Thursday, January 25, 2007

Maybe I should just think of it as a live theatre event

I told you, back when I started this here blog, that I might be posting about weird subway encounters from time to time, and I said that because I knew, sooner or later, some unpleasant subway situation would burn itself into my brain, and the only way to get it out would be to blog about it. So, a warning: anger follows.

Yesterday morning I was riding an uptown 1 train with just a handful of passengers in the car -- everybody sitting, and there were still lots of seats. I was reading last week's New Yorker (I was right in the middle of that article about the color consultant, the one that starts out really fun but ends up being mostly about industrial siding, which couldn't be less interesting), but as the doors closed at 72nd Street, I heard: "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry to disturb you..."

I don't know about the rest of you, but when I hear the beginning of a panhandling spiel, I do a quick mental assessment (without looking up, if possible): How easy will this person be to ignore? Or, to put it another way, How likely is it that this person will become confrontational before we get to the next stop? This particular guy looked kind of familiar, and maybe you've seen him too: white guy, short, dark hair, probably in his 40s; dirty, obviously, and kind of wild-eyed. Something about the way he was talking set off alarm bells -- his pitch was loud, fast and nervous, and he was pacing up and down the car while he talked. The words were pretty typical -- "Any food you can spare, or if you don't have food, if you can spare some change, even a penny will help" -- but where most panhandlers shoot for "pathetic" and/or "grateful" in their delivery, his tone was oddly impatient, even hostile, as though we were wasting his time by refusing to surrender the food we had hidden on our persons. This made me nervous, and I considered bailing at the next stop, but he hadn't done anything too out of the ordinary by the time we arrived at 79th street, and I didn't want to wait for another train, so I kept staring at my magazine and hoping he would go away. The train pulled out and he finished working the car, having collected whatever he was going to get. Then, without warning, he approached 2 women who were sitting across from me. They were a mother and daughter, maybe 60 and 30, and as far as I know they had done nothing to attract this man's attention. But he leaned over them until his face was inches from theirs and treated them to a long and vile tirade. I couldn't hear everything he said, but I could tell from the words he emphasized that it was violent, sexual, and generally disgusting. The women stared straight ahead, pretending not to notice him, which is almost definitely what I would have done in their shoes. Having said his piece, he strolled down to the end of the car, said something similarly crazy (but much more polite) to a white-haired man sitting near the door, and then walked back along the length of the car, muttering something about how it was "his stop," and disembarked at 86th Street.

Act two started when the doors shut behind him, and the younger woman came to life. "Did you hear what he said to us?!" she asked the old man at the end of the car, who just shrugged. She turned her attention to the man sitting across from her (and a few seats down from me), and asked him, "Did you hear what he said?!" That man didn't answer audibly, either, which I found extremely provoking. "I would have punched him in the face if he weren't obviously crazy," she said; still no response from the man next to me (other than a "whaddaya-gonna-do" shrug). Not even a "Me too." I'd like to think that, if I were a young and able-bodied man, I would have come to the women's rescue while they were actually being harrassed; probably just a "Do you have a problem with these ladies?" delivered with the proper emphasis would have been enough to make the guy back off. But even if that's not true -- even if a male me would still have just sat there, pretending not to notice what was going on and trying to avoid being cursed at/spat upon/stabbed in turn -- I would at least be willing to acknowledge, once out of danger, that what had just happened was horrifying and unacceptable and unfair, if only to redeem the honor of men in general. Maybe this guy was ashamed of himself for not doing anything, or maybe he was afraid to "get involved," but the whole thing was making me fume. I was about to say so, but then the woman turned back to her mother, who was shushing her, to argue. This might be a good time to mention that these women were Asian; I don't know if that has anything to do with the mother's reaction, but for whatever reason, she felt strongly that her daughter should not be making a fuss. You know, let's all just put this unpleasantness behind us. This made me even more angry, but I didn't want to get between them. They argued about that until the train reached my stop, and I got off the train wondering what, if anything, I could have done differently, and whether I can take anything but resentment away from the experience.

