When I get on the subway in the morning to go to work, especially if I’m on time – and I am increasingly on time these days due to the steps I’ve been taking to exert more control over my health – I often make the insane decision to follow the rules and step all the way into the train.
By this I mean that I walk into the middle of the car, or as close to the middle as space allows. I rarely sit, even on the rare occasions when there are seats to be had, because whenever I do I start thinking about how much sitting I’m forced to do at my desk during the day, which isn’t good for your body. Also, standing burns extra calories. Standing occasionally, during relatively short intervals when you might otherwise sit, makes a big difference over the course of a year, in terms of fitness. This especially holds true if you “force” yourself to do a little extra walking each day, or opt for stairs more often than elevators or escalators. And so on.
I digress. I don’t want to talk about standing. I want to talk about the angry old man who got up in my face on the train yesterday.
Another reason why I move into the middle of the train is because my stop is a bit further out into Brooklyn, resulting in a situation where “enough space” to stand in becomes “no space,” as larger crowds of people pile in as we near the bridge to Manhattan. As a logical procedure, moving all the way into the train works quite well to minimize the effects of the tight squeeze that each car becomes, despite the general fear some New Yorkers seem to hold onto – that they will get stuck inside when they arrive at their stop, as neighbors swarm on and off, and will thus be forced to get off at the next stop, after which they will be late(r) to work, and then they are going to get fired, and on top of that spanked, then defiled by a fusillade of pigeon shit, and finally zombie apocalypse.
But I have a second, more selfish (or more self-aware) reason for moving towards the middle of the car and away from the doors. It allows me to exert a small measure of control over a situation I can’t control: the coming onslaught of The Crowd.
I have had an aversion to crowds since I was about eight or nine years old. I remember standing in the school yard during recess at that age, with a handful of friends, and watching from afar as many other students congregated together, laughing and screaming and generally having a great time. I wasn’t an outcast per se. In fact, I was friends with many of the children who made up the group – on an individual level. But the crowd unnerved me, at least in terms of being unable to easily join it without feeling a rush of anxiety or insecurity or just general discomfort with the idea of joining the group. I just didn’t understand it. I didn’t feel whatever it was that they were feeling, that compelled them to congregate.
The psychology of such events can probably be unwrapped and analyzed a few times over, but for the present purpose I mean only to point out the necessity, in adulthood, for people like me to do something about a situation in which discomfort or anxiety is going to come whether you like it or not. Such feelings don’t often go away.
I live in New York City. I cannot ever avoid crowds. But, to a degree, I can avoid crowding, which is one of the reasons why I live deep in Brooklyn, where I can get more space for the same money that I would pay to live somewhere closer to the epicenter of the city – which doesn’t want people like me anyway (we lack capital).
In truth, certain parts of Brooklyn don’t want me either. This doesn’t surprise me, because the majority of the people living in such parts live in bubbles. Since I can be a bit prickly, there’s just going to be a lack of hugs all around when it comes to me and them. They don’t want to endanger their bubble and I don’t want to get sticky.
That’s all a long preamble to the additional fact that I also choose to move into the middle of the car as a means of exerting a small degree of control over my fate, as the crowd of bodies swells into a current and the jostling and pushing and crushing begins. I try to put myself preemptively out of the range of too much contact or too much crowding. When I know the crowding is imminent, I spread my legs a little farther than normal and stand slightly farther back from the people closest to me than I otherwise have to, in order to maintain comfort. This way, when the squeezing comes, I have a little extra space to play with. I know. I’m brilliant. It’s not at all ironic that I’m talking about creating my own bubble.
So what happened yesterday? Why do I go into so much detail about something so apparently mundane? Would it make you feel like you’ve been making a good use of your time reading this, if I told you that, in the midst of a situation typical of the above testimony, that I was suddenly accosted by an angry old (white) man?
Isn’t that kind of appropriate?
He got on at a particular stop in one of those neighborhoods in Brooklyn. A neighborhood famous (in my eyes) for the overwhelming percentage of genteel oblivious fuckheads whose behavior, movements, and general carriage belie an intrinsic belief that they (and their children) are more important than everyone else around them. Sticking to the example of the subway, these are the people who get on the train and act as if it’s your job to not be in their way, or in the way of the e-reader or iPad or magazine or book that they are going to hold out in front of them at a comfortable arms length even as others struggle to find room in the car. They are adept at holding their coffee in front of your face and hitting you repeatedly with their bags (in fairness, you are in the way of their bag). They also don’t mind chattering loudly about some of the most boring topics known to man while surrounded by a crowd of quiet fellow commuters who just want a few more minutes of peace before the furor of their day begins.
