When you live in New York City, it’s impossible not to find yourself inadvertently in the middle of someone else’s crazy. Sometimes it’s a domestic dispute and sometimes it’s a person in the throes of a psychotic break — either due to mental illness or substance use. You learn to assess these situations as best as possible and take your best guess as to whether to call the police or keep the hell out of it. This becomes even more difficult when you find yourself trapped in a subway car with a threatening situation. This happened to me this morning.
A visibly intoxicated 30-something woman got on my train. I’m guessing she was intoxicated because of the water bottle full of what looked and smelled like whiskey she was carrying and the way she was stumbling and slurring. As she pushed her way onto my subway car, she began ranting immediately. This happens a lot — ranters on the train. You usually move as far away from them as you can, avoid eye contact and hope for the best. It’s harder at rush hour when the train is crowded, as it was this morning. My personal motto when it comes to crazies on the train is: “Don’t poke the mad dog.”
This drunk woman immediately zeroed in on a good-looking 20-something man. She cornered him in the car and started telling him what an idiot, jerk, asshole, expletive, expletive, expletive he was. I got the distinct sense that they definitely didn’t know each other, that she had picked him at random. This is where it gets weird. The man just stood there and took it. He didn’t walk away from her. He would reply by saying things like, “Yeah, I am” and “You’re right” and “I guess so.” His tone was calm, non-combative and placating. He had a slight smirk on his face. I couldn’t tell if it was chagrin or amusement.
The woman shifted gears and started talking about her son and how much he liked to play Mario Kart, asking the man if he had kids. The man didn’t answer. At some point, the woman started sobbing and the man was kind and tender with her. She tried to touch him seductively on the face and arms and possibly tried to kiss him. I couldn’t see that part because she still had him cornered, with her back toward me. When the man said, “No,” calmly but firmly. She became enraged.
That’s when the train stopped and the conductor announced that we would be held in the tunnel. The woman started to turn violent, screaming at the man, calling him gay, spitting all sorts of vitriol at him. When she slapped him in the face, the train car got really quiet. Still, the man didn’t not walk away. He stayed there. He made no move to defend himself. At this point, all the female passengers began to look anxiously at each other, trying to figure out what to do. There were very few male passengers in our train car. Those that I remember being there seemed oblivious to the incident. It was bizarre. It was only the women who seemed to notice. Finally, the train started moving again and the man arrived at his stop. The drunk woman followed him off the train, chasing after him.
That’s when about seven passengers, all of us women, started having a discussion about the incident. Every one of us said that we considered doing something, but weren’t sure if the woman had a knife or some other weapon. We also tried to figure out why the man didn’t walk away, why he continued to engage with her. “Pride,” one woman said. Another thought that he was enjoying the attention of having a good-looking woman — albeit drunk and combative — paying so much attention to him. Another thought he was getting off on the idea of trying to “save” her. Finally, we got into the aspect of the situation that we all found most troubling: “What if it had been a woman being attacked by a man?” I asked. “We would have sprung to action,” said one woman. “Why didn’t we do the same for this man?” I asked. The question hung there with no answer.
We arrived at the conclusion that if the man had seemed to have felt threatened, if he had made any move to get away from the woman and couldn’t, we would have tried to help. I would like to think of myself as a person who would come to the aid of another person in harm’s way — whether male or female — but in this situation, I felt confused and helpless and did nothing. I am still questioning myself, but I don’t know what I would have done differently.