When it comes to living in the big city, I have a bit of a fear problem. I don’t have a valid driver’s license in part because driving a car freaks me out, I lose all confidence when I am lost in a tiny town or village, and I have a strange fear of getting stranded in the middle of nowhere. All of my fears of life in the country are totally irrational, but in the big, bad, scary city of Gotham, absolutely nothing freaks me out. I have seen people publicly having sex, been flashed by men on the subway, grabbed on the street, nearly pick-pocketed, had many screaming matches, and I couldn’t even begin to count the times I have witnessed public urination and even defecation on my neighborhood streets. None of this makes me flinch. When a man grabs my arm on the street, I immediately unleash a torrid of obscenities. A would be mugger doesn’t want to deal with a screaming woman shouting at him especially a woman with my kind of volume. When threatened, I am not exactly demure and I am not exactly quiet.
I have what some would call a reckless habit. I like to go see shows late at night in places like the East Village, Williamsburg, Bushwick and the Lower East Side. I am a bit of a loner, and I don’t enjoy the stress of having to coordinate a “Let’s go see a show” buddy, so 99% of the time I attend most late night events by myself. I also usually know performers in the shows I go to, so attending shows by myself is not a lonely endeavor. My mode of transportation is almost always the New York City subway system. I have lived in a metropolitan area for nearly 20 years, 8 years in Chicago and 11 in New York City. I take public transportation daily, but I have yet to file a police report or get in an actual physical altercation with anyone.
The other night I did my usual and hopped on the Q train to see a show at Coney Island USA. I went to see my buddy Fisherman and his orchestra of sorts – a lighthearted burlesque show with live music, my usual fix. After the show I hung out with some friends and around 1 am I left to take the subway home by myself.
As usual when the train is in the station, only one car has its doors open. I decide to sit in the air-conditioned car and not on the muggy platform. A dozen or so people are already in the car, including a rather strange-looking fellow. He has shabby white hair and a raggedy beard. His outfit looks like a twisted throw back to the swinging sixties. He sports a brightly colored tie-dyed t-shirt, a denim vest and jeans covered in political buttons. He is colorful yet filthy. The raggedy hippie is either flying drunk, on drugs or mentally ill and is probably a combination of all three. I chose a seat as far away from him as possible. He is loudly muttering and getting into fights with people on his end of the train. I couldn’t tell what exactly what he is blathering on about, but I knew that the rest of the car is completely annoyed with him. He isn’t just sitting there being a drunken idiot, but actively upsetting others while engaging in fairly hostile language.
By the time the car starts moving, he is subdued. My mind goes elsewhere, he is just one of many crazy people I will encounter on any given day in New York. The train only moves a few stops from Coney Island and all of sudden I look up and the crazy hippie is nearly right on top of me, muttering incomprehensible drivel. Standing on a few feet from where I am sitting he reaches out an arm in my direction to grab me. I immediately stand up and shout
“Get away from me…Don’t touch me”
Instead of backing off he lunges for me, getting angrier, he tries to explain himself. I jump back a couple of feet and stand my ground. I am alone, in low heels and a dress with long blonde hair and my huge blue eyes. Even though I feel unstoppable, I know I look like one big target to someone mentally deranged. I am often pointed out by a crazy person on a train car, even when I am not looking up. Call it a doll syndrome or a Barbie complex, the mentally unhinged always love picking on the baby-faced blonde. As I stand there waiting for what to do next, I hear a non-verbal threat from a seat near me. Two young men, in their early twenties with thick Brooklyn accents immediately jump up and threaten the man to sit back down.
The hippie slumps back into his seat and immediately begins to antagonize the young men. I can’t make out what he is saying as he is muttering nonsense. I debate going to another car, but I figure the crazy old man could follow me, and at least in this car the two young Brooklyn thug types have my back. Yet at the same time I worry that they would end up getting in an actual fight with the man, and as much as he is scaring me I don’t want to witness a full out subway brawl.
