CNF: To the Hero on the J Train that Crashed on the Williamsburg Bridge 28 Years Ago

by Betsy Robinson


Although I’ve never seen you, I’ve admired you for 28 years. I wrote a play about what you did. It was never produced but it was published in 2005 and I thought that was the end of it.

But you haunt me.

Until this year, I’d never told anyone about you, and when I did, it came out in a flood, and the person I told said that she ran a theater workshop and they could do a reading so I could finally hear the play; it’s called The Hearing; perhaps that would make you smile. Last month actors did a sit-down presentation without rehearsal, and afterwards I told your story that inspired the play, and the few listeners were so quiet, it was church, and, again, I thought I was done.

But I am not.

You don’t know me—nobody who was involved does—but I transcribed your deposition hearing about the Williamsburg Bridge subway crash that left you maimed in ways I can only imagine from the way the voices of the other people in the room changed when you came in and they helped situate you—I assumed in a wheelchair—and you started telling your story:

You were a messenger working for what you called “the Methodist clinic” and you were in the front car of the train that crashed into another one early that morning so long ago. I don’t know what your injuries were, but I know your story by heart. The simple way you told it broke my heart and then made me want to bow to you.

Likewise the MTA examiner and the attorney representing you got even softer when they heard your soft voice. The events took a long time to come out and sometimes it felt like it hurt to tell them, as if you were embarrassed to be there suing the MTA, as if you were completely unaware of your own story. You told where you were sitting. You told how some people were sleeping but you were awake and saw the other train hurtling towards yours. You told how you woke people up and made them get out of the car. And by the end, without ever claiming to be anything other than a simple messenger who was worried about losing his job at what I finally deduced must have been a methadone clinic, we all—your audience, in the room with you and invisible me listening to you on headphones and typing your story in my Upper West Side apartment—we all realized what we were hearing. You saved everybody. All alone, you saved them with no thought to your own safety.

You “drug” them out of that car and led them to safety.

I don’t know what your injuries were but they must have been bad, from the sound of the examiner and attorney’s voices; I did hundreds of those deposition transcripts and I never heard anybody sound like they did as they responded to your story. I don’t know what your name is or if you’re still alive. But last month I finally got to tell a bunch of people at a writers’ workshop that you are a real person, a true hero. You will never know how you affected me, who wasn’t there, and subsequently anybody who learns your story through me. It’s not a lot of people. I’m as simple a messenger as you were.

But perhaps some more people I will never see will read my letter to you. And then your message will continue: to take care of each other.


Betsy Robinson writes funny fiction about flawed people. Her novel The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg is winner of Black Lawrence Press’s 2013 Big Moose Prize and was published in September 2014. This was followed by the February 2015 publication of her edit of The Trouble with the Truth by Edna Robinson, Betsy’s late mother, by Simon & Schuster/Infinite Words. She published revised ebook and paperback editions of her Mid-List Press award-winning first novel, Plan Z by Leslie Kove, a tragicomedy about falling down the rabbit hole of the U.S. of A. in the 1970s. Her articles have been published all over the place and she has two new novels that will soon launch. Betsy is an editor, fiction writer, journalist, and playwright. www.BetsyRobinson-writer.com.


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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “To the Hero on the J Train that Crashed on the Williamsburg Bridge 28 Years Ago”?

I tend to be both fast and slow: I write fast when inspired—then revise for years. I wrote a 9-page play called The Hearing pretty soon after transcribing the seminal deposition mentioned in this essay (I even lifted some of the deposition questions right out of the real hearing). I sent the play around and nobody accepted it for production, but a few years after the rejections, it was published by Epiphany magazine. Then it was 28 years until the next step in a project I didn’t know had a next step. As I say in the essay, this year, 2023, the play finally had a reading. Finis! Right? Nope. In the course of my daily quest for article publishers, I ran into the “Letter to a Stranger” department of Off Assignment, and, completely out of character—I’m imminently practical with a full computer of work that’s already written and looking for publication—I wrote this essay in one sitting . . . and Off Assignment rejected it. So I added it to the vast roster of “work in search of a publisher.” When I read the specs for Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, I thought, gee, compressing the life of an event that took place 28 years ago qualifies. So I cut the letter to the specified word count and changed the title. I’m so thrilled to put this hero’s story into our world which so badly needs it right now.


Check out the write-up of the journal in The Writer.

Matter Press recently released titles from Meg Boscov, Abby Frucht, Robert McBrearty, Tori Bond, Kathy Fish, and Christopher Allen. Click here.

Matter Press is now offering private flash fiction workshops and critiques of flash fiction collections here.


Poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction/prose poetry submissions are now closed. The reading period for standard submissions opens again March 15, 2023. Submit here.


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