There’s a certain time of year I call “back cover of Peter Gabriel’s second album.” Here it is. We are here. I understood this picture even before I moved to New York (and love this album – hands down, my favorite Peter Gabriel album, later for that “world music” hoodoo). In Pennsylvania, it would be barren coal banks, bare trees and fog in late February. Slushy parking lots and filthy, crusted windshields. Looks like things weren’t much better in the city, and I can now attest to that. If I’m not mistaken, it looks like Peter was doing his Hunchback of Notre Dame impression around Grand Central Station. I’ve been doing that impression myself the past few weeks.
This time last week, I had one of those meaningless confrontations endemic to city dwellers. You probably know my golden rule of the city: avoid meaningless confrontations (and most are meaningless). I’ve found it’s easier to let pass any real or imagined slights, to let it flow like water off the proverbial duck’s back, to keep moving. Because unlike small-town life, in the city, the source of your displeasure, once this moment passes, may never cross your path again, thankfully. So why get crazy? If you picked a fight every time a fight could be picked, you’d be fighting every day. Most days, I understand this completely. But sometimes, on a bad day …
I had boxing Tuesday night, and usually the trains are fine afterwards – just after rush hour, not crowded, even if the train takes a few minutes too long to pull in, it’s not overly crowded. I’m relaxed after a truly harsh work out, want to go home, get some food in my belly, type a few emails, maybe do a little writing, and just kick back. It’s normally a clear shot home.
Well, for reasons unknown to me, the train I was on stopped, and we were informed that we all had to get off, as the train was being re-routed to go back to Brooklyn due to scheduling problems, and would not be going to Queens, as it normally did. To make this even more senseless, two trains on the same line passed through on the other side of the tracks heading to Brooklyn – it made no sense. People were flummoxed, angry and barking at any Transit Authority personnel who dared show his face. It had the potential for a very ugly scene – the platform was about four-people deep, not a comfortable feeling if you haven’t experienced it personally.
So, that train pulls out, in the wrong direction, and we all stand there stewing. Luckily enough, another train, pulled right in, and even luckier, it wasn’t that crowded. Granted, we would make it a lot more crowded by getting on, but I found that as we filed through the open doors, there was still enough room for everyone to get on and not feel sardine-packed. Could have been much worse.
As I’m going through the door, I feel a fist being pressed into the middle of my back, and then immediately hear a loud barking voice saying things, like, "Get on the car, you fucking pigs, you assholes, I need to get home, move it."
I think I could have handled the stupid shit coming out of this guy’s mouth. I can’t stand loud-mouth pricks (who can?), but usually, you leave shitbirds like that alone, they blow themselves out after a few minutes. But the fist in the back … no. You don’t touch people like that in the city. Or anywhere for that matter. I had this debate with Andy S. on the phone later that night, with him busting my balls for getting upset over this, his line of reasoning that people do shit like this all the time. Not to me they don’t. I’ve been bumped, pushed and made to feel uncomfortable many times – usually followed by the person saying “excuse me” – because it’s the city, shit happens, we all know we’re in a bad situation and trying to make it work. But you don’t lean your fist into someone’s back like that – that’s open disrespect, and not something I’ll put up with.
“Shut the fuck up,” I barked.
“No, you shut the …”
The guy couldn’t finish his line because I turned around and knocked him on his ass, out of the train. A simple move – elbowed him full-force in the chest, he went down hard. I could see he was in his 50s, scraggly-looking white guy, looked like a little cracky, gray hair, walrus mustache, couldn’t have been more than 5' 6" and 150 lbs. soaking wet.
If God was feeling nice that night, the doors would have closed, and we would have gone our merry ways. As it was, the doors popped back open, and this guy got up, carrying on like a maniac, slipping through the door just as it closed, this time for good. I had thought about putting a straight right into his face as he went for the door – and probably should have – but let the moment pass, unfortunately.
This guy proceeded to carry on like a busted chainsaw: “You don’t scare me, you big prick! Nobody pushed me around, fuck you! I been shot and stabbed! You aint gonna’ scare me, you fuck! Go ahead and hit me!”
On and on and on, at top volume, while I stood in defensive mode, gym bag at my feet, both arms loose, left foot facing him, right arm pulled back and ready to go to work. I have an overhand right that if you don’t block it and give me an unimpeded shot, will break bones in your body. Most guys who box have one punch like that. It’s my best punch, and this guy had a winter coat in one hand, nothing in the other, both hands at his waist.
Every fiber in my body wanted to beat this guy senseless. He deserved it: rude, loud and obnoxious. He was scared shitless – you could see it in his eyes. And this is why he was yelling – to see if he could raise the heat on me. (It wasn’t working. One of the byproducts of boxing is that you don’t fear physical confrontations. People get hit all the time. Bruises heal. You see how hard it is to damage people with your bare hands, at least when you square off with people who know how to defend themselves.) His little spiel about getting shot and stabbed was also a scare tactic – his unfortunate past wasn’t going to mean a god-damned thing if I dropped a clean overhand right on his head.
