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New York Minute

Heads Up

Mildly disturbed or potentially dangerous? This is a calculation every subway rider has to make a few times a week – maybe more. Somebody is going to be preaching, that’s just competition for your headphones. Sometimes it’s Showtime, and you need to make sure you’re out of the dancer’s kick-zone. Somebody is going to begging for money, but those guys never threaten. It’s tricky when someone is muttering indecipherable but unmistakably belligerent things to themselves. I see this a lot.

The clear tipping point is physical proximity. When I see a person going out of their way to occupy other people’s personal space, that’s when I take notice. One time, I was taking the train at an odd time – one or two in the afternoon – and only a handful of people were in my car. Two kids hopped on the train, 15 or 16 years old, obviously geeked up on something. They’re banging on the doors, ceiling windows, making their presence known. I was riding the train with a work buddy and, over a pause in our conversation, we heard them mocking our glasses. Trying to be heard.

There are no stops between 125th and 59th. That’s a long time to contemplate a perceived threat. We pretended we didn’t hear them. They got louder. We kept up the shield of ignorance, but we couldn’t return to our conversation. We were on full alert.

They bounced off at 59th St and, just as I thought the ordeal was over, one of the kids threw a punch at me as he was walking off the train. His hand got stuck in the plexi-glass divider that separates the three-seaters from the doors and his extended fingers ended up about 2 inches from my nose. He pulled his hand out just in time to squeeze through the doors.

I felt really stupid and helpless. These kids were obviously dangerous. I was aware of them the moment they got on the train and was prepared, I thought, for anything. And still if it wasn’t for that divider, I would have gotten punched in the face.

[Photo Credit: John Conn]


1 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 25, 2011 10:26 am

Oh, man, this one hit home. Just a few weeks ago I was on a train with a friend, a guy who doesn't mind the idea of fighting, when we saw a big white dude, really drunk. The kind of guy who just spits on the floor and dares someone to say anything. If I wasn't with my friend, i would have just gotten up and moved away.

I also remember once getting hassled by about 7 kids on the A train back when I lived in BK. It was late at night and I must have been about 25. They sat all around me and I tried to crack a joke and they mocked me and I was like, "OK, plan B." So at the next stop the door opened and I waited a second and then dipped out of the train really fast. Turns out I was at West 4th and I needed to transfer to the F anyway. But I was young and I remember calling a friend when I got home and said "Am I wimp?" and he was like, "Bro, 6 of them, 1 of you, c'mon."

Man, I'm glad I'm not young anymore. LOL

2 Raf   ~  Feb 25, 2011 10:41 am

Being black, 6'2", 265 has its privileges :)

3 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 25, 2011 10:46 am

I wonder if Bernie Goetz said, "You woudn't hit a man with glasses, would you?"

4 ms october   ~  Feb 25, 2011 10:57 am

about a month or so ago i got on the 6 train at spring street after a meeting and was heading back to my office - it was before lunch probably about 11am.
i noticed a man sitting across from me that seemed slightly unstable - someone to be aware of but at first i wasn't overly concerned. i had a ton of emails from the interns so i figured i could start responding to them on my blackberry. i don't know for sure but i think something about me typing on my blackberry set this guy off. he started saying all kinds of crazy ish, such as "i know what you are doing - don't think you can do that to me." so i stopped typing on my blackberry - and kept my eye on him without looking at him. just before the train got to astor place he got right up on me and said he "would knock my head so hard against the seat he would put me in a coma." i thought if i got up and moved it would make it worse so i just sat there but trying not to show to much fear or anything. at 14th street just before the doors opened he shoved his backpack in my face and then walked off the train. it kind of had me shook, but fortunately nothing really physical happened.

the scariest part is not knowing what to really do.

5 Jon DeRosa   ~  Feb 25, 2011 10:58 am

[2] All I got is 5'11", 165, and at times, a 34 inch aluminum bat when I'm headed home from baseball practice.

6 Jon DeRosa   ~  Feb 25, 2011 11:00 am

[4] Yes that is a very scary situation. Any response you make at that point will likely be taken as a signal for escalation.

7 The Hawk   ~  Feb 25, 2011 11:03 am

It's true that no matter how you think about it in general, when the rubber actually hits the road it you're never really prepared.

Having a little kid with you exacerbates things, because at a much earlier stage I start wondering if I should move or not. I don't want to send the message that any weirdo is to be reacted to by running away but I my risk aversion is much higher.

One thing to do - I guess everyone here knows this - is to avoid the last car, probably the first too.

8 Ben   ~  Feb 25, 2011 11:04 am

On the F train back in the mid 90's I hop on at Carrol street, packed train. I weasle to what I saw was an open area, only to find out why. A guy, middle aged, swaying drunk, is there. People had formed a perimeter around him, backs turned. He smells sweet like booze. He mumbles. I hold my ground, arms length away. Something about him doesn't seem dangerous. And I like having room to stand.

Suddenly he looks up, registers me, leans in quick and kisses me, real juicy on the cheek. Backs still turned, nobody notices.

