Fear Response(s)

B/W photo of the E train, by Sean DuBois
Photo courtesy of Sean Dubois

Crazy was on my morning commute.

This is New York, so that’s not unusual. Doesn’t matter which line, if you take the NYC subways to and from work, you have your own share of guess-what-happened-on-the-subway-today stories.

I appreciate subway musicians, and almost always drop a dollar in the hat, good or awful. They’re trying and 90% of the time my day is better after listening to the acoustic guitar/drum circle/mariachi band/guy with the harp at Grand Central/drummer with no arms/guy who sings to recorded music/every musician who has ever played under a banner–or without one–in the New York City subways.

A breakdancer/gymnast/acrobat team means spending most of my time too distracted to read, worrying whether or not I’m going to get kicked in the face during a double flip in that very cramped space.

I’m almost immune to the panhandlers. Most of us have seen the same man/woman/man with child/woman with multiple children whose house just burned down, again, for months. Years. I won’t give cash, but I have been known to give food, even that can burn you.  The homeless kid begging for cash to feed his dog. I said “Let’s get off the train at the next stop and I’ll buy a case of dog food.” He wasn’t interested, and I wasn’t surprised.

I’m jaded. Maybe because I misspent part of my youth panhandling Penn Station, playing off my young/girl face, appealing to parent-aged people with the sob story that I’d been robbed/lost my purse/needed to get home to Long Island/my parents must be worried. This was before cell phones and kids with credit cards.

After an hour, I’d have had enough to drink all night in downtown bars, without having to dip into my paycheck.

Maybe I’m jaded because of the grandma (blue flowered dress, short thick body, pill box hat with a net) I gave $20 to in the 80s. She’d had her purse snatched; she just wanted to get home to Riverdale. My grandma lived in Riverdale, hence, the $20. Twenty dollars was a lot in the early 80s. A few months later I ran into her again. Same dress. Same pillbox hat. Same purse snatching.

Not this time grandma, I’m on to you.

The Jesus-told-me-to-tell-you folks, well, them I just want to send home to Jesus as fast as I can. I think you know what I mean. I know for a fact Jesus wants me to have quiet time on the subway to read. It’s the whole reason he made subways. It’s why he makes the train stall in-between stations–so Jodi has more time to read. It’s all I can do not to stand up and scream in my best I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-it-anymore voice: Jesus wants you to shut the fuck up and let me read.

But I don’t. I do what everyone else does. I put in my earbuds.

And then there are the fights, the verbal intimidation. Large men to small men. Men to women. Women to men. Occasionally, when it seems prudent, I intervene. Like the giant man berating a smaller man–a racial thing–big man wanted the little guy’s seat. It looked like it was going to get ugly, so I got up and offered big man my seat. He didn’t take it, but it did defuse the situation. I sat next to a woman being sexually harassed by a man, another being attacked with hate speech.

You live and work here and you learn to deal with living in close quarters. You make judgement calls in overstuffed metal contraptions that are hurtling under the streets of New York.

Yesterday, crazy was on the E train for my morning commute.

I got on at 74th Street/Roosevelt Avenue. There are five stations you speed through before the train stops again. 65th Street. Northern Blvd. 46th Street. Steinway. 36th Street. And then Queens Plaza.

I define a good morning as one where I get a seat on the subway, so I can read comfortably, as Jesus intended.

Yesterday was a good morning. Shortly after we pulled out of 74th Street, the yelling started. Not unusual. A raised angry voice. It happens.

It started to build, quickly. It was coming from a young man at the other end of the car in front of one of the doors, and directed to an older (but not old) man casually leaning in a corner. If something had happened, I didn’t see it. Angry young man got angrier. Louder. Pounding on the floor of the car with his feet hard enough I could feel the vibration in the floor at the other end of the car. Pounding on the windows and door with enough force and rage I worried the window would break or the door would open.

People were quiet. They glanced sideways to assess the situation. It was one of those times we knew, in a pack mentality, a hive mind, not to turn our heads. Except for that girl—there is always that one girl— sitting across from me surreptitiously filming him on her iPhone and laughing to herself.

But that’s how emotion comes, sometimes. You cry when you’re angry. Or you laugh when you’re scared.

No one was talking. No music leaking out from anyone’s cell phone. No children chattering. The one small child with his mother at the far end of the car, sat silently, looking straight ahead. He looked calm.

The pounding, the rage, the yelling got louder. As if frustrated that the yelling wasn’t eliciting a response, he started cursing. Someone was a little bitch. Maybe the man in the corner. Maybe a person only the angry man could see.

I put my book away. My umbrella was the only weapon I had, for offense or defense. A redheaded girl sitting nearby wondered quietly if someone should try the intercom on the wall to alert police. No, I shook my head. Other folks did the same. Quietly, we shook our heads. No.

Don’t draw his attention, you may as well throw lighter fluid on a fire.

I thought about texting 911, thought how if the cops met the train at the next stop, it would screw up everyone’s commute.

I rethought my vehement anti-wifi on all subways position. This would have been a very good time to have wifi. My phone said No Service.

