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N.Y. subway breakdown inspires makeshift graduation on the E train

Subway riders hold an impromptu ceremony for college graduate who was stuck on the train on May 31. (Video: Jerich Marco Alcantara)

Delays, power outages, line closures. These daily frustrations have become routine for subway commuters in New York, where delays have doubled in recent years.

That’s why, as one New Yorker said on Facebook recently, “if you got something important going on, don’t take the train.”

Jerich Marco Alcantara had something very important going on Tuesday: his graduation from Hunter College. Still, he and his extended family trusted the E train to get them to his college commencement ceremony 45 minutes early.

They left their home in East Elmhurst, Queens — near LaGuardia Airport — at 8:15 a.m., hoping to arrive at graduation an hour later.

Wearing his purple cap and gown, Alcantara, 22, filed onto the train with his parents, aunt, godparents, friends and girlfriend, he told The Washington Post.

But before the train made it into Manhattan it stalled and passengers heard the announcement every New Yorker dreads but to which all have become accustomed: The train was delayed, the result of an emergency brake malfunction. Passengers ended up waiting on the train for about an hour and a half until a rescue train arrived.

And once on the second train, of course, there were more delays. This time, a signal malfunction at a station.

By now even the most patient passengers had become frustrated.

Alcantara grew increasingly worried, he said, while keeping a “sliver of hope” that he might at least make it to the ceremony before it ended.

The graduation was a major milestone for the family, as he was the first among his siblings to graduate from college. He earned a degree from the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing, in the hopes of pursuing a nursing career.

“I thought, today is supposed to be a happy day, because I’m graduating,” he said.

But it soon became clear he was almost certainly going to miss his graduation entirely.

So while waiting on the train, he decided to crack a joke, “something fun to lift the mood a little bit.”

He turned to the other passengers in his subway car and said: “Thank you guys for coming out today to see my graduation. I appreciate it.”

The people in the car erupted in cheers.

“They loved it,” Alcantara said. “It just kind of snowballed after that.”

Alcantara’s friends, along with complete strangers in the subway car, decided to give the graduate an impromptu commencement ceremony.

A friend “became the dean” and drew a picture of a diploma on his phone using an app. He passed the phone to Alcantara before shaking his hand.

Someone else began playing graduation songs such as “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day and “Congratulations” by Post Malone. Alcantara had carried with him portable speakers to play music at his actual commencement when his name was called. So he used the speakers for this ceremony instead.

Passengers smiled, cheered and clapped, while others recorded the moment on their phones. As people got off the train at different stops they congratulated him and wished him luck.

As a New York native, Alcantara had grown accustomed to witnessing just about anything on the subway. But, he said, “this was the most New York thing I’ve ever experienced.”

When the train finally arrived at his stop, he and his guests had to transfer trains once more before rushing to the auditorium. They arrived just as the ceremony was ending and graduates were leaving.

Once again, his friends tried to make the most of it, recording a video of him and cheering “Jerich! Jerich!”as he walked down the aisle in the empty auditorium up to the podium on stage.

A few hours later, while the family and friends sat together at a celebratory dinner, Alcantara’s girlfriend noticed that a video of the makeshift commencement ceremony on the subway had gone viral on Facebook.

“Everyone in the restaurant started cheering,” Alcantara said. “We watched it explode.”

For New Yorkers watching the video on Facebook, the moment captured the city, the good and the bad.

It showed, as one wrote, “How to love New York when it would be so easy to hate it. Best people in the world, you’ve seen it all.”

It wasn’t so bad missing his official ceremony after all, Alcantara said.

“Everyone that graduates gets one of those,” Alcantara said. “Not everyone gets to have a commencement in a train.”

“Congrats young man,” wrote someone who viewed the E train ceremony on Facebook. “This was beautiful.”

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