I’ve lived in NYC for almost 25 years and, like many New Yorkers, I’ve developed a keen sense of self preservation while walking these streets. Challenging interactions with our fellow city dwellers seem to be unavoidable, a numbers game of too many people on a too-small island jockeying for dominance. Sometimes, I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes, I’m just a woman existing in a woman’s body.
Being jostled (i.e. shoved) on a train, bus, or sidewalk
Being verbally assaulted by other aggravated commuters for standing in the wrong place.
(I now know exactly where to stand at all times.)
Being verbally assaulted by people of unknown mental health status.
(Once I had an encounter with a man pushing a large empty grocery cart, the kind you rarely see anymore in NYC. He looked at me and said, "You’re dead, dude. And you’re not from Australia.” Well, he’s half-right. I think.)
Being verbally assaulted by random men, usually about my body.
(The nicest catcall I ever received was “Hey, Meghan Trainor!” I won’t bother repeating the worst of them. I’m sure you’ve all heard them before.)
When these things happen, I’ll occasionally engage with an elegantly worded rejoinder such as, “Go fuck yourself!” or “You’re a fucking animal.”
But, mostly, I just let it roll off my back. After all, silence is golden.
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to hone my already emotionally acute defensive mechanisms to a finer point. I’m generally very careful and aware of my surroundings, But, if I sense that I‘m in an unsafe situation, and I can’t easily escape or find a helping professional (texting my therapist while drunk and crying in the back of an Uber doesn’t count), I have a go-to move.
I out-crazy the crazy.
I make it clear to any would-be creep that I am way too much trouble to take on.
Sometimes this is as simple as making prolonged and aggressive eye contact with a belligerent bro in the street while pointing a witchy finger at him. If I feel moved, I might say, “Back off, motherfucker.” That usually clears the way.
Years ago, before Uber and smartphones, I was in a Yellow Cab coming home from a long business trip. I had a huge suitcase and was exhausted from the long days and the longer flight. The cab driver struck up a conversation, intimating that we’d met before. (Eye. Roll.)
But then he started dropping little details about me. My name. My place of work. My address.
Alarmingly, he had memorized the information from my luggage tag while putting my stuff in the trunk. We were only halfway between the airport and my home. I guess I could have called 911, but that really didn’t occur to me. Instead, I reached into my “how fucking dare you” toolbox and went on the offensive.
I don’t remember exactly what I said to make him cry.
But I do recall telling him I had "a knife in my purse" and that I would “slit his fucking throat” if he didn’t deliver me safely to the corner of 106th and Amsterdam and then "forget he ever met me."
I regret nothing.
That creep knew he was scaring me and he thought he could play games with me.
All in all, I actually consider myself lucky that I’ve never been mugged, physically attacked, or worse.
(Hold plz, while I knock on wood, throw salt over my shoulder, and sing Give My Regards to Broadway while standing on my head. Can’t be too careful.)
So, a couple of Sundays ago, my friend, Barbara, and I were on an NJ transit train headed back to NYC after a lovely and civilized visit with a friend in the country (i.e. West Orange).
The train was full, but quiet. We were in one of those 4-seaters; Barbara was across from me, napping, while I was tucked into a window seat, settled into a Netflix binge. My seat mate, the man next to me on the aisle, was minding his own business scrolling through his phone.
When we were about 15 minutes from Penn Station, the man sitting across the aisle from our 4-seater stood up and addressed the man next to me. My seat mate shrugged and raised his hands in the universal gesture for, “I don’t know, man.”
I took my headphones out to see what was going on, but the other guy was already back in his seat. My seat mate seemed unconcerned, so I put my headphones back in and went back to Netflix.
A couple of minutes later, something hit my arm, hard, then bounced up and hit my face. It felt like a punch, or like being hit with a baseball. I screamed and instinctively curled myself up into a ball, pulling out my headphones.
Barbara was suddenly awake and several other people seemed to be on their feet. I looked down and saw a red iPhone sitting in my lap. My phone cover isn’t red, it’s a ridiculous flowery thing that makes me happy.
I looked up to see an enormous man looming over my seat mate and me. It was the guy from across the aisle. For the first time I noticed how large he was, well over 6 feet and muscular. He was wearing dark sunglasses and a blue ball cap, his jaw was clenched. He stretched his hand out toward me, indicating that I should hand him his phone and said, “My reflexes are bad.”
My arm and face were throbbing and my heart was thumping like I’d just run up a very steep hill. Words wouldn’t come. Despite all my previous “training,” I found that I had nothing in my toolbox.
I handed him his phone.
He sat back down.
Several of the people sitting around us starting getting up and leaving our train car, not content to assume this guy’s outbursts were over.
I stood, too, gathering my things. I had to get out. I felt trapped in that window seat, completely defenseless. The guy with the red phone was just chilling in his seat, scrolling. The conductor was sitting right behind him - had he been there all along? Had he raced forward when he heard the commotion? He asked, “Are you hurt?”
I choked out my answer, “He threw his phone at me. It hit my arm and my face.” Absurdly, I pointed to my arm, then to my face. I looked at the man with the red phone. He was completely unconcerned with the proceedings, which really freaked me out.
Who the fuck was this guy?
I hurried with Barbara and my seat mate into the next train car where there was a small group of people standing around talking about the incident. After making sure that I wasn’t grievously injured, we all turned to my seat mate and asked him if he knew the guy with red phone. My seat mate told us he’d never seen the guy before. What I’d witnessed earlier wasn’t an innocent “I don’t know, man” moment. The man with the red phone had taken a deliberate swing at my seat mate’s face, narrowly missing him.
The train was pulling into Penn Station just then, and I watched as the man with the red phone got off the train and walked toward the exit. I guess the conductor didn’t want to get involved and maybe risk setting him off again. I worried that he’d be waiting for me somewhere on the platform so I scanned the area ahead for him, looking for the blue ball cap. But he was gone, disappeared into the crowd.
Over the next few hours, a bluish bruise emerged on my arm, and I thought about the man with the red phone. For the first time in my long NYC life, I hadn’t tried to out-crazy the crazy. I hadn’t even tossed out a well-placed f-bomb. Why?
My face was spared, thank god.
Because, it was clear that my strategy wasn’t going to work with this guy. He was dangerous. Like real deal, random act of violence dangerous.
He was too crazy to out-crazy.
I wondered, too late, if I should have found a transit cop or something. I was fine, no lasting damage, but what if he went on and hurt someone else?
I’m still thinking about it.