Now I was about 23, looked about 16 and stood shy of 5'9". But i muster all the authority I can in my voice, and like a dad say, 'Nope. Don't do that."

His shoulders slumped and he looked shamefully at his feet "I'm sorry." he said.

I stepped off the train at Jay street knowing I had a story I'd be recalling 15 years later.

9 Alex Belth   ~  Feb 25, 2011 11:06 am

4) Man, this post just brings up all sorts of unsettling memories. Oy.

10 Ben   ~  Feb 25, 2011 11:06 am

Course there was the time a guy pulled out a 8" hunting knife on the G train, and started picking dirt from his fingernails.

After soiling myself I got the F*** off the train.

11 Jon DeRosa   ~  Feb 25, 2011 11:11 am

I saw a dude light up a crack pipe on the C Train about 2 years ago. That made me move away with quickness.

[7] Good point about the kids on the train. I go ahead and avoid all the weirdos. I figure, let them see how to avoid potential danger down here, I'll teach them all the other stuff above ground.

12 ms october   ~  Feb 25, 2011 11:22 am

course there are the weirdos you don't target as such too. a few summers or so ago i was on the d train to brooklyn after work and was wearing sandals and i'll add i have fairly nice feet. anyway some clean-cut professionally dressed guy in his 30s was sitting down and i was standing up in front of him. he reached down to to mess with his shoes or something and brushed his hand against my foot. at this point i just thought it was an accident and ignored it. then as the train was rolling past church av he started trying to pet my foot. i was too stunned to say anything but as soon as i felt his hand on my foot i walked away.

thankfully these are my only encounters with people actually invading my personal space.

13 Dimelo   ~  Feb 25, 2011 11:28 am

[9] Yeah it does. Subway subway-douchery is alive and well. There are times you have to protect your neck because people can be up to all sorts of effed up stuff.

I remember as a kid I would get into fights a bunch of times on the train, it was during that period in 80s and 90s where people would stare you down to see who would win the stare down and if nobody won the stare down then it would naturally lead to a fight.

I really hate that uncomfortable feeling, where you can cut the tension in the air with a butter knife, when I was younger my first reaction was usually to throw the first punch and hope it stops the threat. Now, in my current advanced age, I don't feel I would be so bold if I was confronted with a situation where I needed to start throwing haymakers. It's an uncomfortable feeling, which results in people feeling violated.

I always loved the Charles Bronson character in Death Wish as a kid. IMHO, Bernard Goetz wasn't wrong since he was provoked.

14 Raf   ~  Feb 25, 2011 11:56 am

[5] I had bats (baseball/softball, wood/aluminum) and shotputs (pitching training aid) as well.

[7] If I have a kid with me, I usually camp out in the corner with him/her blocked off.

[9] Speaking of subway douchery; http://www.subwaydouchery.com/

I also think Goetz wasn't wrong. Still think he should've kept his mouth shut during the trial.

15 Chyll Will   ~  Feb 25, 2011 12:18 pm

[2] Werrrd... >;)

16 vockins   ~  Feb 25, 2011 4:02 pm

Bernard Goetz can get fucked forever.

17 Mrs. Hall   ~  Feb 25, 2011 4:42 pm

Yeah, its not what they say or how they say it. It's when they press they're energy on you. And keep pushing. This is can be done quietly or loudly. But, it's always felt if your listening.

18 TheGreenMan   ~  Feb 25, 2011 6:02 pm

I've only had a handful of incidents that were potentially dangerous riding the subways. Usually late at night when the wild things roam.

I've had many more wonderful experiences. Stuff that doesn't happen anywhere else in the world. Getting jostled by a woman getting on the train looking to hold onto something and realizing it was the actress Laura Linney. I think I was the only person on the train who realized who she was. Or the time I took a later train home from Yankee Stadium and my subway car was empty except for Freddy Shulman (Freddy Sez). I'd "met" him dozens of times, using his spoon to bang on his pan. But that was the only time we had a conversation. He told me about his wife, his eye, his favorite Yankee Stadium memories, his life. It is one of my favorite NYC moments ever.

But yeah...shit can get real awfully quick sometimes.

19 williamnyy23   ~  Feb 26, 2011 12:28 am

[18] I’ve also had many more “interesting moments” (from comically weird to surprisingly pleasing) on the subway, but several years back had one potentially violent episode similar to the one John relayed. On my way to work around 5AM, I was sitting in a fairly empty car with my eyes closed. In close proximity, I could hear a few teenaged kids whispering, so as the train pulled into the next station, I opened my eyes just enough so I could see. Sure enough, as the last of the group exited the train, he reached back to throw a punch. I raised my right hand to block and wound up literally catching the fist, which was a good thing because the kid had jammed his keys into his fist. In the exchange, I wound up coming away with the key chain, and as the dumbfounded kid said something like, “hey, give me my keys back”, I tossed them off the Atlantic Avenue elevated platform, where they probably still rest today. As the doors closed and the train pulled away, the look on the kid’s face was priceless. Before closing my eyes again, I looked at the four or five people also making their morning commute, and they all gave a very subtle approving glance.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
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