signs of chaos – a couple of discarded coats on the floor, some vomit, a makeup compact, a pair of high heels left neatly on a utility box on the wall, everyone trying to get a cell signal. The transit workers who had made for the distressed end of the platform had wisely abandoned their mission and were bringing up the rear of the passenger herd coming up the staircase, calling out for everyone to evacuate the station, and largely ignored.

I waited at the exit stairs to see if anyone needed assistance or to await the inevitable stroller mom, but when a younger man asked me if I’d like help getting out I realized my presence was not only superfluous but maybe even a little fatuous.

When I came above ground the first bits of a glittering flotilla of fire equipment was assembling loudly on the square while others screamed in from every direction. Manhole covers were opened and plumes of smoke wafted up, fouling the air with the stink I’d just escaped. Hoses were extruded from trucks like fresh pasta. As colorful as it all was, I started back whence I’d come to see if my dear friend might not be completely exhausted of friendliness. There would be no going to Manhattan tonight.

One of the shibboleths of kinkdom is the idea that risk can be controlled. This is soft-peddled in the two maxims “Safe, sane and consensual,” and “Risk Aware Consensual Kink.” No thoughtful person who has practiced BDSM for anymore than a few minutes defends the notion that it’s safe – that one would even care to be safe en scene is itself counterintuitive, for it’s precisely where the certainty of outcomes departs that things get interesting. Safe is the precisely the opposite of exciting.

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