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NYC Subway - The gazelles stayed silent

 
 
Reply Thu 7 Sep, 2006 04:47 am
New York City,
Wednesday 5:12AM,
The A Train,
Third Car from the End.

When I get on I see her huddled next to the windows of the car with four or five black plastic bags stuffed with her belongings around her legs, stacked up next to and underneath the orange and yellow seat. The space next to her is empty and she is deeply sleeping. She is old. It is usually hard to tell just how old any homeless person is, but this one is old. Deep lines map out her face which has the look and color of an apple left out in the sun for too many days. The rest of her looks burned up, almost cooked, the flesh on her arms, the skin on her neck, the back of her hands. Her feet are wrapped in layers of cloth with a pair of huge men's white athletic socks covering part of them. She is clutching a blue canvas backpack, the kind a grandmother buys for a first grader, it has flowers on it and a picture of Winnie the Pooh.

We, the six other early morning travelers, are settled into our seats, scattered throughout the car, hooked up to Ipods or staring at the box scores in the New York Daily News. The train rumbles towards 59th Street making one local stop after another on the way.

At about 135th Street, I wasn't paying attention to exactly when, a man entered our car from the one in front of us. He was tall, over six feet two, and wearing a filthy pair of jeans and what used to be a red tee-shirt. He began by making his please-help-me-get-a-little-breakfast-speech. Every panhandler has his pitch, some of them change over time, some of them stay the same forever. There was a guy on the 1/9 line who had ''been mugged by three men three months ago." and just needed something for that day to get him back on his feet. I heard him tell that tale over and over for about three years. Same three guys, same three months ago. There is still a guy who works the A train during rush hour on his knees. His thing is to beg pitifully and he is really good at at it. He does a lot of praying for everybody, that they get home safe, that their families will be alright. He holds a can with some coins in it and rattles it as he moves through the crowded car like a penitent at Padua. Some panhandlers sing, mostly Motown tunes with the occasional "Amazing Grace" thrown in to set the right tone. They are, for the most part, universally ignored. Both riders and panhandlers know that it's illegal to beg on the trains and most people just want to be left alone, still the game goes on.

This newcomer to our car was of the announce and then make eye contact school of begging. That is where you tell your story once aloud and then proceed to each person, one by one, hand or can out. It's got to be hard, and hard on you, you start to think, to be so low, but that's only because the story has gotten to you a little this morning. You start to wonder if you still have those two quarters in your pocket, you start to think, ah, what the hell, but then something happened with this guy.

He seemed a little high, a little cracked up, wound up a little too tight. He started to take a little too long looking at everybody, standing in front of everybody, leaning in, one at a time, staring at each person, hand out, waiting. This guy is big, he's got some kind of bruise by his left eye and a tenseness in his face. It began to feel less like panhandling and more like a shakedown, more like something might happen if somebody doesn't cough up soon. He gives the sleeping woman a glance and moves down the aisle. Nobody makes a move, everyone gets very interested in the article they are reading in the paper, on the page in their book. I just shake my head 'no' when he comes towards my seat, but he still comes, he still waits for me to raise my eyes to him. I don't.

He storms off down the car to the door to the next one and slams through it. A feeling of release, of escape from something, fills the air. The guy across from me turns the pages of his paper and noisily raises it out in front of him then folds it in half in a swift motion that looks almost defiant. The train stops at 125th and some more people get on, a couple of the six get off. I smile to myself and try to find my place in the recorded book I am listening to, it's Emperors and Idiots, about the Yankees and the Red Sox and the author fills minute after minute with long ago forgotten men and their achievements on the green, green grass. Home runs abound, so do bobbled grounders and pitchers with worn out arms, I have to listen to another re-telling of where some Boston fan was when Bucky Dent came to bat.

Suddenly the car door slams and the guy is back. He doesn't look at any of us as he walks through the car. He gets to the far door and stops. He stands there for a couple of seconds and I think he's revving himself up to make his get-some-breakfast speech again, but he doesn't. What he does do is sidle back down the car until he is even with the sleeping woman then, softly softly softly, he settles into the seat next to her.

For a half a second I am thinking he must know her, that he recognized her from somewhere, that he's watching over her, but then the reality side of my brain wakes up and says 'Bullshit. He's going to steal her bag.'

Did you ever watch one of those nature films where the cheetah is trying to run down one of the gazelles? Once the chase begins, the cheetah only looks at that gazelle, at his prey, and the other gazelles, the ones who are not being chased, head off in all directions, looking in all directions except where the one who is being chased is being chased, so it was on this early morning train car.

He kept his eyes on her, he knew that no one else would say anything, he knew us, he knew me that well, he knew we would sit there, the unpersued gazelles, as he moved his hands down around the bag. Seconds went by, a whole minute, he was patient, moving not inch by inch, but in tiny slices of distance.

"Hey, what you doing?" the old woman yelled. "Hey, hey, what the **** you doing.!??" The guy leaped up and cracked his skull on the overhead handrail, he yelped, "I'm not doing nothing, I'm not doing nothing." He backed down the car holding the top of his head. The old woman was standing now, looking right at him, fists out in front of her. "I wasn't doing nothing." the guy said again. "Shut up, you no good."shouted the woman, "I've seen you now. I've seen you. And now you've made an enemy." The woman took a step around her bags, she put one foot out in the aisle, the big guy was backing away down the car. " Now, sometime I will see you sleeping and I'll take every thing you got." She laughed, "You've got an enemy now. Heh."

The gazelles stayed silent.

The guy slammed his way out of the car at the next stop and the woman, already curled up in her seat, seemed just two breaths away from being fast asleep again. Everything settled down.

