This is New York City.
It’s the middle of a slightly warm but overcast day, and I’m walking towards the Jefferson L stop to catch a train into the city. Usually I take the Knickerbocker M—it’s right next to my place and it drops me off directly outside my gym—but today I had to stop by my friend Eric’s place to check on his cat. I spend a few minutes waiting for the L and I’m happy to find a seat in the front car when it rolls in. Seconds outside of Montrose, the next station, the car screeches to a halt, on a section of track that makes the whole car lean ever so slightly to one side. Earbuds are removed and eyes roll upwards, waiting for the inevitable conductor announcement.
The loudspeaker tells us that the train’s brakes have been engaged for reasons beyond the understanding or control of the train operator, and that people are investigating. The loudspeaker hopes we will be moving quickly. There are a few scattered sighs and groans, and we settle in to wait. What can be done? This is New York City.
Five minutes pass. Then ten. This is the longest I’ve ever been held up in a subway without any movement. The loudspeaker crackles again, and repeats itself: the brakes have been engaged, and the train operators are working to get the train moving. Ten more minutes pass. A few passengers are becoming antsy. Suddenly, the door separating the two cars slides open, and man walks through. I’m puzzled: why would anybody move between cars when the train is stuck on the track? A few other passengers cast curious glances at him as he shuffles through the car, then stops near the doors at the front, jiggling his leg. He’s a light-skinned black man, with short braids, a white t-shirt, athletic shorts, and a backpack. He’s one of any number of people who take the subway all across the five boroughs. Just another guy getting a little claustrophobic while stuck on the train. This is New York City.
We sit for a few more minutes. The door opens again, and a three men walk through. They are all tall. One is wiry, looks to be of middle-eastern descent, and is wearing shades. Another is muscular, dark-skinned, with eyes wide open and alert, a baseball cap perched on his head. A third is Latino, rotund, and wearing an MTA vest. A walkie-talkie crackles in his hand. The wiry man gestures to the front of the car.
“That’s him,” he says.
“That’s the guy?” the MTA worker asks. The wiry man nods.
“That’s the guy,” the man in the hat agrees. All three of them are staring intently towards the front of the car. The MTA worker pulls his walkie-talkie to his face
“The guy is still here,” he says. A voice on the other end asks something indistinct. “Yeah, she’s still here,” he responds. He turns to the wiry man at his side. “What happened?” he asks.
“He just walked up to her and punched her in the face,” the wiry man says, smacking his fist into his palm to illustrate the force of the blow.
“You saw it too?” the MTA worker asks the man in the hat. He nods. The MTA worker says a few things on his walkie-talkie, and then walks through the siding door into the next car. We’re still sitting here. The man with the braids has begun jiggling his foot more quickly, and a pained expression is creeping across his face. A booming voice comes from the back of the car. It’s the man in the hat.
“This guy punched a lady in the face a few cars down,” he says in a loud but even voice. “Keep your eyes on him.” People are beginning to grasp the situation. A few look towards the man in the hat. “Don’t look at me, look at him! Ladies, look at him don’t let him catch you off guard.
A man sitting next to me, on the next bench, pipes up. He’s a beefy white guy, wearing a tank top. “What happened?” he asks the wiry man, who is standing stock still next to the doors.
“He punched a woman right in the face,” the wiry man says, trembling with rage. The man in the tank top looks at the front of the car, where the man with the braids is lying on the floor.
“That guy?” the man in the tank top asks. The wiry man nods. “He’s not going anywhere,” the man in the tank top says, getting up out of his seat. “I’ve got ten years of black belt experience.” The wiry man vigorously nods in agreement, and then lashes out at the pole with a thin, heavy metal instrument, wrapped in tin foil.
“He isn’t going nowhere,” the wiry man agrees, and then begins muttering to himself through gritted teeth about his wife, his mother, his daughter, his sisters. The man in the tank top doesn’t advance on the man in the braids, but he watches him like a hawk.
