If a shoe falls on a subway track, and no one is around to retrieve it, does its owner make a sound?
Yep. Something like this: aaaaauuuggghhhhh.
I know because, on Christmas, that shoeless man was me.
I was stepping onto a No. 6 train at the Astor Place station – a mindless, mechanical action I had successfully completed thousands of times before — when my leg suddenly felt strangely, weirdly light.
My downward glance was met with a harrowing scene: my right foot, raised in midstep, clad only in a sock. And no shoe in sight.
This was not a happy turn of events.
Thanks to an ill-timed clip of my heel, my shoe — a brown suede driving loafer that, admittedly, fits a little loose — had slipped off and fallen, neatly but horrifically, into the thin dark void between platform and train. An inch or two to either side, and it would have been safe.
Hopping on one foot, I pogoed back onto the platform moments before the doors slid shut. As the train pulled away, I leaned over the edge. There, on a ledge jutting out above the track, sat my shoe.
Last year, New York City Transit received 9,269 reports of property dropped on the tracks, a category that includes quite a lot of cellphones, wallets and iPods. That works out to an average of 25.4 items per day, which meant on that particular Sunday, I was in the 0.00058 percent of subway customers who managed to lose a personal possession on the track.
This is an ignominious distinction; perhaps doubly so for a transportation reporter, who is expected to be expert in all matters underground.
But the tale offered a useful lesson for any subway rider who may find him or herself trying to retrieve an item seemingly lost to the subterranean maw.
The shoe had landed precisely atop the cover of the electrified third rail, and it appeared to be unharmed: train after train came and went, apparently bypassing a trap space where the shoe was sitting.
At first, I briefly considered my own rescue attempt. The shoe seemed close enough to grasp, and the countdown clock would warn me before the next train entered the station. I quickly abandoned this idea after my girlfriend, who had witnessed the entire incident, informed me that this was a rather insane plan and would I please back away from the platform edge?
So instead, I made my way, half-walking, half-hopping, to the station agent’s booth, trying to maintain as little contact as possible between sock and ground. As I explained my woe, the station agent smiled in a way that made it seem as if he had heard this tale before.
“I’ll call the crew,” he said. “It will be 45 minutes.” I was directed to wait on a bench.
I had heard, once before, about “the claw.” It is a long stick with a grabbing device affixed to its end, and for generations of hapless subway riders, it has acted as the Excalibur for the subway’s knights in shining armor: the track workers in yellow vests who travel around the system retrieving items from the tracks.
The rescue crew, claw in hand, arrived in about an hour – not bad given that it was 5 p.m. on Christmas. My heroes that day were Fred and Ronda from the track maintenance department. Ronda held a floodlight that illuminated the tracks; Fred wielded the stick that returned my shoe, safe and sound, to the platform and, soon enough, my foot.
Fred and Ronda, who were very friendly about the whole thing, seemed accustomed to receiving profuse praise and gratitude. “It’s all just part of the job,” Ronda said. Their modesty reminded me of the experience of a friend who tried to tip the transit worker who recovered her wallet from the tracks a few years ago.
“The guy said: ‘Oh no, we can’t accept that. This is included in your M.T.A. subway fare!’ ” she recalled.
Fred, who said he was routinely summoned to retrieve six or seven items on an average weekday, could not suppress a smile as he handed back my loafer.
“This is the first time I’ve had to get a man’s shoe,” he said, noting that women’s pumps and high heels were more frequently lost.
My girlfriend, who had been quite adept at keeping up morale over the course of the ordeal, did not miss a beat.
“You found his glass slipper,” she said to the crew, who beamed as they walked away, waiting for the call that would whisk them to their next heroic rescue.