To hawks, these gritty country lanes must look like shingle beaches; the polished roads must gleam like seams of granite in a moorland waste,” J.A. Baker writes in The Peregrine. “All the monstrous acts of man are natural, untainted things to them.”1 The Peregrine tells the journey of a man who follows the birds obsessively, observing them throughout a full year as they fly, hunt or rest in Eastern England. Slowly, the reader notices changes in Baker’s tone: as he embeds himself in the nature of peregrines, he perhaps becomes a little bit of a peregrine himself. Through his intimate relationship with the birds, Baker also manages to attest to an unexpected nature of gritty country lanes and polished roads, gleaming from afar.
I read The Peregrine in the New York subway, an infrastructure that can easily be classified as one such “monstrous act,” equally natural for the rats that roam its tracks. Published in 1904, The New York Subway: Its Construction And Equipment begins with this hopeful suggestion: “The completion of the rapid transit railroad in the boroughs of Manhattan and The Bronx, which is popularly known as the ‘Subway,’ has demonstrated that underground railroads can be built beneath the congested streets of the city, and has made possible in the near future a comprehensive system of subsurface transportation extending throughout the wide territory of Greater New [End Page 159] York.”2 With the construction of this comprehensive network, New York City would emerge as what Rosalind Williams calls “a unified system,” its proper functioning depending on buried subsystems of electrical power, of sewer and water service, of subway and telephone lines. “Only when the underground was crowded with utility lines did it become possible to provide relatively decent living conditions for so many people crowded together above the surface,” Williams adds. “The networked city made possible the city of skyscrapers.”3 The subsurface became the catalyst for this dense surface to sprout and flourish, serving as a prosthetic. But while unifying the city, the subway also introduced a whole new category of accidents, violence, and risks.
As I stand on subway platforms, I often imagine how it would feel to fall onto the tracks, and experience an inexplicable fear. I am afraid of speed, steel, and disfigurement, most likely death. The other day a friend, who knew about my emergent phobia, sent me an email with the subject line “You can survive!” where he shared links to two news pieces. One of them was about a man named Ralph Mercado, who survived the fall by lying flat between the rails. “It’s unclear how Mercado ended up on the tracks,” the article suggests, “Although he told police he’d been trying to rescue a woman who’d fallen on the tracks, witnesses say there was no such woman. Mercado was taken to Bellevue Hospital for psychological evaluation.” Three days after Mercado, a blind man and his dog fell onto the tracks in my favorite subway station: 125th street. “Miraculously,” the article underlined, “the blind man, who the New York Post has identified as 60-year-old Cecil Williams, and his dog, both survived. According to the MTA, after responders pulled them from underneath the train, both were taken to St. Luke’s Hospital.” The seeing eye dog, named Orlando, had tried to pull Williams from the platform edge, but once Williams was on the tracks, Orlando had jumped after him. “The man and his dog lay flat between the rails,” the article states, “allowing the train to roll over them. Only Williams’ face was injured in the accident.”
But perhaps my fear of falling onto the tracks was less about the train, and more about the people waiting with me on the platform. I learned from The Peregrine how birds find machines so much more reliable than humans. “Hawks perch near fields where tractors are working, because that is where birds are constantly on the move. There is always something to watch, or something to kill if the hawk should be hungry. They have learnt that the dreaded...