The other day I was riding the PATH train from Journal Square to Newark. 30 seconds before the train pulled into the Harrison stop the train’s horn repeatedly sounded and the brakes were applied so hard that several people who were standing in the car lost their balance for more than a moment.
I was sitting in the first car of the train and I was watching outside the front window. I could not see what was causing the train to abruptly slow down and the horn to so roundly sound. Then I saw a group of six teenage boys with book bags hanging out near the edge of the platform.
One of the boys was sitting on the edge of the platform and he was dangling his legs out over the edge as if he were soaking his feet in a pond of water. As if in slow-motion the boy with the dangling legs saw the train bearing down on him and with help from his friends he rolled away from the edge while the train slowed to a crawl into the station.
We heard the engineer yelling at the boys from his window during the entire Harrison stop.
The train then carried on to the end-of-the line at Newark Penn Station.
As everyone disembarked in Newark I waited a moment for the engineer to come out of his cab. I shook his hand and told him he was a hero.
The engineer was a hulk of a man and he bellowed at me at how stupid the kids are today.
I told him if he hadn’t stopped in time the train would have sheared off that boy’s legs at the knees.
The engineer agreed and told me that was what he yelled at all the kids when he pulled the train into Harrison station.
I asked him how he saw the kid. I was looking and I didn’t see him because he was below eye level and in a strange sitting position.
The engineer succinctly said it was his job to see him.
I nodded my head and shook his hand again and he was gone.
As I walked to catch my next train I tried to remember where I had seen the engineer before. He was an unforgettable big personality. He was tall and wide but not fat.
As I clambered down the stairs I realized I had seen the engineer two months before in the Journal Square deli. We were both standing in the sandwich line and, as I understood the situation, he was trying to get the deli guy to make his sandwich in just the right way: The mayonnaise on one slice of bread could not touch the mustard on the other slice of bread until he actually bit into the sandwich to chew each side together. He made the guy re-do the sandwich twice until he got the sandwich right.
All during the sandwich re-making the engineer kept talking to me about how people today need to be more attentive and to do their job the right way no matter how small the detail.
That day in the deli I thought the engineer was a bit of an eccentric who sadly lived his life in fear of a premature mustardy mayo marriage — but now I realize it was that very demand for detail that saved a boy from losing both his legs at the knees.