The man at the controls thought about the people he was transporting. In airline parlance they’d be called “souls.” But the BART system had no such term. They were just people: skin-bags full of spaghetti, flank steak and fish brains. What was the difference anyway between fish and human brains? Didn’t we all crawl out of the sea at one point – on our fins? Yes, only “people.” Only meat and bones, nothing more.
He flipped a switch to activate his mic and announce the next stop.
“Maaaaaaacarthur Station. That’s MACarthur, emphasis on the MAC, take it easy on the arthur. Or go heavy on the thur: Macar-THUR. Oh! Macarthur – where have you gone? Where, oh where, can you be?”
Sally Rosamunde listened with a quickening heart to the operator’s voice on the speakers in Car 4 on the nine-car train bound for Pittsburg/Bay Point. The man sounded, well, out of his mind!
She looked over at her seat companion, a young-ish black man with a hoodie who made her recall the movie, Fruitvale Station. She’d made it a point never to stop at that station even before the movie came out. It was full of the “wrong element” in her mind. But the man looked back at her as if in silent agreement with her growing alarm: Yeah, this mofo is off his rocker.
Shawn Mills saw the white woman looking at him with scared eyes and, though it was a look he was used to getting from old white women, he knew immediately that it didn’t have to do with him – not this time. It was the driver of the mutherfuckin’ train. Guy had flipped out. Sing-songing the names of the last four stops, relentlessly making jokes in a Looney Tunes rhythm, and talking about the most unrelated garbage.
Shawn was no hero. His father had done two tours in Iraq and never talked about it, taking to the bottle instead. Shawn didn’t even pack a knife, though he hung out on International Blvd regularly at night because, shit, the action was there, something to occupy a 20-year-old who missed his Momma too much and never felt as brave as he wanted to be. So look tough instead of being tough.
At the Bay Area Rapid Transit Control Room in Oakland,
Louis Hernandez, a controller, saw the blinking light on the grid-screen, signaling a train had missed a stop, blown right past it.
“What the…?” he murmured.
He had a Venti-sized Starbucks beside him. This was the second of a double-shift. Short-staffed, a common BART malady. A runaway train was the last thing he wanted to see.
A controller could communicate directly with a train operator using an old-school microphone on a flexible metal gooseneck. He swung it toward his mouth and punched in some numbers and spoke:
“Train 391B. This is Control. You missed Rockridge. Report. What’s happening?”
There was a series of crackles from the receiver, like the slow breaking of China plates and then a voice, a voice unlike anything he’d ever heard, more a hiss:
“I’m headed to exactly where I need to go.”
Hernandez was taken aback. Instinctively he reached for his Starbucks cup and gripped it like it was his only hold on reality. “Train 391B, where are you going?”
“To a place without BART, beyond the maddening crowds and the rush and the stench, to a land where fire cleanses.”
Jack McAffee, thought Hernandez. He knew the driver only in passing, but had heard some stories. Namely that McAffee had gone to Burning Man and never “came back,” had done too many ‘shrooms, thought he could commune with dandelions and mosquitoes. It’d seemed silly and innocent enough at the time, but now Hernandez wondered if there was something to it. What had really happened out there in the desert? Amid the endless expanse of dried earth, the too-many bright stars, the costumed Burners and pounding music…happy Hippie crystal magic delicioso annihilation…
“Jack?” said Hernandez into the mic. “You have to stop. There’s a train in front of you. It’s running behind. Ease up. You’re collision-bound. Do you copy?”
No response. Just white noise, a breeze in the desert.
He saw his co-controller, from the desk over, looking at him with stupefaction.
“Hell with it,” said Hernandez. “I’m cutting power.”
He could shut off power to the third-rail along the whole grid. But there remained the question of velocity. A runaway clocking at 80-mph could go quite a ways on its own momentum, unless the operator braked. Fat chance of that. He fumbled at the controls, determined to shut everything down, the only recourse, hurry, hurry.
The door was unbreakable. Shawn Mills and four others were busy throwing their weight against it, trying to break it down. The door to a BART train operator’s compartment was made tough for a reason – so no crazy person could get inside. BART simply hadn’t factored on the operator himself being crazy. Shawn banged on the thick Plexiglass right behind the man, screaming, “Stop! Stop, asshole!”
They could see the driver slowly turn to sneer at them above his seat. The guy had put on stage make-up, a red paste with purple stuff around the eyes, everything made worse by the smoky tint of the glass. Dude still had on his BART cap, as if he thought professionalism shouldn’t go completely out the window. Shawn wanted to be home, wherever that was.
Sally Rosamunde realized she’d been riding for an inordinately long time when the sudden blaze of light out the windows caused her to jerk in her seat. She’d become so used to darkness. The train rushed along faster than ever. Had daylight broken? She remembered missing Rockridge station and then little after that. Out the window, she saw cracked, dun-colored earth stretching out to the horizon, as flat as a tabletop. She knew she would step out when the time came. No one rode forever.
Joseph Kim is a San Francisco native and a rider of BART. He’s been a MacDowell Colony Fellow and a Pushcart Prize nominee and currently works as a professional editor.