I listened to about three sentences of my book before shutting the thing off. The shame of it all began to well up over me. What a brave crew we were, what a valiant soul am I. What a bunch of whimpish bovine creatures we all were. We would have sat right there and watched him swipe that woman's bag. We shouldn't be allowed to ride in the same car with her, we don't have half of her courage. If the same thing had happened to anyone else on that train, do you think they could just roll over and go back to sleep? They'd be shaking and weeping and stunned, not her, she was back to snoozing, in seconds at peace with her world.

The train roared into my stop at Fifty-Ninth Street and I was up and out and halfway up the stairs to the park before the whole shame rolled over me. I would have done nothing, I would have been frozen by my fear of getting a shive in the chest from the wired up junkie with a grudge.

There isn't a herd of gazelles who would have me and now I was going to run a circle around the park. I put the music on my headset on as loud as I could take it, it wasn't loud enough.
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Type: Discussion • Score: 0 • Views: 4,167 • Replies: 22
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edgarblythe
 
  1  
Reply Thu 7 Sep, 2006 05:01 am
kudos from edgar
0 Replies
 
Endymion
 
  1  
Reply Thu 7 Sep, 2006 06:13 pm
Good reading. Very thought provoking.
0 Replies
 
ossobuco
 
  1  
Reply Thu 7 Sep, 2006 06:17 pm
I've had a similar experience, so this is particularly thought provoking.
0 Replies
 
Joe Nation
 
  1  
Reply Thu 7 Sep, 2006 07:00 pm
Thanks all.

I'm still pretty pissed at myself, but everyone, everyone, I've talked to here in the city about this has said the same thing "Hey, lighten up on yourself. The guy could have killed you. You didn't know. blah blah."

When I think of her standing there with her fists out, ready, and me sitting there like I was watching an episode of Real Cop Videos....

Joe(what a punk)Nation
0 Replies
 
littlek
 
  1  
Reply Thu 7 Sep, 2006 07:11 pm
I think I held my breath through the whole thing!
0 Replies
 
Endymion
 
  1  
Reply Thu 7 Sep, 2006 07:34 pm
Joe Nation wrote:

Joe(what a punk)Nation


Nah, if you feel bad about it - you're no punk

Anyway, you don't know what you (or anyone else) might have done if she hadn't woken up and he had taken the bag.
Seeing him go that far might well have changed everything.
You may think you'd do nothing - but you can't know for sure.
Sometimes we just go on our instincts and I think yours were right - after all, he didn't get away with anything.

(just a few provoked thoughts)
0 Replies
 
ossobuco
 
  1  
Reply Thu 7 Sep, 2006 07:45 pm
I'm from a part of Los Angeles that thought of itself as home of the homeless. We were inured to panhandling routines, though we gave sometimes.

We were on a train coming into Rome, perhaps the one from Ostia Antica into the city. A young boy about nine or ten years old came through the car and - best as I can remember - started asking for money, starting right near us. We didn't give. Most other people in the car, virtually all italians, did. Then he started to sing in an exquisite voice...
I felt like such a cynical and miserly soul.

It's possible he sang first, and then collected, as that seems to make more sense, but I remember it the other way.
0 Replies
 
gustavratzenhofer
 
  1  
Reply Thu 7 Sep, 2006 07:48 pm
There's a million stories in the naked city. We've just heard one of them.

Nice little yarn, Joe. Don't lose any sleep over this incident.
0 Replies
 
Green Witch
 
  1  
Reply Thu 7 Sep, 2006 07:57 pm
Joe, both you and this woman acted out of self preservation. The reality of this sometimes cold, cruel world is that sometimes you lie low and sometimes you fight.
0 Replies
 
ossobuco
 
  1  
Reply Thu 7 Sep, 2006 10:06 pm
The analogy of the riders as gazelles is haunting...
0 Replies
 
Joe Nation
 
  1  
Reply Thu 7 Sep, 2006 11:39 pm
Yeah.

Joe(You would have thought one of us would screech like a chimp)Nation
0 Replies
 
Green Witch
 
  1  
Reply Fri 8 Sep, 2006 05:35 am
Joe, you should submit this to The New York Times Magazine for their original essay page. Is it called "Lives"? - can't remember, but I'm sure you know what I mean.
0 Replies
 
Joe Nation
 
  1  
Reply Fri 8 Sep, 2006 07:50 pm
I just might.

Thanks
0 Replies
 
gustavratzenhofer
 
  1  
Reply Fri 8 Sep, 2006 08:05 pm
If you do submit that story, Joe, and they agree to publish it, make sure you give me the credit for the idea.
0 Replies
 
sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Fri 8 Sep, 2006 08:10 pm
Great idea, Green Witch.

The content is serious enough that one almost hates to comment on how fabulous the writing is, but it is. Fabulous.
0 Replies
 
kickycan
 
  1  
Reply Sat 9 Sep, 2006 12:08 am
Great story, Joe. Sorry you had to go through that.
0 Replies
 
Joe Nation
 
  1  
Reply Sat 9 Sep, 2006 04:16 am
gustavratzenhofer wrote:
If you do submit that story, Joe, and they agree to publish it, make sure you give me the credit for the idea.


I thought the guy looked a lot like I picture you to be in real life, a battered, broken wreck of humanity with a bad attitude, scarring around the eyes and a smashed up mouth, but wearing a good looking hat.


Joe(this guy had no hat)Nation

Hey, Kicky, Frank says they are shutting down the Frying Pan for good.
Revolution!! Revolution! Attica Attica Attica !!!
0 Replies
 
ossobuco
 
  1  
Reply Sat 9 Sep, 2006 10:09 am
(oh, no!!!!!!!! - I've enjoyed the Frying Pan vicariously.)
0 Replies
 
kickycan
 
  1  
Reply Sat 9 Sep, 2006 12:25 pm
What??!! No way! When? How much time do we have left?
0 Replies
 
 

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