Yesterday at 4:00 in the afternoon the downtown 1 train was very crowded when I got on at 110th Street. To grab onto a handrail I would have had to contort myself into positions I usually assume only with my clothes off, so I chose instead to hope that my leg stabilizer muscles would be strong enough to keep me upright. For the most part they were, but at one particular jolt of the train I stumbled into the man next to me. I apologized and stood upright again. The train jolted again and I fell against him again; I apologized again, and then I heard the words “faggot boy” crisply through the air and looked up to see that it was the man’s friend who had spoken and that he was staring at me. Ordinarily I let boorishness pass unremarked, but this was really too much. “What?” I said, wrinkling my brow incredulously.
“You didn’t hear what I said?” His accent was West Indian.
“No, I heard what you said,” I replied; “I’m just shocked that you said it.” I mean, surely he couldn’t go around calling everybody in the New York City subway system who jostled his friend during rush hour a faggot, could he?
“Don’t worry,” he smiled grimly. “Where I come from we kill you.”
I looked away and, for good measure, grabbed onto the handrail despite the twisting I had to do to accomplish this; though my leg stabilizer muscles are in fine shape, I did not wish to run any risk of jostling the man’s friend again. When we reached the express stop at 96th Street and they moved to exit, however, I couldn’t resist making my verbal assailant as uncomfortable as he’d made me, so as he got off I reached out and stroked his arm.
This may not have been the smartest thing I have ever done.
Because as the doors shut they got back on the train and cornered me.
“Did you touch me?” the man demanded.
Uh-oh, I thought. “Yes,” I said.
“Why did you touch me?”
“Because what you–”
“Why the fuck did you touch me?”
This pissed me off. “Do you want me to answer your question or not?”
“That’s it. You are ended.” He did not just say that, I thought. He nodded to his friend, who opened a small bag and rifled through the tools inside it until he pulled out . . .
. . . a screwdriver.
A large screwdriver. It had an orange handle.
I felt a peculiar lurch in my chest that traveled up to my throat. They’re going to beat me up and stab me, I thought, crowded carful of passengers notwithstanding. I suspected they wouldn’t kill me, not with all these people around, but I still didn’t want to be assaulted, and I also worried about losing my computer and the two weeks’ worth of un-backed-up writing.
“Why’d you touch me?” he asked again.
“Because what you said really offended me and I wanted to annoy you.” Somehow this struck him as incredibly funny and he started laughing, which was in a way more frightening than the screwdriver. By now there was a clearing around us of a good five feet in any direction, no small accomplishment on a New York City subway car. But nobody wanted to be in the middle of this. There were four local stops until I was supposed to transfer to the A. If I got off and they tried to follow me I might lose them or they might beat me up and stab me; if I stayed on the presence of the other passengers might restrain them or they might beat me up and stab me.
“I like women,” he said. “I don’t like men. You understand that? I like women. Whatever you want, you ain’t getting it from me.”
“Oh, I’m not interested in you,” I said, my voice dripping with scorn. I almost started the sentence, “Oh, honey,” but luckily I thought better of it in time.
“Well, now I am very interested in you.” He turned to address the other riders, all of whom had seen confrontations like this before and will see confrontations like this again and really just wanted this one to stop so they could get where they were going. He said something I couldn’t make out and pointed several times to his wedding ring. “Can you believe it?” he said then. “I wasn’t bothering him at all, and he touched me.”
He was clearly committed to his course of action, so silence would have gained me nothing. “You weren’t bothering me?” I said. “You said that where you come from you kill me. That bothered me.”
A woman standing nearby with a twelve-year-old child tried to help. “It’s not worth it,” she said to the man.
“He touched me!” he said to her, and turned to me. “You believe in God?”
“Yes,” I said, though really I still haven’t decided and mostly I lean the other way.
“Then you better pray to Him.” I said nothing. “If your God is up there,” he said, pointing up at the roof of the car, “then you look up there. If He’s down there, look down there. Don’t look at me.” Fuck you, I thought, and stared him in the face.
The train was slowing down; I looked out the window to see that we were pulling into the stop before my transfer stop. I moved toward the door, which actually brought me closer to the henchman with the screwdriver, and the man who was now very interested in me followed me. A very brave bystander stepped in between the two of us and said to the man, “Hey, listen, I want to ask you a question.” I didn’t hear what his question was but the answer involved ranting about the destruction of the family and how a couple years ago people like me couldn’t even show our faces. The good Samaritan kept the conversation going, continuing to distract my attacker’s attention from me.
The train pulled into 59th Street. The doors opened and I bolted. “Carlos!” shouted the man to his friend as I fled, and they followed me, but I am a very fast runner even when I do not fear for my life, and the crowded station presented them with a lot of obstacles. By the time I got downstairs I was pretty sure I had lost them; nevertheless I kept a very careful eye on my surroundings until my train pulled in, at which point I got on it, sat down, and shook violently all the way home. Then, at her suggestion, I called the Anti-Violence Project and made a report that would have been more coherent if I hadn’t burst into tears halfway through it. Then I called the police, but apparently I have to go in to a police station to make a report, which I won’t be able to do until Monday.
It’s unlikely that the good Samaritan who may have saved my life reads this blog, but if he does, I want him to know that I will be grateful to him forever.
I wish I had had the wherewithal to find a defiant gesture more considered than stroking the guy’s arm, that I had stood up for myself in a way that didn’t confirm these two men’s prejudices but made them think about them instead. But it’s been hours and I still can’t think what such a gesture would have been, so I’m not beating myself up about it too badly.
Reading over this post I am astounded to see that my half of the dialogue sounds so incisive and cool and collected, because in the moment I felt none of those things.
Nevertheless, unwise a move as it was, refusing to be bullied still felt pretty fucking fabulous.