Thursday, February 18, 2010

I witnessed an altercation today in the subway.  It was a crowded express train at rush hour, and I was listening to music and trying not to let the motion of the train knock me over, because I wasn't in arm's reach of the poles and I can't reach the ceiling handhold.  I gradually became aware of a hubbub in the center of the car, near the doors.  I couldn't see any of what happened because of all the people in the car.  A man was yelling, and he was yelling at another man, and threatening to punch him, and then I was pushed to my left as people around him backed away, and there was the sound of a punch, and more yelling.  He was repeating himself, getting more and more angry, insulting the parentage of the man he had hit, threatening in a non-specific way to attack all the other Caucasians in the car.  The empty space around him was getting larger and larger as the people on my side of the car moved as far away as they could.  We still hadn't reached a station stop, and I was momentarily afraid that he had a weapon, that he was going crazy, that we were all in danger.  I looked around and saw that most of the other passengers were African-American; a few were Hispanic or Asian.  I felt very small and female and very pale.  There was one other Caucasian woman in the car, that I could see, we made eye contact and she gave me a very small smile.

When we reached the next station, the man stopped yelling and must have gotten off the car, because a woman was yelling to stop him.  I needed to get off too and switch to the local, but I didn't want to be on the platform with the scary, crazy, violent man.  There seemed to be a scrum of shouting people moving along the platform and then up the stairs.  The doors of the car were blocked by people watching and shouting, so I went to the other end and got out.  There was still a fuss on the platform, and above me, on the mezzanine, a middle-aged man in a suit, carrying a large duffel, was running, and several police officers were running behind him.  I couldn't make sense of that and thought maybe it wasn't related.  I walked to the other end of the platform to wait for the local to arrive; there were fewer people there, and they seemed oblivious to the disturbance.  Then, two or perhaps three minutes later, the man with the duffel was ten feet away from me, and there were two police officers, and there was a man in a red t-shirt standing under the stairs.  He was young and skinny and unshaven and not very tall, and he wasn't wearing a coat.  He didn't look any more violent or frightening than anyone else on that platform, but the man with the duffel was pointing at his face, where he had a black eye, and the police officers handcuffed the man in the red t-shirt.  

I wasn't sure whether to feel afraid, because someone got hurt who shouldn't have, and it could have been worse and it could have been me, or safe, because a black eye isn't permanent and the perpetrator was apprehended, or sorry for the man who had so much anger and no winter coat, or sorry for the man with the duffel who got punched for no reason.  Mostly I felt confused, because sometimes I am the person on the subway who is taking up too much space and and sometimes I am the person who is angry at them.  And it is easy, in New York - a high-variance place, as Megan says - for a night to go terribly wrong, and end in getting punched (or worse) or arrested even if it started with a routine commute or going to meet some friends on the other side of town.  It is also easy for a night to go terribly right, and it is easiest of all for a night to go in some direction you completely didn't expect, which is what seems to almost always happen since I've been here.

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