I keep thinking I should’ve been the one to speak up…
I was immersed in my book, an eighteenth-century world of pirates and slaves and ladies in need of rescuing (if they don’t figure out how to rescue themselves first), savoring my last few minutes of escapism before the train reached my stop and another day of mundane labors began. I’d just been interrupted by a friendly guy across the aisle, who’d simply had to say he’d read those books too and how did I like them and wasn’t there supposed to be a TV miniseries (actually a regular ongoing cable series) made from them? We’d shared a moment of small talk, but now he’d returned to his own thoughts and I was sinking back into the seductive textures of that richly imagined other place —
The word struck my ears like a knitting needle shoved into my auditory canal, and I realized that the atmosphere in the train car was changing. People were sneaking furtive glances over books and phones, cocking their heads to listen, shifting in their seats as if trying to gain whatever distance they could between themselves and the ugly word.
“Towelhead bitch is killing us, you know…”
I took a quick glance around. There was a man one row behind me, on the opposite side. He wore a bright blue blanket wrapped around himself like a cloak, his face had a raw, weatherburned appearance, and his hair stood up in windblown twists. Homeless, I immediately assessed, but not harmless like my friend David, who panhandles near my office and always has a friendly grin and a fist-bump ready when he spots me. This guy was the other kind of homeless person, the one who radiates unfocused, unpredictable hostility and makes you think about crossing the street in mid-block before you reach his corner. Another refrain boiled out of him, erupting as if he just couldn’t contain it. His voice was louder this time, not quite a shout yet, but definitely raised above a normal speaking level. Too loud to ignore.
“Don’t you people care that this bitch has killed hundreds of people in the time between stops? From Ninth South to Courthouse, how many of our countrymen have died?! Towelhead bitch!”
It isn’t unusual to encounter people like this on the train, people who’ve had way too much to drink or inhale or inject, or people who haven’t had enough. Often, their tirades aren’t aimed at anyone in particular, at least no one that anyone else can see. This guy, though, was glaring at someone across from him, never moving his gaze as he continued to rail in his almost-shout about Americans dying while people like this were coming here and taking jobs and getting ready to start their killing ways on our soil.
I craned my head around to see who had gotten him riled up. Given the nature of the slurs he was throwing around, I expected to see someone in hijab or perhaps the turbaned Sikh gentleman I occasionally share my commute with, about whom I’ve heard nasty (and ignorant, since Sikhs are not Muslim) comments. But it was neither. Directly behind me was a young woman dressed in jeans and a buttondown shirt, as anonymously Western-style as anyone else on the train. She had dark brown skin and thick black hair, and a tiny bit of gold flashed from the side of her nose. Rather pretty, I thought, although, if anything, she looked Indian to me, not Muslim. Mostly, though, she looked like she wanted to shrink herself into a dot and disappear like Lee Meriweather on the old Star Trek series. She visibly cringed as the loudmouth launched another “Towelheaded BITCH!” her way.
I shifted my attention back to the crazy guy and felt my own mouth opening to say something, anything, to try and make him shut the hell up, but I hesitated. How unhinged was he, exactly? What if he had a knife or a gun? I don’t like to think of myself as a coward, but I am cautious, and this guy was getting more agitated by the second. His knees were jumping with nervous energy, like someone who’s downed six espressos in a row. The air in the train car was static-charged and beginning to stink of adrenaline. Somebody had to do something before this guy hurled himself out of his seat like a boulder from a trebuchet.
He was just beginning to direct another volley of verbal abuse at the poor woman when the guy who’d asked me about my book shouted, “Hey, sir? Who are you talking to?”
The crazy guy’s snapped around and his black stare settled on a new target. “What business is it of yours, chief?”
“You’re kind of making it everybody’s business, as loudly as you’re speaking. What’s the problem?”
“The problem is that camel-fucking towelheaded bitch sitting over there plotting to KILL US ALL! The problem is my American brothers spilling their blood…”
“It looks to me like that woman is just on her way to work, sir. She’s not plotting anything or hurting anyone.”
And at that, as I’d feared, the crazy guy was on his feet and moving toward the man who shared my taste in reading. I don’t remember what he was shouting at this point; my own fight-or-flight reflex was taking over. I do recall setting my book down on the seat next to me and preparing to stand up myself. I might not have been the first to act, but I was ready to help my comrade across the aisle if the lunatic attacked him.
He was holding his ground pretty well on his own, though. In a calm voice, he informed the nut that he’d been in the Army and seen people die, too, but the woman two rows back didn’t have anything to do with it. The crazy guy wasn’t having any of that, though; he wanted to fight and was trying to egg the man on. The vulgar language escalated. The train was nearing the next station, and Crazy Dude wanted to “take it outside,” so to speak. But the heroic man remained in his seat, saying he didn’t need to prove anything and Crazy Dude just needed to chill. He made eye contact with me at one point and a nervous smile tugged at his lips. I knew then he wasn’t as cool as he appeared, but damn, he was putting on a good front.
Then the train stopped. The doors opened. And the belligerent, bigoted, crazy man, still spouting a steady stream of angry slurs, got off. The train started moving again, and just like that, it was all over. The collective exhale from those of us who remained sounded like the whoosh of air brakes.
I turned in my seat and asked the woman who’d innocently provoked all that ugliness if she was okay. She nodded, and smoothed her hair back with a trembling hand.
“The guy was off his meds or something,” I offered. She smiled and nodded. Then another man leaned down to her, holding his cellphone. “I called the cops,” he said. “They’ll be looking for him back there.” She nodded again. At the train’s next stop, she got up and went to the doors. Everyone who’d witnessed the incident was watching her, and she knew it. She looked around, gave a little wave, and said, “Thanks, everyone.” Then she was gone too.
The next stop was mine, and as it happened, the other guy’s as well, the one who’d asked about my book and then stood up to the crazy man. We stepped down to the platform together, and I said to him, “Thanks for saying something back there.”
He grinned and said, “Thanks for backing me up.” I nodded, even though I really hadn’t done anything. Then I walked to my office building and went to work hunting for errant commas.
All this happened Friday morning. I’m still thinking about it now, Sunday night. Thinking about the sickening sensation that always competes with relief after something like that is over, when the tide of unused adrenaline begins to subside and you can’t help but imagine all the ways the incident could have gone, just how bad it might’ve become. I am troubled by the things that man with the wild eyes and the blue blanket-cloak said, how they mirror a lot of the nasty memes, comments and “humor” I encounter almost daily on social media. Surely this guy was off his meds, or he needed to be on some to start with, but his cultural and racial hostility, his paranoia about people who look or believe differently than himself, is not uncommon. We may be living in the 21st century, surrounded by glittering technological wonders, but there is still a core of unevolved, brutish tribalism slithering around just beneath our veneer of sophistication. And it seems to me that it’s getting worse, not better, in this election year… and yeah, that bothers the hell out of me.
And I’m troubled as well by my own actions — or rather, inactions — during the whole incident. We all like to think that when we’re confronted with injustice or bigotry or just plain danger, we’d have the strength of character to stand up for what’s right. That we’d be the hero. I keep wondering what Jamie Fraser, the hero of that big fat historical adventure I’m reading, would have done in the same situation. But of course, he’s fictional and I’m not.
I keep thinking I should’ve been the one to speak up, instead of waiting for another man to do it. Because what might have happened if he hadn’t?