When you ride the subway every day, there are a few experiential milestones you inevitably pass, and never forget. The first time the doors close while your bag is stuck between them. The first time a crazy person holds your entire train car captive during a morning commute--for me it was the time a woman recited the book of Revelations in its entirety, in a loud, monotone voice: "And thine flesh shall be consumed by worms of fire." The first time a shirtless guy enters the train and sits down, perfectly relaxed, as if riding the subway shirtless weren't the most insane and filthy thing in the whole world. (This particular milestone is exclusive to outer-boroughs travel and often signals that summer has arrived; like seeing your first robin redbreast of the season.) The first time you play keep-away with an empty bottle of Snapple as it rolls around on the subway floor. And the first time you witness a fight.
I had to ride the subway almost thirteen years before I witnessed my first real-live in-train altercation, but it was worth it the wait. Because it was weird.
It was a crowded rush hour train so I'm not sure exactly how the fight started but here's what I was able to piece together from the back-and-forth. As we were all entering the train, trying to squeeze in, there was some jostling and squeezing and, in one instance, a hard, aggressive shove. Most would agree that this slightly over-the-line rude behavior, so the person who was received the shove responded in kind, by suggesting the shover have rough sex with himself.
Normally, swearing would be sufficient to defuse the situation but not this time, because apparently the guy who was doing the shoving decided he did not appreciate being told to fuck himself. Maybe he was thinking, "You try to push a guy to ground to gain faster entry into a crowded subway car, and this is the thanks you get?" So after a few seconds of stewing, he made his way back through the car to give this toilet mouth a piece of his mind. And that was not even the weird part. Not by a long stretch.
See, the guy with the toilet mouth--the one who had merely defended his dignity by cursing--was a pretty beefy young gentleman. Leather jacket. Goatee. Not the kind of person you would instinctively bully. And the guy who had done all of the shoving and was now getting right up in this big young guy's face to defend his natural right to knock strangers around according to his whims, looked almost exactly like Ed Harris…if Ed Harris had been stranded on a desert island without food for six weeks…and then a FedEx box washed up on the Island one day, containing some clothing from the LL Bean Holiday Catalog. He was very bald and tan, wearing a sweater vest and hush puppies and I would say he weighed about as much as a box of animal crackers. If I had to guess what he did for a living, I would say, "heir to the Reddenbacher fortune." What I'm trying to say is, he cut a very physically unimposing figure.
However, someone must have forgotten to mention that glaringly obvious fact to the future popcorn magnate because he was laying on the intimidation act all thick-like. And he was doing it in a very strange, old-fashioned way, with finger pokes and threats such as, "Wanna tango? Well, pick a dance partner: (Raising his fists) Fred Astaire or Eleanor Powell?" At one point, in a somewhat needless attempt to defend himself, the young guy said, "hey man, I don't want any trouble but you don't go around shoving people. That's fucking rude," and suddenly Ed Harris with AIDs makes this big show of pretend-shock, addressing the entire train, and shouts, "Well, well, well. I guess you think New York is a real Gentleman's Tea Party—we're all soooo polite here—well, let me tell you something. This is a man's town and you're just a tourist so why don't you take this train back to Hackensack if you can't make hay of the hustle-and-bustle of Gotham City." (For the record, up until this moment, I had never heard the expression, "gentleman's tea party," and can neither confirm nor deny its pre-existence.)
If a fight had broken out at this point, it surely would have been Marquess of Queensbury rules, but it was not to happen. Instead, the young guy became so spooked he jumped off the train at the very next stop, and in the aftermath of this craziness all that was left was a lot of nervous smiling and repressed titters. And that's where all of this unpleasantness should have ended, but don't worry--it didn't.
Because as soon as the train doors closed again, this Junior Varsity Bernard Goetz decided to pick another fight--with the biggest and blackest guy on the train. I guess he reasoned, "Hmm…which passenger on this train is most capable of killing me with one punch? I think I shall provoke him." So without hesitation he got right in this guy's face, too.
"You want to tell me what's so funny, or are you a coward? Say, how would you like to get your dance card punched by Savion Glover and Alfonso Ribeiro? Let's bring in the noise as well as the funk, except with punches and kicks to the face and kidneys."
The black guy remained pretty calm, and instead of escalating the situation he just stood up as if to say, "Are you sure about this, dude?" This gesture should have been enough to stop an international war, because when he stood it was like one of those cartoons where a guy gets out of a tiny car and he's actually a giant. He was enormous. His shoulders were scraping the roof of the train. His arms were sticking out of the windows, and his shadow cast the entire car in darkness. This had absolutely no effect on our tightly-wound subway vigilante, and all I could think was, either this guy is the most confident part-time research librarian I've ever seen, or he has a shoe knife--some kind of element of surprise he's packing away, to which none of us are privy.
Finally, just when I thought the black guy was going to punch Ed Harris Starring In Angels In America so hard it would cause him to explode into forty smaller guys running around, the train arrived at its next stop and our hero makes his exit but not before threatening, "You're lucky this was my stop. YOU'RE ALL LUCKY." Then, with a loud harrumph and a few more nasty shoves, he was gone.
Now the train was still packed, and the tension was palpable. And while I'm usually a very reserved person, I felt the words spilling out of my mouth faster than my conscience could stop them, and I found myself loudly announcing to the train, "Does anyone need to talk about what just happened here?"