This story does not satisfy: it just melts away. No conflict is resolved. No characters develop. Except me. I develop. But not in a particularly good way.
My son and I commute together every day. We ride the subway, we talk, we play, we fight. I love the thirty minutes between when we leave home and when he gets off the train (I continue one stop further).
One day last week, as he disembarked, I heard yelling on the platform, from the direction in which, I know, he walks toward the exit. I peeked my head off the crowded train to reassure myself that he was clear of whatever drama was unfolding. He had, indeed, passed beyond it. By the time I looked, he safely had left the platform.
Not so, me.
Two men circled one another, menacingly. “Give me back my shit!” yelled one, repeatedly. Derangedly? I couldn’t quite tell. The other was taunting. Stronger. Menacing. In an instant, there was a blur as the men converged. The weaker man flew toward the tracks. He didn’t fall to the tracks, but landed hard on the concrete platform, a foot from the edge. The stronger man descended on him, raining down blows, fist to skull. Each punch reverberated twice: once, as flesh met flesh, and once, as flesh met concrete.
Time moves slowly.
The train, full, tarried. The motorman watched from his window. He didn’t close the doors. Hundreds of passengers stared. Hundreds resolutely looked at their phones. No one (other than the fighters) moved.
Five years ago, I broke up a fight on the street. I didn’t think twice. Didn’t worry for my well-being. I just acted. I tried to find a description of that fight. It happened on a date with Isabel. But it seems I’m mis-remembering my having written about it. Anyway….
Two years ago, I had a major surgery. It left me diminished. Weak. In constant pain.
On this particular day, as I watched one man seemingly determined to end the life of another, I felt my limitations.
Why didn’t anyone act? Hundreds watched as the violence continued. This wasn’t Kitty Genovese. And it was. People weren’t in their homes, hiding behind curtains. Nothing stood between us and this horror.
Five years ago, my body was action. I didn’t think. I didn’t worry. I just found myself moving.
Last week, my movements were hesitant, tentative, fearful. I took a few steps toward the assailant. “Sir,” I said. “Please stop.” He looked up at me. I almost wish he looked mad, enraged, animal. He didn’t. He looked – calm. Unconcerned. Relaxed?
Did he have a weapon? I doubted it – he would have used it by now.
But he was younger than I. Taller. Bigger. Stronger. He didn’t feel his body’s vulnerability with every breath, as I do.
“Sir,” I said again. “Please. Stop.”
The blows continued.
I grew agitated: “Get off of him, now!” I yelled. Did I see a few passengers approaching, warily?
“Get off of him!” I yelled, one more time.
I’m not proud of any part of this story, I should say. I don’t feel I acted courageously. I feel I acted foolishly, simply, with an almost-incomprehensible mixture of cowardice and hubris.
“Sir,” I said. “I’m going to touch you, now. I’m going to push you off, sir.” I moved toward him, holding my hand out – almost as if to a dog of unknown ferocity.
I wasn’t remotely threatening. I held a box of Clif bars (peanut butter crunch) in my left hand. For some reason, I didn’t put them down. With my right hand, I gently, gently, pressed against his chest. He didn’t resist me. He threw a few final punches, almost half-heartedly, at the moaning, nearly unconscious man beneath him. Like a kid refusing to stop playing a video game before dinner.
With a bit more force, I guided the attacker backwards, pressing against his chest. He stood. His eyes never met mine. They never left the guy on the ground. Again – not really angry. More like… curious?
Finally, a few other passengers materialized. One, standing between the two fighters, reached his hand down the back of his jeans, as if he had a gun there. “Back the fuck up!” he yelled. In his late 20s, strong, confident, this man attracted my rage. Where the fuck had he been thirty seconds earlier? And why this particular tone, this particular escalating mode of engagement, now? The fight was over. The men were apart. Was he performing? For whom?
A young woman attended to the bleeding, concussed man on the platform. I asked the train’s motorman, “You called the police?” He nodded. I heard him speak into his radio: “A passenger broke up the altercation.” Moments later, the doors on the train closed, and it slid out of the station. The assailant backed away from the scene, slowly, turned, and headed toward the street.
The victim, groggy, came to. He rifled through his things. “He got my phone!” he yelled. “He got my phone!” He had a bike. A backpack. He did not look well. “He got my phone!” the guy wailed. Somewhere between rage and sorrow. He ineffectively gathered his things, and asked, plaintively, “Where’d he go?” By now, it was just me and the young woman.
“He got my phone!” (Imagine “It’s not fair!” in the voice of a young child).
“He’s gone,” I said. Mournful. Apologetic. The tone I used was the tone I might use with a toddler who lost her teddy bear.
“I’ve gotta go get it,” he said. He started moving in the direction the assailant had fled. I stopped him. “Sir,” I said. “It sucks. He got your phone. But you have to let it go.” The woman pleaded with him to wait for EMTs. His head was bulging with multiple contusions. Blood ran down his face.
Neither of us stopped him as he slowly, woozily, went off in search of his phone. The woman walked one way. I walked the other. The next train pulled into the station, and I boarded it, desperately hoping he wouldn’t find his phone and the man who had taken it.
The police never came. The EMTs never came. The passengers never came. I was left, alone, with an unimaginable, horrifying situation. Unspeakable violence. My own decrepitude, mortality, vulnerability.
The assailant could have leveled me with one punch. I knew that. I knew I wasn’t the right one to be acting.
Why was I the only one?
A friend of mine, hearing this story the next day, said, “Sounds like you saved his life.” I think she thought she was offering me praise, saying something I would appreciate. She was wrong.
This story has no redemption in it. I was foolish. I have a son. A wife. Friends. I was not the right person to break up this fight. With hindsight, I know what I should have done differently. I should have managed. I should have said, loudly, “I need five men under 30. NOW!” I should have commanded an interventive force. People would have responded. And that would have been effective. And used my most salient skills.
Instead, I took unwise risks.
And what of the larger lessons?
My own childhood features emotional experiences that provide the template through which I interpret much. I often find myself disappointed that truths evident to me seem invisible, immaterial, or just wrong, to the rest of the world. Conversely, I often find that everyone else knows truths that elude me.
In this instance – as with the Trump presidency, and the slowly unfolding 2020 campaign (which looks to me nearly certain to be a re-coronation of our tiny Leader) – I feel simply baffled, abandoned, by those on whom I depend to protect me.
The world contains unspeakable violence. I like to imagine that violence is, for the most part, contained. And, until a few years ago, I imagined it was more contained with each passing day. I don’t blame our “president” for what happened on the train last week, but what happened reverberates in me in ways made familiar in recent months by Trump: violence in my world is increasing, not decreasing. The world isn’t becoming better; it’s becoming worse. Dr. King’s arc – if it ever existed, if it still exists – is twisting back on itself, perversely.
And the ground beneath my feet wobbles, shaky, ridden with faults.