It got louder. More rageful. He was losing focus and letting his rage start to spread.

What are you looking at bitch? Was I talking to you? Was I talking to you, bitch?

To no one in particular, to everyone. Pounding. Pounding. Pounding. With so much force on the floors with his sneakered feet, on the door with his closed fists.

The train stopped in one of the dark tunnels between stations.

If you ride the subways to work, you know this happens with such frequency, at least for a few moments, that most of the time you’re not even aware of it. This time, I felt everyone hold their breath, do some mental calculations, predicting what might happen next. What would happen if this was a prolonged delay?

If you’ve ridden the subways with any regularity you have spent at least 30 minutes stalled between stations, at least once. Probably more times than that. We held our collective breath and hoped this was not one of those times.

Pounding. Yelling. Pounding. Spitting, unintentionally when he yelled and again, spitting intentionally. His rage had found a new outlet. It was reaching out. It sounds like nothing, spitting, but it seemed he was looking for a new target for his rage, seeing how far he could push all of us/each of us/one of us.

We sat in silence, each looking as if nothing was going on, our unspoken agreement, our learned behavior in the face of real honest-to-god dangerous and crazy. Some stared at books, or stared ahead. No one had headphones on or earbuds in. We were alert and acting as if we weren’t. But we were.

The redhead, the iPhone girl, and I agreed–in whispers–we were getting off at the next station. iPhone girl was going to switch cars. I was going to change trains. I didn’t know what the redhead had planned. I feel confident assuming the rest of the passengers were making plans of their own for when the doors opened again.

The train began to move, and as well pulled in to Queens Plaza crazy crossed over and stepped to the door that was about to open. I got my first good look at him as he stepped up and started pounding on that door with his fists. Smashing his chest into it. Trying to pry the doors open before we’d even pulled into the station.

He was young, maybe in his twenties. Skinny, with a backpack. Other than that, he was unremarkable. I wouldn’t be able to describe him to anyone, not in any way that would distinguish him from the thousands of other tall, young, thin men with backpacks.

Rage was his distinguishing characteristic. His most memorable feature.

He stepped out onto the platform at Queens Plaza; I stayed ready to leave the train, should he step back on, because crazy will do that. Crazy will fake you out. Crazy will change his mind with no obvious reason and then you’re trapped in a metal box with him again.

The doors closed, crazy and angry on the outside, us safely pulling out of the station, and in a heartbeat the car buzzed with more than the usual buzz of conversation. We talked about him. Some folks had theories about what his problem was. Others thought they had information about what started it. People were chattering.

I just had relief.

I looked at the redhead and iPhone girl .

“I’ve been on the train with a lot of crazy, but this is the first time I’ve ever been scared.”

They nodded. The little boy and his mother had begun playing finger games and laughing. A girl put her ear buds back in.

We’d been really scared and now it was over.

I opened my book. I was in the middle of the scene in Abigail Thomas’s newest book, What Comes Next and How to Like It: A Memoir, where she confronts her daughter about something that had caused a rift between them. It’s a touching moment. I started to tear up.

Abby is an excellent writer. And it was a very touching moment, but it was the timing.

That scene in that book was there just when I needed it, giving me the opportunity to turn that hyper-vigilance and fear into something I could let go of.

In the moment, I couldn’t think about being afraid. I’d assessed my weapons, my options, the rest of the folks on the train, the chances of this going south, all the public violence that has happened, random killings, the guy with the hammer that had gone around smashing folks heads in, the rage you don’t see coming and then you’re hurt or dead or trying to put a stranger back together.

Fear, in the moment, can make you sharp. It can make you ready. It will stop time so your brain can make plans.

My heart was racing when I got topside. Until I was standing on the corner of 8th Avenue and 35th Street, I hadn’t even been aware of how hard it had been working.

When danger is removed, fear doesn’t always go away with it. No one has taught us what to do with the residual fear. Depending on the level and length of fear/danger, some folks drink. Or suffer with PTSD. Or become numb. It’s why there are support groups after major disasters like school shootings and terrorist attacks.

But we don’t have those for everyday life. We don’t have those skills in place when crazy boards the train and takes everyone hostage as you crawl through five subway stops without stopping.

Sometimes, you’re lucky and your brain finds a way to let it out safely, like air seeping quietly and slowly from a leaky tire. Page 68 provided a tiny hole that let my fear leak out. Slow enough for it to be effective, while still looking like everything’s okay on the outside.



5 thoughts on “Fear Response(s)

  1. You are a gifted writer, Jodi!
    As a fellow New Yorker, I felt like I was beside you on the train. Thank you for sharing. Mental illness can be very frightening inside a subway car (and elsewhere). On the flip side, human kindness, which I’ve also experienced a lot in my years of subway riding, restores my faith in the human condition.

    1. Nope. I saw it. But I can never hear it too many times. Thanks, Andrea. And thanks for reading what for some reason needed to be extraordinarily long!

  2. Such a wonderful snapshot of a very specific moment. Fuckin’ iphone girl. I was scared she was gonna blow it all up.

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