As I was commuting to work this morning, the sounds of a woman objecting stridently drifted through my noise-cancelling headphones. Looking up from my reading, I saw we were in the Jay Street station, and a woman was arguing with a man as the crowd flowed back onto the train. Her voice was pitched with outrage and incredulity as she demanded he answer for his actions. She said that he had kicked her, while he fired back that she shouldn’t have pushed him. He held himself in a posture of sullen rage, but somehow inward facing. He was not looking back at her, he was looking down and moving away.
“Well don’t fucking push me!”
“So you kick me? What is wrong with you!?”
He might have called her a bitch; I’m not sure of the specific invective either of them were using, honestly.
As the woman continued to demand satisfaction, he moved into the train to stand by where I was seated, continuing to fire back, not looking at her. He took hold of the safety bar above-head and started ignoring her, staring resolutely at the floor and repeating the phrase “not this one” several times, and I wondered if he meant she shouldn’t have pushed “this one”, or of all the mornings, she shouldn’t have pushed him on “this one.”
Unsatisfied and furious, she moved in closer, taking photos of him with her phone, stooping down to get an angle of his face. When she got close and low enough, he lashed out and slapped the phone from her hand. The gap around us in the crowd widened and the person seated next to me just up and bounced.
The man grabbed the phone from the ground as the woman first recoiled and then lunged back in. There was more shouting and she demanded her phone back. I stood up, put my hand on his shoulder and said “hey!” as I looked around and saw a train full of people minding their own business. The man was strong and volatile. A physical intervention was out of the question.
I didn’t quite catch it because I was sizing up the train, but her did give her phone back, while I wondered what the right thing to do was.
“Hey,” I said to him. He looked at me and then away a bit. But not as far away as he kept his gaze from the woman. “Are you having a rough morning?”
“I’ll be fine,” he said. He did not look fine. He looked like misery wrapped in rage under a worn-through veneer of stoicism. I ducked down a little to catch his eye.
“You look like you’re having a terrible morning, man. How about I give you my seat… y’know… separate the two of you?”
“I’ll be fine,” he insisted.
“Yeah,” I said, nodding over toward the woman, “but I’m not sure she will be.”
The man nodded, once to me, then again to himself, took my seat, and slumped over his backpack, shutting the world out.
I stood next to the woman, between her and where the man now sat, and smiled tightly at her. She had just been in a confrontation with an imposing man who had lashed out physically at least once (that I’d seen), and everyone else on the train was just trying to pretend nothing was going on. I wanted her to see that someone was on her side… that I was on her side… but I also wanted to keep the fragile peace.
“Are you ok?” I asked.
“I get a bruise and he gets a seat,” she said. Not ungratefully, but ruefully. I realized I was still wearing my headphones, making it a little hard to hear. I wanted to say “Don’t worry about that asshole, he’s just a miserable jerk and everyone on this train has your back,” only it did not appear to be remotely true.
“I know,” I sighed. “It’s not fair, but it seemed like the situation needed to be defused… I’m sorry.” She said a few more things, and I nodded, said “mm”, and “uh-huh”. She got that I didn’t want to talk openly right next to him.
I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I just went back to reading. A seat opened up, a few steps away, and the woman sat in it and began using her phone. She looked… ok. I kept reading. Occasionally I glanced up, to find her on her phone, and him still a thousand miles away, eyes closed but tense. He appeared to be ruminating.
Eventually we approached midtown, where I would depart. I wondered how this woman was feeling. Helpless? Angry? How many times had she been assaulted in her life? I typed a message onto my iPad and handed it to her:
I didn’t want to put my faith in the will of morning commuters to intervene enough to commit to an altercation on your behalf, so I went with mollification, but should you need to contact me for testimony:
[my phone number]
She read my message, photographed it with her phone, typed, and handed it back to me:
I gave her the thumbs ups, and she pantomimed to me that I should take a picture of him in his seat, which I did. After a minute, I got this text:
hi avery, it’s **[redacted]**. thank you for your help. going to report at 59th
I texted back “got it” and went back to reading. We arrived in Times Square, and I reached over to get her attention one last time, wished her well, and headed off to work.
Minutes later, I got another text:
he apologized! how often does *that* happen?
Not often, that’s for sure. But the conditions were right for an apology. It is now clear the man was consumed by some entirely unrelated fury, which was immediately displaced in response to what I’m guessing was a “let me through” shove. While the woman he assaulted continued to confront him, he was was locked in fight mode, senseless and unable to distinguish between her and whoever had truly made him unhappy. The woman was likewise trapped in a cycle of escalation, fueled by justified indignation, perhaps also by the recollection of other indignities and abuses she had suffered or witnessed other women suffering. I’ve been there.
But just underneath the fury, he knew he was wrong, which is why he would not look at her, and why he very quickly handed her phone back to her. He just needed a time out, to calm down, to untangle everything. A sympathetic tone from a stranger (that he technically didn’t deserve) — the surprise that someone could care how his day was going — was all it took for him to start that process. He must have spent the rest of the ride reliving the incident, coming around, and psyching himself up to apologize. To be clear, I’m not drawing an equivalence between the two of them. She was right, and he was wrong. Or maybe she was a little wrong because she shoved him but he was way wrong for kicking her — I don’t know, I didn’t witness the incident.
What I do know, because I exchanged some more messages with her, is that his apology made her feel better. I’m sure it made him feel better, too. I’m grateful for the antecedents in my life that equipped me to do my part in that situation, because it’s a solid win for patience, kindness, and decency.
Pass it on.