I was settled into my seat on the U4, cocooned, like the other passengers, in my own thoughts. When suddenly a shriek filled the car.
"Mama! Mama! Mama!" A small boy, perhaps four or five, stood on one side of the closed doors, his frantic mother on the other.
As the car pulled away from the Heiligenstadt station, two grandmotherly women leapt up, one grabbing the hand of the wailing child, the other bending down to offer words of consolation. A pierced twenty-something with bright blue hair ran to alert the driver. The other six or seven of us in the nearly empty car looked on with concern, the taboo against eye contact temporarily suspended.
The train squealed to a stop a hundred yards down the track, and a grumbling, red-faced driver walked through the car. Oddly, he didn’t even seem to notice the crying child. What was going on? Not speaking German, I was at a loss. As five minutes stretched into ten, curiosity overwhelmed me.
"Are we taking the little boy back to his mother?" I asked a curly-haired man several rows away.
"No. The conductor went down the wrong track," he told me. He paused, shaking his head. "In twenty-five years, I have never seen this happen."
We mused over the strange confluence of events as the train finally began to crawl at an excruciating pace toward Spittelau. Instead of the station, we pulled into the terminal shed, parking between sleeping trains. A crowd of bemused and smiling U-bahn workers watched as we were escorted off the train, along a series of narrow walkways, through a door, and onto another train. The entire time, the wide-eyed child, no longer crying, held the elderly woman’s hand.
The train inched back to Heiligenstadt. When the doors opened, the young mother ran forward and fell to her knees, bear-hugging her little boy, as they both sobbed with relief. The rest of us stepped off and onto yet another train.
Back on track, we retreated once more into the cocooned reverie of a January day.