The two Brooklyn boys are both a tsunami of testosterone, loud, aggressive and fearless. Things immediately escalate and the Brooklyn boys, threaten the hippie by pounding on the wall of the train car, just above his head. The deranged hippie just keeps riling them up. The moment things would calm down, the hippie would look at me as if I was a big juicy steak and he was a dog without a meal. This is not lost on the two Brooklyn boys, who would then return to intimidating him. At ear-splitting volume they shout
“Don’t you know what I could do to you? Why are you giving me a hard time? Why would you continue to disrespect us like that? I could wipe you out old man!”
After a few more stops and screaming on the part of my younger protectors, one approaches me and asks when I am planning on getting off the train. Then he walks over and asks the hippie what stop he was getting off on, the hippie replies.
“Whatever stop moves me man”
And with that the hippie looks over at me again. Even though he is older, he is a huge and he probably could overtake me just based on his size. I am stone-cold sober and have my phone out ready to call 911. But it will be difficult to dial if he knocks me unconscious, or throws my phone onto the tracks. Despite his claims of being a peace-loving “hippie” the look in his eyes screams predator. The younger men discuss among themselves what they were going to do and wait until we got to another stop. They then lure the man over to the doors, and when the doors open the younger and larger of the two position the hippie right in front of the open doors and scream
“You are getting out here!”
And with enough force to knock over three men, he takes the hippie by his shoulders and shoves him onto the platform. The doors shut and the train moves out of the station. The second the doors close a palatable release is felt throughout the subway car, the psycho is no longer a threat to anyone. I slowly walk over to the two young men and thank them.
“Hey it’s no big deal, that guy was a monster, you could see it on his face, he won’t mess with you lady”
I ask what neighborhood they live in, because they remind me of a friend from Bensonhurst, a somewhat notorious old school neighborhood in Brooklyn.
“Kings Highway” “I am Irish and my buddy here is Italian, we grew up in Brooklyn, and we aren’t going to put up with some fool like that asshole, and don’t worry we weren’t gonna hit him, he wasn’t even worth that, we just wanted to scare him and get him off the train!”
His Italian friend responds
“And don’t worry we aren’t teenagers, I am 22 and he is 23 years old, we have seen more crap in our day…anyway have a nice night lady and get home safe”
I return to my seat across from a young black man and woman. The young man has his jeans rolled up to his knees exposing his calves and his female friend is making fun of him
“Rolling your jeans up like that makes no sense, and your legs are ashy! You can’t go around like that…you look crazy”
“Leave me alone girl, don’t you know my bunions are killing me!”
And with that I fall over laughing. The couple looks over to me and we all starting laughing, about the crazy hippie, the tough Brooklyn boys, bunions and ashy legs.
Even though I know I am taking a risk riding the subway alone at all hours of the night, I don’t feel that scared. Statistically I am more likely to die in a car wreck on a highway than murdered in a subway car in New York City. When I first moved to New York I witnessed almost identical situation only less extreme. A drunk man was causing quite a commotion on a subway car, and at after 15-20 minutes of putting up with him, three large men calmly walked up to him and pushed him out on the next station. They didn’t even exchange words with the drunk man, the men just did what they thought they needed to do.
One of the most amazing things about living in New York City is the feeling that you are never really alone. The lives of 8 million are constantly intersecting with each other, worlds colliding every day. Our proximity gives us opportunities to connect with people of totally different backgrounds. We can’t get in our cars and shut out the rest of the universe, we have no choice but to interact with one another, bound together whether we like it or not. In a city that prides itself on its dog eat dog mentality and survival of the fittest philosophy situations like the Brooklyn boys and the hippie remind me that were are all in this together.
As Manhattan slowly becomes sanitized and gentrified the outer boroughs still feel much more authentic. One of the things I love about Brooklyn, is that the old school tough guy mentality isn’t completely lost. As Starbucks invade nearly every corner and mom & pop stores disappear, replaced by Dunkin Donuts it is nice to know that Brooklyn still produces some badass young men who are willing to get involved to help out a complete stranger. Private school boys raised in luxury probably wouldn’t have thrown a threatening hippie off the train like that. I was thankful for their lack of fear and street smarts. I don’t want to live in the false safety of homogenized suburbs. I want to live in a city with rough edges, and among people who won’t just sit back and take the world at face value. New York City constantly surprises me and that is why I love this city so much. Normally two super macho young guys would intimidate me, I never thought in a million years I would fall in love with brute male energy late at night on a subway car.