Was I becoming a workaholic because I couldn't sleep or could I not sleep because I was a workaholic? The day that was nearly my last began when I woke at 4 a.m. and checked my office email. Alerted to an issue on the media website I managed, I logged in just to fix it, but then got caught up doing other work too. Later, running behind getting to the office, I dashed through the subway turnstiles just as the C train doors closed with an extra "thunk." A Hispanic man caught my eye.
"Su teléfono," he said, and pointed down under the train. I checked my unzipped messenger bag—no teléfono.
The only boy and oldest of five children raised on a factory worker's salary, I'd always been a driven but thrifty overachiever. I'd recently gotten my first iPhone at 56, the age Steve Jobs was when he died, after a new policy cut the phone service on company BlackBerries. Even though I had craved one, I could never justify a monthly cellphone expense when I was reachable via the corporate BlackBerry, landline and email, plus my home phone and computer. But once I rationalized needing a cool phone for work emergencies, it became indispensable for everything from fantasy sports to investing and online banking. Now it was missing and my personal info was up for grabs.
It felt like a life sentence in the rolling jail until I was sprung at the next subway stop. I sprinted 10 blocks back to my station, frantic that the phone was crushed, or worse, it had fallen onto the platform where someone snagged it. I'd laughed at Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman in the "comedy" "Identity Theft," but was now overwrought about e-crooks accessing my credit cards and bank accounts. The North Korean government allegedly busted into Sony corporate servers and a fake Associated Press tweet by a hacker nearly flash-crashed the stock market. Surely, my four-digit code wasn't secure.
Arriving breathless, I stood on the platform's yellow warning strip stressed about work emails piling up and about being late for a presentation I was to give. Then I spotted the phone in the tracks half buried in dirt and trash. I had to get to the office, plus I couldn't leave the cell until that evening and risk someone retrieving it and wiping out my life savings.
I didn't see a train coming, or anything furry and long-tailed scurrying below. So, like an over-caffeinated Clark Kent, I took off my glasses, put them in my shirt pocket and leaped with a single bound onto the tracks.
My knees buckled on landing, reminding me too late that I was more senior than super. I stayed plastered to the wall to avoid whichever rail carried electricity—I didn't like the one-in-three odds. I kicked away an iced tea bottle and a Blimpie wrapper before gingerly rescuing my phone from the toxic filth.
"Good thing this isn't the '80s," I thought. "There would be track fires too." Mission accomplished, I turned to evacuate, but my head barely peeped above the platform floor. "Hmm, this is much deeper than I figured." Then I glimpsed distant headlights cutting through the tunnel darkness. My panic was instant.
I hadn't realized that the platform floor extended out six inches beyond the tunnel wall so I couldn't get leverage for my feet. I stretched my arms up onto the platform and desperately clawed the cement but there was nothing to dig in to. Then I jumped to try to get my chest up there. Though I'd been a hoops-obsessed kid, the middle-age me had no hops. That famous hero saved a stranger by lying under the train, but when I pictured 40-ton caskets rolling over me, a childhood friend who lost both legs to a train flashed through my consciousness for the first time in decades. The tunnel air was changing quickly from the approaching train. I needed a different Plan B.
"Little help?" My shrill scream to a high school girl and a young guy who hadn't noticed me thrashing around down there surprised them—and me. I had meant to sound nonplussed, like my basketball had bounced onto their court. Thankfully, they immediately rushed to my aid, got down on their knees and grabbed my arms to drag me out of the gutter.
Safely on the platform, the young woman looked incredulous. "They told us in school to tell the booth attendant if stuff falls in," she said.
"Good to know," I said, brushing off tunnel scum with one hand and clutching the dinged up prize with the other. "That was kinda weird down there." Although I was freaked, I tried to underplay it, as I also did with my embarrassment to be rescued by a teenage girl. And then I leaned over the edge and watched my $500 designer glasses fall from my shirt onto the tracks.
A late-life career changer, I'd worked hard to get my coveted digital job and had a reputation as being dedicated and dependable. It wasn't in my DNA to leave busy colleagues waiting at my own meeting. The train had just pulled away, so I jumped down onto the tracks again. The high school girl must have noticed the sleep-deprived crazy in my squinting eyes, because although she'd exited the turnstiles, she still lurked in the station. When I leapt, she paid her fare back in. That kid was a toughy. This time, she hauled me out all by herself.
When the adrenaline abated, I realized I'd gone completely off the rails. Maybe it was lack of sleep, because I wasn't pushed, suicidal or drinking like the people in other tragedies. I was a caffeine-juiced perfectionist who chose to track dive for a smartphone that had more brains than me.
The phone incident was a wake-up call. My career wouldn't tank if I was late to one meeting. Email didn't need to be checked 24/7. And even if my identity was stolen, I'd still be here. Approaching 60, it was time for my work-life balance—nearly work-death balance—to change. There was nothing wrong with having a Type A-minus personality.
"I'll tell the attendant next time," I promised, handing the girl twenty bucks for saving my phone, my glasses and maybe my life.
She looked extremely grateful if not especially confident. "Next time?" she asked.