Tuesday, February 14, 2006

New York Minute

It probably didn't take any longer than that. The kind of moment people who live elesewhere suspect is a major component of life here in the big city.

Let me paint the picture. A crowded morning rush hour F train, between Carroll and Bergen Streets in Brooklyn. People packed elbow to elbow, trying not to touch each other. A typical, blandly uncomfortable subway ride.

Then I hear a woman saying "Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me." A mid-to-late middle aged black woman with shabby attire was politely enough making her way through the subway car. She wasn't panhandling, just pushing through the crowd. I immediately became wary, because, despite the polite words, her action was aggressive. Only someone spoiling for a confrontation would be pushing through that rush hour crowd.

Well, a bit past me, I heard her say "Excuse me," more insistently. Both pitch and volume increased sharply. Then, she started screaming. "Exuse me! Excuse me!" in the face of a young asian woman who backed off a little, saying "What's wrong with you?" Of course, the screamer went ballistic, tearing her voice with volleys of "I said excuse me! I said excuse me!" The target of the abuse flinched and looked frightened, but made a meek attempt to verbally defend herself, which incensed her attacker further.

We happened to pull into a station at this point, and I stuck my head out the door to see if perhaps a policeman might be summoned. No dice. In another moment the crazy moved on, with the same "excuse me"s with which she had begun. The poor woman who had been attacked looked freaked and exchanged a word or two with a concerned fellow straphanger.

Now all this happened maybe eight feet from me, but with a clutch of people between myself and the conflict. Nevertheless, immediately afterward, I began to wonder whether I shouldn't have done something else. Something more. Maybe stepped in or at least verbally confronted the screaming crazy so as to provide her with an alternate target. But, besides that this would have been an unpleasant experience, I also did not want to escalate the situation. There was never any physical contact, just outrageous menacing. If there had been I am sure I or someone closer would have stepped in.

I hope.

But, it also reminds me of the stories you hear of the dead man riding the train for hours without being reported. Of people mugged and passersby doing nothing. I believe there was a famous rape in which the woman's screams went unheeded. The thing is, people are afraid. To speak up is to make a target of oneself. If nothing else, when someone else is being abused, it means that you are, for the moment at least, safe from abuse yourself.

There is a further component to this. I don't want to go into blame-the-victim land here, but she violated a sacred rule of this stupid city: never engage a nut. Never contradict them, never make eye contact with them, just move out of the way, and let them move on. I think perhaps she mistook the screamer for a normal. She didn't look necessarily homeless, just poor, and she was observing a social code in her use of "excuse me." What maybe the victim of this assault missed is that Excuse Me Woman was being very confrontational simply by forcing her way through the car. The asian woman said maybe three or four things. Each time she did, I cringed, knowing it would incite Excuse Me further. Only by keeping quiet could she escape the situation.

I try to avoid the subway as much as possible, especially at rush hour. Unfortunately, I think the bike's got to stay inside this week. (We got a bit of snow.) Hopefully I won't have any more New York Minute updates.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sins of omission instead of commission.

But I don't really think you could have done anything.

The story is odd because the behavior is NOT that odd. Shoving through crowded trains is, unfortunately, a common pastime for some rather social-skills-lite people. The thing you describe is that chilling moment when you go from perceiving normal aggression to realizing the aggressor is off their marbles. It's scary.

I still don't think you could have done anything.