I was on the east side and I was running for the S train. No, not running. I was moving fast, which would be considered running if I lived anywhere else. But I live in a city where everyone moves this way when you’ve got somewhere to be. It’s kind of like driving at a certain speed in spite of what the speed limit says, because that’s how fast traffic is going. When everyone around you is moving that way, you either pick up the pace or get run over. I’ve lived in New York City for so long that I know how to eat lunch, talk on my cell and move it with a quickness – in heels.
Everyone around me was going in the same direction at breakneck speed like some urban herd, with some band or some panhandling toothless freak or some guitar player’s incessant canoodling as the living soundtrack to the airtight nightmare i call “getting there.” When the music is full-tilt and I am surrounded by oblivious strangers, when my legs get to swinging underneath me like I’m a lifesized metronome and my eyes are wide with exhaustion behind my dark shades, when the flow and the crush of the herd makes my mind wander, that’s when I know I’m moving in stereo.
About a month or so ago, I was caught in one of these panoramic sensurround lapses that forces so much noise and confusion onto me that I didn’t really hear anything at all. On this particular day, I was thinking that if I moved from train (S) to train (2 or 3) to train (1), I would be home inside of 30 minutes. No waiting on the overcrowded platforms, no down time for casual interaction of any kind. Keep it moving – that’s the goal.
I hear them before I see them: three black girls, long and lean and somewhat lanky, one of them pushing a baby stroller, the other two lagging behind her, around her – falling behind, catching up, hanging on. Bobbing in and out of the herd in their own rhythm as though they were the only ones there. It’s a game they’re used to playing. They are laughing so loudly, it almost sounds as though they are screaming. Sweet-faced girls. Pretty. Probably teenagers. I don’t give them a second thought.
I head for the back of the train because at the next and last and only stop, it will be the front, which will crash-land me in a direct path to my next train line. Everyone is already sandwiched in every doorway I pass like sardines in a can. They look like obedient sheep being led to the slaughterhouse. I approach the last door and who do I see? Those three black girls. I step in next to one of them, I murmur an “excuse me” to her, she readjusts and then I wait for the door to close. Right as the doors are about to come together, this white woman runs up and jumps on. She was blonde and she was pale and she was dressed in black. It was a nice overcoat. She had heels on. Comfortable heels. She didn’t look nondescript, but she did look like she worked in an office. Immediately the black girl to my left started loud-talking and shoving into her with her arm and her shoulder, trying to get her off the train. “can’t you see there’s no room?” something like that. The black girl to my right immediately started to calm her down. And the black girl with the baby threatened imminent bodily harm if the child got hurt. That’s when the doors went all herky-jerky the way they do sometimes when the train is packed and someone’s belongings are keeping them from closing completely. It’s like they’re having an epileptic fit. To tell you the truth, it was almost as though the doors wanted her to get off the train, too. But she didn’t move. She didn’t say anything, either. She just held her ground physically and looked down. And then the doors closed, the girl stopped hitting her and the train began to move.
Everyone saw this girl hitting this woman and no one came to her defense. I was standing right next to her, and I said nothing. I figured she could handle herself as a city dweller. No. Scratch that. What I really figured was that it wasn’t any of my business. I figured that interfering in moments like these is what gets you beat up or badly injured or even killed. I figured that with a train filled with men, I shouldn’t have to say anything. Some gentleman would appear. Or a cop. Or something. Or maybe what I really figured is that it was over. But it wasn’t over. The black girl to my left said something like, this lady (she points at me) said excuse me but this one (she points at the blonde) said nothing, and she starts going off. She’s loud and young but she’s old enough to have already learned that it’s all in the delivery, so she’s smiling and sounding really light and affable as she’s saying all of this foul racist garbage, stuff like “if I was a certain kind of bitch, I would kick your ass,” and all this junk. Someone on the train said something. She goes, who said that? No one said anything. She kept going.
Honestly. It’s a two minute train ride with one stop in either direction and I’m telling you, it felt like I was on that thing for more than a half-hour.
The black girl to my left went on and on and on. She had a chip in her heart, she laughed. And then all of a sudden, we were there. It looked like it was over. Everyone wanted it to be over. The blonde turned around and faced the door so that as soon as she stepped out of the train, she’d be on her way. The doors opened and pow! It happened in an instant: The black girl to my left shoved the woman with all her might and made some declaratory statement about white people, with the black girl to my right begging her not to and the black girl with the baby carriage laughing; some guy over my shoulder said, “don’t do that to the lady”; and the blonde staggered, very nearly fell, recovered and kept going. Picked up the pace, moved fast and disappeared into the crowd. It all happened in a nanosecond. It was over just that fast.
I can’t stop thinking about the blonde, how frightened she was, how she never said anything the whole time. I keep wondering what I would have done -- if I would have hit that girl in the face and shoved her onto the tracks or kept it moving. i actually thought about Bernard Goetz. i know that statistically, i'm the one that's more likely to get physically assaulted or harassed or robbed, but i'm convinced that if stuff like that keeps happening, paranoia will turn this place into a city of Bernie Goetz' guns.
and they won't be the ones saying "what are you going to do, shoot us" either.