“I'm a Reiki master and a massage therapist and a preacher, so… if there's anything I can do for you ladies…” The man grinned with an easy confidence. Neither one of us answered at first – not me from the gray plastic seat where I sat nor the woman in her early twenties standing by the subway door. We hoped, as the notion began to set in that this would be a long and painful ride, that from our silence he might understand the rest. But then, he hadn’t included in his list of qualifications a perceptive, empathic nature—or any particular interest, for that matter, in the feelings of others.
When we boarded the C train at a little past 11:30 PM, it was clear enough that we were fucked. I’d been with a friend on Bleecker Street, at a place downstairs where the incoming results were being projected onto a large screen. People sat at tables, at the bar, and on the floor, getting up to have their glasses refilled at an increasingly frequent rate as the night went on. After two cigarettes, I decided it was time to leave.
Waiting for the train at West Fourth, I’d seen the woman – white, maybe twenty or twenty-one – and she’d seen me. We’d silently regarded each other in that way women do to signal the bonds of sisterhood, or to mutually admire one another’s sartorial choices. Nah—we’d simply noticed one another through our wet eyes. If we shared a moment, it was the dawning realization that a racist, misogynist, corrupt proto-fascist—someone utterly and dangerously unqualified for the job—would soon be made president. We met eyes and smiled weakly.
Suddenly a man sashayed into the space between us. This man – white, balding, in his early to mid-forties – was wearing glasses and the kind of loose-fitting, colorful cloth pants that might be sold in a university town at a world-culture store with a name like “Global Artisans” or “Whole World Market,” where his pants might be labeled “Tibetan.” On top he wore a cream-colored blouse with billowing sleeves. No jacket. An older man played show tunes on a small electric keyboard on the platform nearby as the C train pulled up and we three got in. I sat while they stood.
“Why so sad?” said the man in harem clown pants, looking first at the standing woman, then at me. “Oh I know. But it doesn’t bother me. All of this? It doesn’t matter.”
He continued to chat at the standing woman, and I looked straight ahead, keeping them in my peripheral vision. As he kept talking, she seemed to say as little as possible, smiling slightly. I was reminded of a feeling I’d had when I was her age and younger – uncomfortable, but too afraid to offend – and I attributed her behavior to this feeling.
“Are you okay?” I asked her quietly while the man was briefly distracted by his phone.
“Yes,” she said and her face sank, suddenly released from the smile she’d been wearing. “Thanks. Just trying to… you know.” I nodded.
“Look on the bright side,” the man continued. “At least now we don't have to pay taxes! Our president doesn't pay taxes, so we don’t have to!” he chuckled. I shook my head and sighed audibly as we hurtled together toward 14th Street.
“I don’t think it works that way,” the standing woman said softly, smiling.
“You don’t think it works that way?” he cooed, encouraged. “Of course it works that way!” Before either of us could answer, a woman down the compartment started yelling.
“Don't harass women! It's not okay to stare at women!” She was white, in her mid-thirties, sitting down and shouting in the direction of a South Asian man, in his thirties or forties, who sat, blank-faced, across from her. He managed somehow to look calm and nervous at the same time. The woman got up and stood directly in front of the man. “Oh I'm making you uncomfortable?” she bellowed. “Well then maybe you shouldn’t stare at women!”
We all couldn’t help but stare now, and when the woman looked my way I reflexively looked up and away, shifting in my seat as if simply fidgeting for a more comfortable position. As if I hadn’t noticed that she was yelling at all. I wondered if I should stand by in some more obvious way. Did she need help? Did he? I felt anxious, then ashamed, then tired. At 23rd Street, just as I looked back, the man dressed as a circus yoga instructor crossed over to them.
“Listen man, just apologize, okay? Can’t you just do that?” The sitting man remained stoic. “Just say you’re sorry, dude.” The other people in this half of the subway car – three black men, two older and one teenager, and a middle-aged black woman – put in their earbuds. She closed her eyes.
“I don't need a man to save me!” the white woman hissed at the clown man, and I wondered if life would now forever be reduced to a bad film school screenplay. Whether she had a point or not, in that moment my snobbery for well-written dialogue won out.
Is it possible to stand up for yourself publicly, spontaneously and unprepared, and to do so artfully? It was a cruel standard considering the circumstances—artfulness. And still I felt embarrassed in its absence. Clumsiness, cliché, desperation. Weren’t these things – warranted now, if ever – to be forgiven?
I wondered if the woman yelling thought, Well great, here we are, he’s not even in office yet but tonight of all nights of course a man has the nerve to stare at me. Was she silently praying, vowing that no matter what, this will not go unchecked tonight—not tonight?
I wondered if the man being yelled at thought, Well great, here we are, he’s not even in office yet but tonight of all nights of course this white woman is going to publicly accuse me of violence. Was he silently cursing, counting down the seconds until the humiliation would end—just let it end?
Then the woman sat back down and it was quiet.
“I'm sorry to bother you today, ladies and gentleman,” a hunched-over man with graying hair said as he shuffled through the car, “But can anyone spare some change? Spare a little change?” He was cut short by the announcer, though he didn’t stop speaking – his mouth kept moving, still forming words – while the message blared overhead: Ladies and gentlemen, soliciting money in the subway is illegal. We ask you not to give. Please help us to maintain an orderly subway. “Spare a little change,” he continued once the announcement had ended, then paused. “And please, would you disregard that last message? That man is making $50,000 a year. With benefits. And here he is telling you not to give me a dime. I’ll let you decide what is right. And what is wrong.” His speech over, the man continued to move through the car. “Anyone spare some change please, anyone spare a little change. Anyone spare some change…”
Did anyone give him anything? I don’t remember. The clown man was back, then, standing near to where I sat and the younger woman stood.
“Listen,” he said to us, taking in a deep breath to signal, it seemed, that what was coming was important, and required a certain measure of gravitas. “I'm a Reiki master and a massage therapist and a preacher, so… if there's anything I can do for you ladies…” I looked down, feeling sick. Two pools of fossilized gum stuck like dull silver dollars to the plastic floor.
When we realized he was still waiting for an answer, we both said at the same moment, “No.” I know I wasn’t smiling.
“You seem like good sports—happy people,” he said, with a grin.
“We’re not happy now,” said the standing woman.
“Well, you're putting on a good face,” he said to her. He turned to me. “You don't look happy. I was just trying to be polite.” I nodded.
“Hey, do you mind if I write about this?” he asked, hands out, energized by this new creative project. “I won't use your names—I mean, I don't even know your names!” He chuckled as if he’d made a good joke. I started taking notes on my phone.
Soon enough the standing woman was getting off at 59th Street. Goodbye, we said, and hurriedly wished each other luck. We rode in silence then, the clown man and me, and I knew he wouldn’t try to talk to me anymore.
“Good luck to you,” he said icily, more insult than platitude, looking straight ahead as he passed to get off at 110th. I realized then that the yelling woman and the sitting man had both gotten off at some point—and I realized, too, that in another stop, so would I.