I am absolutely certain that, if those 2 women had been accompanied by a man, the crazy panhandler guy would not have harrassed them. He wasn't that crazy; he was a predator who knew an opportunity when he saw one. And who guessed, correctly and probably based on past experience, that none of the other passengers would interfere. The other thing I know for sure is that if I had gotten off at 72nd Street, like my brain was telling me to, I would have avoided witnessing the whole ugly scene. So does that mean, from now on, knowing what I do, I should never ride the subway without a man to protect me? Or, if I must, I should be sure to give myself an extra 15 minutes to get where I'm going, so I can afford to switch trains whenever things are looking a bit dodgy? I hope you can appreciate why I'm not really satisfied with those conclusions.

From time to time I hear people complain about the draconian authority of the transit police: they fined me for putting my feet on a seat; they gave me a ticket for having my bike on a train even though it was totally empty; etc. But I have witnessed situations like the one I just described many times, and never once has a police officer been around to intervene. So I want to know what lines they're actually policing, because it isn't the ones I ride. However, whether or not they're around to enforce the rules, I do know that there is a rule against subway panhandling. And that's because panhandlers make the subway not just uncomfortable, but unsafe. So I don't give money to anybody on the subway, regardless of their talent or sob story. That seems responsible, but it doesn't really do anything about the problem of men victimizing women, for kicks, because they know they can get away with it. It doesn't alleviate any of the fear and frustration those 2 women are now carrying around. So what's the answer? A return to "women only" subway cars (which they have in other countries, I am told)? Do you New Yorkers have a coping mechanism for these situations? Have you been victimized, and/or have you fought back? I would really love to hear about it.


Anonymous said...

Disturbing subway tales are definately something I do NOT miss about New York life.
Last weekend I happened to be in town for a friend's Bridal Shower, and had a lovely visit, subway- and all other things-wise. Except for my final trip back to Penn Station, when I boarded the E train at 51st Street. The ride went something like this:
First stop: uneventful. The No-Nonsense Conductor Lady goes through her usual "this is a south-bound E train to the World Trade Center" (why do they still say that, by the way?)
Second stop: She makes the same announcement, but the doors are still open. She leaves them open for about 30 seconds in total silence before closing them without warning and sending the train rather abruptly on its way. Not so unusual, maybe, but still, it *felt* strange.
Third stop: "This is 50th Street station. If there are any police officers on board this train, please report to the conductor's station." Then BOOM, closes the doors before anyone, police officer or not, could have possibly gotten off.
Fourth stop: pulling into the station, she beeps S.O.S. on the horn. Twice. My fellow passengers and I exchange glances. I wait for alarms, for someone to be tackled on the platform, *something* indicating suspicious activity, but nothing happens.
Fifth stop: She beeps S.O.S. again, and slows the train to a crawl as we approach the station. She announces "Times Sqaure, 42nd Street..." but her voice has changed from no-nonsense to rather harried. About half of the passengers bolt, though that was probably their intended stop anyway. I debate getting off, but decide to wait it out. She closes the doors, announces that 34th is next, and then remains in the station for another 30 seconds, letting us all reflect on what could possibly be happening while she blows S.O.S. on the horn again.
Finally we got to Penn Station, which she approached in the same s-l-o-w manner. By the time the train stopped the doors opened, I was standing at the ready with my suitcase and was actually looking forward to my NJTransit commute. (Which, by the way, smelled like friend chicken and involved a passenger with some very noisey pet birds in a cage covered with garbage bags.)

And that's my scary/weird subway story. Not terribly exciting, but it sure made me uneasy.

Anonymous said...

That's right, I said "friend chicken." I meant it, too.


Mollie said...

There is just so much to hate about the subway. I probably would have bailed on that train after the "police officer" comment... The MTA has a company-wide policy of never informing customers of what's going on if they can possibly avoid it. (I'm sure that's in writing somewhere.)

I assume the reason they still say that about the WTC is that so many tourists are trying to get there, and it saves the conductor from having to answer questions all day.

Sometimes I get onto a subway car and see police officers standing there, and I can't decide whether I feel more or less safe. Less safe because, Uh oh, why are they there? But more safe because I know at least I won't be cursed at by some schizo bum while they're standing there.