I was in the middle of the car. Minding my business. Reading. With my book in my face only. Shortly after we arrived at that stop, in that neighborhood in Brooklyn – I felt pressure at my back. The crowd. I stopped reading for a moment, to make room as best I could.
I should mention, at this point, that I travel to work with a backpack. One that is often bulging with lunch and filmmaking. I should also mention that I have a spinal condition that leaves me sensitive to pressure at certain angles. For instance, when someone pushes against my bag, adding extra relative weight from the top down – I feel it a little bit more than you do, because the curve of my spine is more acute than yours, from back to front. It’s like a more glamorous form of scoliosis.
So, when I felt unnecessary pressure on my back (the train wasn’t that crowded), I looked to see what was going on.
What I saw was an angry old man, who also had a large bag, grumbling about the reality that was the prior existence of other people on the train. For whatever reason, though there was room elsewhere, he had decided to stand right behind me – which placed large bag up against large bag. He pushed me a little, seemingly on purpose.
I had already relinquished all the extra room I had saved for dealing with The Crowd, and I wasn’t about to force discomfort on myself and the woman seated in front of me by straddling her legs. I also wasn’t going to allow the man to weigh my back down with the weight of his bag. So I held my ground against the pushing. Again – not my job to get out of your way.
I heard and felt his annoyance, but I didn’t care. He could have gone somewhere else. I would have. There was room. But, as it turns out, none of this mattered. The man would soon prove that he wasn’t concerned with anything other than being mad. For the time being, I focused on my book and listened to music through my headphones and stopped worrying about him because I was fine.
A few stops later, he turned around and shoved a hand into my shoulder. I also turned around, pulled my headphones down around my neck, and looked at him.
“Your umbrella is poking out of your bag! It’s all over the place!”
The words were delivered acidly, manically. I looked down at my umbrella. It was facing away from him, on the other side of my bag from the one he was closest to, and though it was dangling a bit from where I keep it secured to the outside of the bag, a quick glance at the people around us confirmed that the man was overreacting or creating a situation where there wasn’t one. He had spoken loudly, and was glaring at me, and since the train had been quiet (as it often is in the morning) everyone was looking at us.
I did the right thing before I even knew I was doing it. I told the man, in a kind but firm tone of voice, to calm down, and that everything was going to be okay.
This is a new tactic I have been using whenever someone comes at me with anger. I tell them, emphatically, that everything is going to be okay. I illustrate this fact through my tone, and via the look in my eyes. I often repeat the phrase, if they bark again. Everything is going to be okay.
He turned around immediately, and said nothing. He seemed embarrassed, perhaps because, after everyone had turned to look at us, I had immediately redirected their attention to where it was deserved, with him only. This was his problem.
I double-checked the umbrella and went back to my book.
Outside the realm of general politeness – when politeness is called for – it is the job of no one to get out of the way of someone else. This especially holds true when dealing with someone who is always in their own way, and is merely swapping you in, in place of themselves, as a means of spasmodically releasing their anger or dissatisfaction with their own self…while as the same time holding onto it for dear life.
Too much of what keeps too many of us perpetually dissatisfied with our lives, here in America, in my opinion, is the general default attitude we take when confronted by angry, childish bullies. What other explanation can there be for our current depressed state, wherein few of us are satisfied, or feel represented or free, and yet, as a daily rule, on average, we continue to acquiesce to a metastasized old world status quo in which the few dictate the lives of the many? Here, in a supposedly free democracy, this is the norm. Will this be the legacy of our time? Silent capitulation to screaming old men who want what they want, and you better get out of their way? Is this not a serious, widespread problem of courage?
These small stories add up. They are not separate from the larger picture.
As early as a year ago, I might have had a different reaction to the attack of that old, self-important man. I might have told him to fuck off, taking his bait, turning myself into a part of the show. I might have become fodder for the crowd I simply wanted to avoid. Depending on my mood, I might have also just taken the abuse, mostly ignoring him on the surface while privately fuming on the inside. Hell, on another day, even further back in my life, I could have even been that guy.
Now, I have more important things to do. I am no longer a man who deals in irrational anger. Except when we are here, on this site. Here, the anger is rational. Here, to borrow a phrase (while lopping off a key consonant): I am the anger.
This is a place where we get angry and speak up. Here, the energy can go somewhere useful.
Don’t let angry fuckheads throw you off track. And don’t be an angry fuckhead. Life’s crowded. Shit’s going to be in the way of the ideal. Deal with it and keep going.
It’s going to be okay.