The Ride of My Life

The code for any reasonable New Yorker riding the subway is to stare ahead and keep to yourself. It is your time to gear up or down from the workday, listen to some tunes, or to daydream. More than once (I've been told) I've stared at someone I know and didn't realize it was them. A lot of life is condensed into static noise every day underground. There are times, though, when that static becomes clear and you are face-to-face with a harsh reality that you can't escape. And, as I found out, those realities can be doozies.

On a Sunday morning, I boarded the express 2 train from Seventy-second Street, en route to work. The trains aren't normally crowded on a Sunday, and on this particular morning there were only about fifteen people in the car. Plenty of seats were open, but since I was only going one stop, I decided to stand. Everybody was seated except for the man across from me. He was jittery and had tattoos on his face, neck, and knuckles—the only visible areas of his skin.

As the doors closed and the train started moving, the man moved to the center of the car. "Alright everybody, listen up," he announced. "Some motherfucker on this train is about to get their ass beat by me before these doors open again." Again, this was a Sunday morning.

I leaned back on the closed doors and looked around. Everyone on the train had the same look of absolute fear on their faces. The psycho paced the train, walking back and forth, looking at each person. 

"Who's it gonna be?" he asked.

The train crawled passed the Sixty-sixth Street station. 

Good God, I thought, there are two more stations to go before these doors open again. 

He walked over to a woman sitting toward the middle of the train and put his hand under her chin. He looked at her, snickered to himself, and moved on. I made eye contact with a man sitting a few paces down. He was about the same age and build as me. We made an agreement with our eyes that if something were to go down, we would be in it together.

The Fiftieth Street station was visible outside the train as the man walked towards me and leaned on the doors opposite.

One more stop to go. 

C'mon, c'mon, c'mon. I was suddenly very aware of my heartbeat, which seemed to have migrated up to my ear drums. He started to clench and unclench his fists. If I hadn't used the bathroom before leaving my apartment, I am certain I would have stained pants by now. I looked over to my new wingman, who was now looking away. Thanks. 

I have never been in a one-on-one fight—a few melees in my late-teens where I had to keep my head on a swivel, but not a fight where I had to hold my own. I replayed in my head all the movie fight scenes I could remember. Presuming he was right-handed, I could anticipate the first punch and grab his arm with one hand as I landed a knock-out blow with the other, like Brad Pitt in Snatch.

Or, like Robert DeNiro in Mean Streets, I could bury my head in his chest and drive him to and fro, only taking short, ineffective punches to my back until the doors opened.

"You are all lucky I'm in a generous mood," he said, looking straight at me. The train had just pulled into the Times Square station.

The doors opened and I took a few steps backwards onto the platform, still looking at him. Everybody got off the train, except him, as a new set of passengers got on. I stood on the platform as the doors closed, crippled in my attempt to warn the people of what they were about to get into, like an onlooker the moment before an impending car crash. The train started to move when I could see the man start to address his new set of passengers. 

I hoped he was still feeling generous.