Two long whistle blasts from an MTA flagman stationed some 100 yards up the tracks is the signal that a Manhattan-bound R train is headed our way.
It's time to find out who was paying attention during the four-hour course in track safety taught by Jeff Spezzano, a self-described Joe Pesci look-alike who for 17 of his 23 years with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has walked the subway tunnels as a track worker and learned how to survive.
"Local train, guys," Spezzano announces to his group of 11, a mix of reporters and photographers. "Get in the niches, please. This is the real deal."
I take my place in a 3-foot space in one of the steel and concrete supports that divide the express and local tracks. On this Thursday afternoon, we're inside a cold and dark Brooklyn subway tunnel, some 200 yards down from the R train platform at 59th Street.
I recall what Spezzano told us a few hours ago in a converted public elementary school classroom a few R train stops away, where the MTA teaches its workers and contractors how not to get hurt -- or worse -- on a subway track. Immediately, I raise my arms above my shoulders and steady myself in the niche.
Seconds later, I'm standing stiff-legged facing the side of a 400-ton New York City subway train that's 8 inches away as it squeaks and grinds its way past at a lumbering 15 mph, slow enough to make me wish it would just hurry up and get it over with. One step forward and I lose my foot or get dragged underneath the train.
"Everybody good?" Spezzano asked after the train has passed. I exhaled.
Spezzano is a full-time instructor of the one-day track safety course, which was created in 1989 after several fatal injuries to track workers. The MTA requires that all its own employees as well as contractors -- and occasionally transit reporters -- take the course to learn how to walk and work safely on tracks. Certification is good for two years.
Since 1947, 231 New York City subway workers have been killed on the job, the vast majority of those after being struck by a train, Spezzano said. Others have been electrocuted after coming into contact with the third rail. An average of one customer gets struck by a train every week, he said.
"It's a fairly higher average than people think," Spezzano said. "It's more dangerous than we realize."
For those who think he's kidding, Spezzano displayed on a classroom projector a macabre picture of an electrocuted track worker whose skin was singed after the steel pole he was using came in contact with the third rail. Today, track workers use poles that are insulated, Spezzano said.
Much of what Spezzano counsels is a common-sense approach of the sort parents teach their children when they walk to school for the first time.
"If we forget to look both ways, what happens?" he asked his pupils. "People have gotten hit standing on the platform looking the wrong way."
The trouble nowadays, Spezzano said, is that new technology has made trains quieter -- not a great development in the life of a track worker.
"Listen to that train behind us," Spezzano said, standing in the middle of subway track while an express train glides into the station behind him. "That train is only a couple hundred yards away."
Spezzano has his students down on the tracks while five local trains rumble into the 59th Street station. By the third time, members of the group are anxiously awaiting the next train, eager to step into their safety niches.
"I hear the rumbling," one nervous member of the group said. "Is a train coming?"
"Soon," Spezzano answered, seemingly unfazed as he launches into another tip for staying alive on the tracks.