“Why are we still sitting here?” A woman up front asks, in an irritated voice. It’s hard to tell if she’s concerned for her safety or just pissed about being late. This is New York City. Beyond the glass at the front of the car I can see the conductor speaking into a microphone. The loudspeaker comes on and informs us that we’re going to be moving in a few minutes. This time it actually happens, and the train lurches forward, inch by inch, until the lights of Montrose begin to shine through the tunnel.
The man in the braids gets up. He begins to walk to the doors. The man in the tank top and the wiry man block his way. “You need to sit down,” the man in the tank top says. The man in the braids said some things I didn’t catch, something about needing to go. The doors open. The man with the braids tries to walk off, but his way is blocked by the wiry man. The man in the tank top grabs him around the waist, and both of them, followed by the wiry man and the man in the hat tumble out onto the platform. I get up and follow, wanting to help but feeling useless. There are no police officers around, as we thought there would be. I stand on the platform, ready to do something, but the three men have him pinned, and then a fourth man with headphones around his neck appears. The woman on the train is yelling about being late again, and I deliberate for a few seconds before grabbing my things off of my seat and dashing onto the platform. The doors close and the train pulls away. We’re alone on the platform. The man in the braids is on the ground, immobile, but he’s wailing, and there are no police in sight. I decide to make myself useful, and jog towards the entrance.
Once I reach the top of the stairs I see two attendants in the booth. I yell to get their attention, ask if they have a line to the cops. I mime a telephone receiver next to my ear. They mime one back, and point to the stairway. The police are coming. I jog back to the pileup. The man in the hat looks up at me expectantly. “The cops are on their way,” I say. He nods, then looks down at the man in the braids, struggling underneath him.
“Why’d you hit her?” he asks. There’s no anger in his voice; he seems genuinely curious. The man in the braids sputters some nonsense about people who told him to do things. The man in the hat looks up at me with raised eyebrows. “Dude is crazy,” he says. I shrug my shoulders, and decide to go look for those officers again. They are trundling through the turnstiles when I reach the top of the stares, and I point, indicating the right way. An MTA employee, an older man with white stubble, and a small middle-aged woman are tailing them
We get back to the pileup. I notice the man in the tank top is gone, seemingly replaced by the man with headphones. The officers, two of them, join the pile, and then an awkward repositioning happens. In the end the man with braids is hauled upright, his hands cuffed behind his back, and the three men holding him are standing around, watching.
“Is she off the train too?” I ask the female MTA employee.
“Yeah, she’s in the office upstairs, she’s all sorts of outta whack,” she says, her brow furrowed with concern.
“Did you see what happen?” I ask the man with headphones.
d“Yeah, he just came up out of nowhere and punched this chick in the face. Smashed her pretty good, she was bleeding and everything.”
“Did he know her?” He shrugs. This is New York City.
The cops question the main in the braids, ask if he’s been arrested before. He says yes. They begin taking statements from the three guys holding him down, all of whom saw the woman get hit. Everyone walks off the platform, to go figure some things out. I’m left with the two MTA workers. The guy takes off his hat and fans himself. “Geez, what is it with this station?”
“You’ve seen a lot of this stuff happen?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he laughs. “But I was talking about the heat.” He shakes his head, and we chat for a few minutes about what happens while I wait for the next train. “He just attacked her?” he asks.
“That’s what those guys said,” I reply. “I just saw him come into our car and start acting crazy.”
“A lot of these guys act crazy once they get caught so they can get away with it,” the woman pipes up. “I’m so glad people did something, otherwise he would have gotten away!” Her accent is nasal Brooklyn to a T.
“Yeah, those guys knew what to do,” I agree. We talk some more. She’s been working on the job for eight years. She can’t wait to get out. The next L train comes, and it’s packed to the gills with passengers, because of the delay.
“You getting on this train?” she asks. I am. “Bye hon, you have a good day. Thanks for getting involved,” she says, giving me a brief hug. I step onto the car, squeezing between two irritated looking guys with beards.
This is New York City.