Then I looked around me … and realized the entire subway car was terrorized. These people were afraid, and this guy wasn’t going to stop ranting. I could see that this guy wasn’t as dumb as he made himself out to be. He managed to carry on like a mental patient, thus ensuring that these people on the car, who were normally bored out of their skulls on the train, were now a rapt audience witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime confrontation, a guy about to get his ass kicked by another much larger guy who clearly wasn’t backing down.
And I sort of realized that these folks were not going to be able to handle the spectacle of this guy getting beat on a subway train. There’d be blood. There’d be that very hard, unmistakable sound of somebody who knows how to throw a punch landing repeated blows on a person ill-prepared to handle them. There’d be a passed-out person on the train floor. There’d be screaming and crying. Most people aren’t too good with physical violence, even something as basic as a fist fight – it scares the shit out of most people.
On top of that, once this transpires, in this day and age, there will be at least 20 cellphones aimed to me to take video or pictures, and 20 more making 9-1-1 calls to report what had just happened.
In short, I had no urge to go to jail over something this stupid. The guy had me cornered. I strongly doubt by any grand design of his – if I’d have matched his game of stupidity, he’d be back on the subway platform passed out. Fear of jail is a very powerful thing. I don’t want to go there, not even to visit. The concept of going there on an aggravated assault charge, and possibly having a felony charge on my record … just because I’d blown my cool on some asshole who, frankly, has it coming from someone, if not me?
It didn’t take me long to realize I’d be an idiot to knock this guy out, as much as I wanted to do this. You envision these situations being some glorious Dirty Harry-type confrontation where you pop someone hard, they go down, and you feel vindicated. But the reality, especially in public, is a passed-out person slumped on the floor, and witnesses. It’s just not a realistic situation for people who don’t want to go to jail. You want to risk jail over shit like that? You’re a different person than I am … and probably not reading this right now.
And this guy was just not going to stop ranting until I did something. I could see he was scaring the death out of the women on the train. No guys were coming forward. They could see me coiled up like an angry snake and waiting to strike. So what did I do?
I shook my head, said, “Look, I’m sorry I pushed you. That wasn’t cool, and I’m sorry. Been a long day, and I screwed up. That wasn't right, and I shouldn't have done that.”
I extended my open hand for him to shake. The guy stopped ranting. After a long pause, he shook my hand. He looked at me, and in that moment, something broke inside him. Not in a bad way. Whatever defense he had riled himself into just fell away. You could see it in his eyes. He hadn’t expected any sort of compassion in this sort of situation – maybe hadn’t received any in years, for all I knew. He had that way about him.
But when I did that, he slumped down on his haunches, I could see his eyes water. There was an open seat next to us, as most of the car had cleared out of that area, so I said, look, have a seat, I insist. And he kept saying no, probably thinking I was somehow trying to trick him. He stayed slumped against the door, clutching his coat. It was as though offering my hand had more of a profound effect than what he had envisioned happening. In effect, I had accomplished what I set out to do the moment he put his fist on my back and started ranting: I shut him up. The easy way, as opposed to the hard.
I’m an angel? Fuck, no. Like I said, fear of jail is a very strong deterrent towards seeing a situation like this through to a physical conclusion. If that guy had pulled this shit on a street with no one around, I’d have belted him straightaway, no question about it. I came within a few moments of belting him in the situation as it was, before my logical mind kicked in, and I could see how scared other people were on the train. I don’t want to scare people, and I have issues with guys who clearly manufacture some persona to do this – whether it’s how they dress, act, carry themselves. It’s bullshit. It’s fear. I’m not afraid. I feel no need to put fear into other people and don't live that way. And when I saw that I had put myself in a situation where my actions were going to somehow damage these people emotionally, I called it off, realizing all the negative implications of what I was about to do. Everyone loses in that situation.
The next stop came, and as the guy went to get off, he extended his hand again, I shook it and said, “I really am sorry. Have a good night.”
Subway doors closed, and he stood there looking at me, clearly perplexed. As the train pulled out, you could feel a sigh of relief. I sat down in that open seat. The woman next to me goes, “That guy! He was crazy! You should have kicked his ass!” But the guy next to her, middle-aged Greek guy in a fisherman’s hat, goes, “Good for you! You took the high road. Not everyone goes there! The high road is the place to be!” I couldn't tell or care what most people were thinking.
If I took the high road, it surely wasn’t my intention. I took the road that lead most clearly out of a stupid situation that, I have to admit, could have been avoided if I had just let that asshole rant and put his fist in my back. Then again … you have to draw a line somewhere. And while I drew it awkwardly, felt like a total dick afterwards, wish the whole thing had never happened, one thing you learn in the city is that sometimes you have to set boundaries and defend them. Very rarely – this has happened to me only twice in 20 years. But every now and then, shit gets strange. And I’m glad I found a sane way out of this one.
I will be ever so glad to get on that fucking bus tomorrow and ditch town for a few days. Go see slush and black snow somewhere else. Where it’s much harder to get into wacky shit like this. You learn some pretty cool things about human nature when you ride the subway, some truly rewarding things that would never occur to you otherwise. But sometimes you see people at their worst. And sometimes you find yourself in these awkward situations, and surprise yourself by how they pan out. Live and learn.