Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger

By Harvey Molotch | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Below the Subway: Taking Care Day In and Day Out with Noah McClain

The New York subways are obvious sites of security concern; many measures get taken as a result. Such concern is not folly and nor is the disposition to try and address it. Attacks on the trains in London, Tokyo, Moscow, and Madrid have unleashed, each in their own time, death and destruction. New York has 468 subway stations, each with multiple entries. Depending on time of day, some crowd together hundreds, if not thousands of people in compact spaces. It surely dawns on most who are ever there that these are rich targets.

One way into understanding how security actually works in the subway is to talk with the people who are there a whole lot—the subway workers. They are employees of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and most spend many years at the job. Noah McClain and I studied just what workers see and what they do as part of the routines of their jobs. We aimed our interviews to learn, in particular, how they responded to a range of troubles, from minor ones to those at the level of disaster. There is a connection, we came to think, between what goes on during routine work and what happens—or will likely happen— when genuine emergency strikes. Disaster studies, oddly enough, seldom attend to the way in which people work through more ordinary troubles. But doing so, it seemed to McClain and myself, was a good way to understand what individuals might do should a bigger threat develop. Given what we learned in our research, we concluded that workers’ encounters with ordinary troubles shape response to difficulties of whatever sort and scale.

Our interviews, conducted mostly by McClain although occasionally with me trailing along, involved a total of eighty workers—station agents (the people inside the glass-enclosed booths), station cleaners,

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