I learned the term, ‘sensation seeker’ in a neuroscience class. Technically, this term refers to a person whose chemical composition lacks a ‘normal’ amount of dopamine. Such individuals create their own excitement in place of this void. The dopamine shoots out of one nerve ending like a cannon, into the branch-like arms of the next. The rush of dopamine gets your adrenaline pumping, a surge gets your heart going. It seems completely ridiculous that some cartoony brain expulsions are the reason he’s leading me into this subway tunnel at 2 am.
My clunky sandals followed the edge of his shadow toward the centre of the Earth. It was lighter down there than I expected. A muted fluorescence was caught in the air, bouncing off of dusty walls. There were small robotic boxes on the walls with signal lights. Red means stop. Green means go. It comforted me that someone installed those boxes. Some human had been in this otherwise desolate cave. I then realized their function. The lights signaled the trains. I dreaded the moment the light turned green.
We both quickly became creatures of the environment. I looked down at my large loose shoes as I clung to the rusted, soot covered railing that met me at my waist. I thought, “never again. Sneakers from now on.” My clothes were already covered in grit. It looked like I lived in dirt since birth. The pathway stretched two feet wide—I clung to that railing, disregarding my fear of grime, and filthy rust. I concentrated all of my efforts on walking in a straight line as though it were a tight rope.
“Are you okay?” His whisper cut through the still, heavy air.
“I don’t know.” And I didn’t, I was half-drunk, and panicking and trying my hardest not to let my straight-line wave. The whiskey we poured into Dr. Pepper bottles on the train ride over still hung in the back of my mouth, mixed in with the carbonate aftertaste of stadium beer. They only served Heineken light. The guitar riffs from the concert transformed into the steady percussion of my shoes. Ca-llllop, clop, the bottom of my wooden sandals echoed. With each step the light behind us faded, and the long dark chute in front of us grew. I looked around. Graffitti from 1970 something. Dirt. Rats.
I imagined that by time the next Manhattan-bound train got to us in that tunnel, somewhere in Queens, that I would be spun away from my walkway by momentum and flung into the tracks—this phenomenon was probably explained in one of the physics lessons I missed.
By that time, the unwitting civilians on the train will have already gotten settled. By the time the train gets here the actress reciting lines to herself will have locked eyes with her reflection in the glass window across from her seat– making sure her body language reflected her character’s motivation. The tired couple will have collapsed into each other’s shoulders, silent. They will have already heard the MTA’s warning, “Ladies and gentlemen, do not go into the tracks for ANY reason. If you drop something in the tracks LEAVE IT, and notify an MTA employee or use a customer assistance intercom in the station. Your safety is important.” This warning is a part of the MTA’s aggressive public awareness campaign launched in 2013. They also installed other safety systems like motion sensors and thermal imaging cameras to alert MTA authority when someone has left the platform. The MTA said, “151 people were struck by trains in 2013, resulting in 53 fatalities, which are two less than 2012.” They hope to continue to keep their customers safe from accident, homicide or suicide in 2014. What constitutes suicide in this situation?
I tried to prepare myself for when the first train shot by. He felt comfortable by now, the initial surge had settled, and stretched out to his limbs. His movements were sure. He hopped off of the walkway and into the tracks. Looking up at me, I’m sure my eyes were the size of cantaloupes, “I’m just going over there, you’ll see me.” He scampered into the dust becoming one of the subway crawlers. I could hardly see him. He dodged into and around weird columns and wall-less rooms. Lyrics from Cowboy Dan followed us into the tunnel, to the back of my mind, “He drove the desert, fired his rifle in the sky, He said ‘God, if I have to die you will have to die’. ”
I tried to talk to keep calm. “What’s it like over there?” I could hear him rustling around an elevated hideout in the centre of the tracks.
“I found a sleeping bag and old spray paint.” He kicked the can over and its metallic body dinged. I just keep my eyes down right in front of me, trying to convince my surroundings that they should stay as calm and empty as they were.
I heard a sort of static rush, and the pulling of a horn sounded like a high-pitched organ. “Okay, Sage, there’s a train coming. Get on the other side of that railing right now.” That rush hit me like the light on the signal box. Green. I felt sick. I didn’t know if I could fit in the space between the rail and the wall, I should have tried this sooner. More organ sounds. Louder. The light from the speeding metallic city monster got brighter, closer. “You’re going to be okay. Just turn around.” I closed my eyes as if I were trying to disappear.
This is why businessmen go skydiving on weekends, or people drive ambulances in San Francisco, it’s like roller-coasters. There seems to be a deep human desire among some to push our limits to the edge, just to see how it feels. This is because there are six well-founded pathways of dopamine in the brain, one of them being coined ‘the reward system.’ This name is rather literal, implying that when you achieve something, your brain perceives it as a reward, and thus the dopamine fires from the brain’s loaded (or not so loaded) cannons. It seems like these people just want to raise the stakes: higher risk, better reward.
The escalated reward system reminds me of Albert, an older hombre I met at a resort casino in Puerto Rico. I was sitting in one of the chairs, lamenting the five dollars I’d just lost. He sat down next to me and inserted twenty dollars, smiled at me, then collapsed into an aluminum and leather chair, resting his cane on his leg. He looked mechanically at the screen and then abruptly pulled the lever. I asked him in broken Spanish if he was feeling lucky. He replied in perfect English, “in order to get something big, you’ve gotta give something big.” He won a hundred dollars.
Even with my eyes closed I could see the sort of temperature difference of darkness. The train galloped by with huge metal shoes at 55mph. It probably took fifteen seconds for the entirety of the train to pass by me. I tried to press myself as close to the wall as possible, but I wondered if they could see my blonde hair catching the light next to their window just inches away.
A little about SAGE: Sage is a writer who lives in New York. She is interested in the psychological framework of the human experience. She is also a contributor to Tobereal.org, an organization dedicated to challenging the idea of normality and creating a more empathic culture.