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]