I’ll start with a story.
I take the F train from Jackson Heights in Queens all the way through to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to get to work. Most mornings I’m stuck right in the thick of bridge and tunnel rush hour. Those trains are packed. And you have to be pretty aggressive to get on sometimes, or those passengers will rush right past you — business men, little old ladies, moms with strollers.
Shoving is a way of life in the New York City subway. You give up apologizing for it after a while. And you put up with it from other people as long as you can until you want to scream. Sometimes it goes too far, and people lose all dignity and act like idiots to get on a subway car. Some people get close to the breaking point, I’m sure. One midwinter morning, I saw someone boil over.
I was crammed into one of the end cars, which are usually less crowded than those in the center of the train, and we were stopped at 21st Street/Queensbridge on our way out of Queens. The car was so full, there was no hope of getting anyone else in.
A man standing at the edge of the doorway began to react to a woman who was pushing him from behind. There was nowhere at all for him to go. There was no room for an other single person, and her pushing was totally useless. But she kept pressing herself against him, as if she were desperate to get in that car.
“Please don’t push me,” he said, sounding tired and annoyed. “I’m not an animal.”
Usually on the subway everyone is so quiet that when someone speaks up, everyone not lost in an iPod-induced haze hears it. Most of the passengers began to surreptitiously watch what was happening near the door. It’s an unobtrusive curiousity, a banal form of entertainment — anything is better than reading the same shampoo or community college ad for the 900th time. This is what mass transit reduces us to, sometimes.
Evidently she continued to push him, because he repeated himself. “Please stop pushing me,” he said more insistently. “There’s no room.”
She kept pushing, muttering something in a soft voice.
The man turned around and shouted, “There’s … no … room!” And emphasized the last word and shoved her back onto the platform with both hands.
The quick, painless, but somewhat violent action got everyone’s attention. Some people gasped. Some just looked nervously back and forth. And what should we do? There really was no room. The man ws clearly right, and the woman was clearly going to have to wait for the next train or try her luck at another door.
Undaunted, she leapt back toward the car and began pleading. She must have gotten a running start, because she managed to get slightly further in to the car — but not far enough to let the door close.
“Please. Please, just move in a little. Please — “
“There’s no room for you!” the man shouted. But she kept pushing.
He grasped the relatively small woman by her upper arms, lifted her up, pivoted and dropped her back onto the platform. It was not a particularly violent action, but it was certainly odd to see some one stranger laying hands on another and physically removing her from a subway car.
The woman sort of staggered back. And the doors closed, and the train lurched into motion.
Some people looked indignantly away from the doorway. Others shot dirty looks at the man. He ignored everyone but a woman who was evidently standing next to him. She began to argue with him and he would argue back. The atmosphere was tense and uncomfortable. But all the rest of us pretty much went on about our business.
I wasn’t sure how to feel: A man had just forcibly removed a woman from the subway. It felt like a fight had just occurred. Was someone calling the police right now? Would there be officers at the next stop waiting to arrest the man?
Then I remembered my headphones in my pocket. I nestled them into my ears, turned on my iPod and clicked around to my “favorites” playlist. “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey fired up, and I began to daydream about a city boy born and raised in south Detroit.