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Bernie Wagenblast Steps All the Way In, Giving Voice to Hope

Bernie Wagenblast

At 66, the New York City subway announcer comes out as trans amid life’s chaos, confusion, and contest, finally reaching her destination.

As we’ve all heard a million times, there are two guarantees in life, death, and taxes. If you live in New York City, you can add a third, “Please stand clear of the closing doors.” The voice of the New York City subway, for those who live in the city, is also one we’ve each heard a million times — guaranteed!

It’s embedded in our heads. That distinctive voice. Like an Elton John song we’ve sung a million times. We know that sound instantly, and what will croon next. We know what it’s going to say, how it’s going to be said, the octave that it's said in, and how it will finish.

That voice is poetry, like balm on a dreary excursion. The voice is reassurance that we are headed in the right direction. Our reminder of how far we have to go. Our reality check that says it’s time to go to work. It welcomes us home. In between the to and the fro, it tells us when we need to transfer to another train or to another track. When we hear, “The next stop is...” we know it’s almost time to go. With it, we traverse. It guides us underground, below all the impersonal horns and uninstructed chaos above.

To be sure, the voice oversees its own chaos. During the early a.m., in our haste and hurry to be on time for another long day at the office, we ignore the pleas, pushing into the car despite being told, “Stand clear of the closing doors.”

In the early p.m., frazzled and fizzled on our desperate way home, we ignore the pleas, Please stand clear of the platform's edge," perching over that platform for a peak at what's around the bend.

It tells us to hold on to our personal belongings. It is personal to so many of us.

And it’s personal for the face behind that voice, Bernie Wagenblast, who on a WNYC radio show came out as a transgender woman. Bernie’s coming-out reminds us that behind every voice we hear, every voice we take for granted, every voice that we love, every voice that we hate, every voice we don’t see, there is a life.

Having lived in Manhattan for 28 years, it’s very hard sometimes to stop most days and take it all in. Once you leave the confines of your apartment and step out of the building’s door, you are immediately thrust into a world where it is the survival of the fittest.

It’s a battle to walk quickly down a street, on your way to the subway. You’re in a hurry, and so is the person next to you, in front of you, and behind you. You scramble with determination; the person next to you pushes ahead with zeal. The person ahead of you is resolute in winning the race. The person behind you yearns to be where you are.

Then comes the stair descent. There are handles on each side, but they are only there to bruise your hips. If you’re going down those steps when the people coming up have just heard, “Stand clear of the closing doors,” you are in danger of being pushed back to the top of the stairwell. It’s a fight to decline to the depths of dimness.

If you arrive at the bottom unscathed, you must have your subway card, loaded up with cash and at the ready. If not, you will fall far behind the New York human race. If you’re prepared, you eye a turnstile, and approach with laser focus, fending off the people on both sides of you and the people who all spotted the same turnstile behind you. The insertion of the card needs to be like precise surgery that happens with astonishing speed. Dithering is not allowed.

Then it’s on to the subway platform, where your enemies surround you. Everyone is hunched over their phone, one eye on a text, the other eye on the track. And a third, unseen eye watching to see if you will cause their detour to the train door. You scan and search for that one area on the platform that provides you with a strategic advantage to get into the door before anyone else.

The train comes barreling in. And for a singular moment, everyone joins in standing at the door sides to let the passengers out. It is an astonishing flash of decorum. Once those final riders traipse through, then an insanity of droves breaks through 54-inch doors. Someone will not make it. Someone will have to wait for the next train. Those who do make it through are sandwiched with people in front, behind and all around. If you have nothing to hold on to, you pin yourself against those in your personal space -- those who were your enemies are now your support system.

And you know that you have made it when Bernie says, “Stand clear of the closing doors.”

If anyone can relate to this haphazard frenzy of erstwhile existence, it would be Bernie. To fight each daunting day for a destination that seems all too improbable to reach. To conform to those all around you. To push by them through all the ups and downs, and to push yourself forward when the world feels like it’s against you. Your enemies unlikely to be your support system.

At age 66, Bernie arrived on the platform and finally made it through the door of her true identity. She can now stand clear for who she really is. For Bernie, life undoubtedly was on a local train, with fits and starts trying to get to where she needed to be. Bernie finally made it to the express track. In the metaphorical world of stops, Bernie has arrived at the queer Christopher Street station.

Bernie’s coming-out has so many lessons for all of us who push past strangers on our life’s journeys. Everyone we push aside, pass by, vow to beat, look at warily, and consider the enemy has a story. We’re all human. We’re all riddled with anxiety about what’s ahead in our own journeys.

There are those of us who are lucky and have family, friends, a job, and an identity – all of which can be taken for granted. Then there are others who might not have family, friends, or a job, and might be wriggling with their identity – none of which is taken for granted.

Those who are in doubt about so many things in life and where they are going, what they should do, and who they should be, often suffer in silence. Bernie Wagenblast, by “stepping all the way in,” has given them a voice for a moment.

John Casey is a senior editor at The Advocate.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.