The morning before Thanksgiving was one for the books. It’s going to go down in history as one of the most dramatic of my life. Or maybe my life in New York. Either way, completely unforgettable.
It started early, at 3.55am, when I woke up to get ready for my trip to Pittsburgh. I was out the door 20 minutes later, and 6 minutes after that waiting on the subway platform for the A train. I was eager, wide awake, and hungry. I had packed a banana and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to eat for my breakfast later in the morning, but decided to eat the banana right away instead. I opened it once I was on the train, and left the peel on the seat beside me. I didn’t think it mattered much since it was so very early; there wouldn’t be enough people travelling for it to be in the way of someone’s seat.
I started reading my book, Cutting for Stone, and a few stops in heard a man trying to get the attention of a woman in my section. It could have been me, or it could have been the woman sitting perpendicular to me. We were the only two in our part of the car. Both of us ignore him. But then he says, “Sitting next to the banana!” and it was obvious that he meant me. I continued trying to ignore him, but his voice was this ridiculous falsetto. Was he putting it on, as part of a bizarre attempt to woo me? Or did he really talk that way? (I hope it was the former, because going through life with that voice would be hard for any person, let alone a straight black man.)
The banana comment was the beginning of an endless stream of chatter. He showed remarkable skill at keeping a conversation going in spite of the fact that I was almost entirely uninvolved:
That’s how you eat? I’d like to take you out, that’s how you eat.
Just in case it wasn’t obvious enough that he was talking to me, he refers to my bright pink Jansport –
With the backpack. You a teacher or something? (no response) You do hair? (Maybe because he thinks my hair looks nice? It’s in two large twists.) If you were my teacher would I bring you a banana, instead of an apple? (Finally I give in, thinking that was cute. I nod.) Yea? That’s how you like it? (Oh my goodness, what have I done?! Completely mortified, I gaze squarely at my book, ears closed.)
I got a job. Get your boyfriend a job too. Get him off the couch. (No response.) Oh he got a job? A big job? (Studiously examining the page in front of me.)
He a cop? You like that? Tie you up? (Ohh my gosh! :O Is he kidding? I continue looking down, and perhaps my face revealed something of my horror -) Oh is that too much? (Yes, most definitely. Please be quiet, how are you still talking?)
Says something about bitches and wanting things and how I’m not like them. How he’s deduced my character and quirks from our non-conversation is beyond me. I don’t know what he read in my face after that statement –
I’m sorry I don’t mean to curse. Too much profanity.
Then his stop comes up.
Have a nice day. Just cuz you beautiful. You and the woman in the orange coat. I want both a y’all.
The woman in the orange
coat jacket has had her head tucked into her chest, like a sleeping bird, this entire time. Neither of us acknowledge him as he goes out.
This guy was mildly entertaining, with his high pitched voice and persistent attempts to engage me in conversation, but he made me feel extremely exposed with his sexual comments. If it weren’t for his voice, I’m sure I would have felt more uncomfortable, even threatened.
After he left the car, I felt bemused, and relieved that I could get back to reading in peace. I would have been happy just to have this scene to write about: women’s lives are constantly interrupted because some strange man or another wants our attention. I think there’s an actual negative impact on our lives and the things we’re able to accomplish because of this. I wrote down a few quotes from his monologue, planned how I wanted to share what happened with friends and settled back into my book. I had a long ride to the airport ahead of me.
Barely 20 minutes later another man disrupted the quiet of the train. This guy was on the opposite side of the car from me, but yelling loudly enough that there was no mistaking what he was saying or how angry he was feeling. Initially, I ignored him. There were only a few other people in my section, all men, and they continued sitting silently too, half-sleeping. The man was spewing profanities, dropping f-bombs every other word. Maybe he was one of the mentally unstable homeless, or maybe he had an anger problem and someone upset him; either way, I knew the best thing to do was to lay low and wait for the situation to pass.
We got to the next stop, and though I thought about moving to another car, it would’ve been hard to make the quick transition with all my bags. I hoped/expected Enraged Man would leave, but he remained, and a few more people got on. One, a 20something man with long, neatly styled dreadlocks, well dressed in all black, sat down next to me. He looked around, slightly confused, as he became aware of the situation. After a second, he settled in to wait Enraged Man out too, like the rest of us.
But he only got more upset.
Someone nearby him must have said something to him – bad move – because he directed his attention toward them. A whole new onslaught of profanities ensued, and people started shifting. I looked up and realised that he was shouting at a white woman. I assumed she said something to him about calming down. A black man near her got up, moved to confront Enraged Man. Then two other men a few seats away from him also got up. There are now four men bracing themselves for a fight on a fast moving train. My anxiety level rises. This is America. Any one of those men, or someone else in the car, might have a gun and feel like they need to use it. That would be the stupidest thing of all to do, but with emotions as high as they are, I wouldn’t be surprised.
“STOP FUCKING STARING AT ME!!”
“MIND YOUR FUCKING BUSINESS! THIS IS HOW PEOPLE GET MURDERED!”
WHAT?!? If I was concerned before, I’m seriously frightened now.
The man opposite me shifts in his seat.
“I ain’t gonna touch her! I ain’t gonna touch her! I do this (mimes talking with his hand) to shut y’all up.”
The man opposite me shifts once more, rises. He takes a few steps toward the drama. The man in black next to me moves around too, also preparing for a fight. I think to myself, please, both of you, stay seated and calm. Don’t bring the fight over here.
The man next to me says to us, “I’m just trying to keep calm. Not smack his ass.” No one responds, but I wonder to myself – Where is your bravado coming from? How is it possible that you’re thinking of taking this man down while I’m here concerned about how he could seriously hurt anyone of us on this train?
“THIS IS MY FUCKING TRAIN!!!”
“STOP FUCKING STARING AT ME!!”
The atmosphere is tense and the air is almost ringing with nervous energy. The man in black says, more to me and the man opposite us than to Enraged Man, “Please don’t come this way, because I’m gonna smack the shit out of you.”
We all continue to sit in silence, waiting for the next stop. I’m hoping that this guy will get off. No one is directly engaging him anymore, at least as far as I can tell, but still, he’s carrying on with his rant.
“Old faggot niggas can suck my dick. Fuck all y’all niggas!”
This last, hate-filled declaration seems to be the end of his diatribe. He continues cussing and carrying on, but at a much lower voice. The atmosphere relaxes.
Then we reach our next stop, and after waiting a minute or so for the conductor to get us going again, he announces that the service has been terminated due to a rail problem. We all need to disembark. At 5.15 in the morning. There begins the second pressure-filled part of my day, as I deal with a repeatedly dying phone and missed uber rides in a battle to get to the airport on time.