The crazy man on the subway told me I was lucky he hadn’t punched me in the face. But by then, I was starting to get annoyed. What would it take for one of the many idle people sitting on this train to interfere? The threatening man seemed to have Rip Van Winkled himself to 96th Street straight from a 1957 Buddy Holly concert for the sole purpose of pouncing on me, a defenseless girl (with glasses).
It wasn’t until I launched into another expletive-laden defense that I realized, the people in my train car didn’t know if he was the crazy person—or if I was.
I was living in Washington D.C. at the time, and as a female in my early twenties, I had come to expect sympathy, if not assistance, from strangers in difficult situations. But the stream of profanity I was spewing seemed to be interfering with my damsel in distress signal.
Crazy New Yorkers come in all shapes and sizes. And with the proliferation of hands-free devices, it’s increasingly difficult to tell if that well-dressed businessman is screaming at the voices in his head, or his secretary. In this case, my sparring partner and I had entered the train together, in mid-fight.
It was February and, I admit, I may have been extremely hungover. But I was still a respectable- looking girl in a wool coat, turtleneck and loafers. The crazy man had black plastic frames with a white bridge, pants that were too short and a flattop. He looked to be about 50, and his sizeable biceps bulged beneath the short sleeves of his button-down shirt. Plus, he was seething with rage.
It might have been two years since I lived in New York, but I refused to be bullied on my home turf, so I responded in kind.
In a more conscious state, I might have realized that the man’s eyes weren’t quite focusing. Or perhaps I would have been more alarmed than antagonistic when he informed me how little was restraining him from punching my face. But my first, bleary instinct was one of defense. That, and I just really wanted him to stop screaming.
I had been visiting the city for a college reunion and was now on my way back to D.C. after a particularly long night. I was doing my best to stay conscious until Port Authority on three hours of sleep. Once there, I could pass out on a Greyhound.
It had been a while since I had been on the subway. So when the 1 train stopped at West 96th Street and the express track had a green 5 idling across the platform, I paused momentarily. It took me half a beat to realize that the train was still running on the 2/3 line, even if it wasn’t labeled appropriately.
But that momentary pause inspired the wrath of the man behind me. As I stepped off the train, I heard a booming voice: “MOVE IT OR LOSE IT, LADY!”
It was 11:30 on a Sunday morning. There were no crowds desperate to get on this train, and the doors remained open for a good minute after we boarded. In a more conscious state I might have merely stepped aside, or taken a moment to contemplate how best to deflect this man’s rage. At the least I could have walked to a different car. But in this particular moment, when we entered the express train I responded in kind: “You need to calm the fuck down!”
Screaming and cursing at a person may not be the best way to diffuse anger, but it did have the benefit of making me feel a lot better.
It made the man feel a lot better to tower over me and clench his fists, beginning a tirade that would last until 72nd Street: “Stupid fucking liberals! You think we’ve got all day to wait for you!”
I decided that informing the man that he was fucking nuts was a better option than outlining my political beliefs at this juncture—which is when he leaned forward and informed me of his desire to punch me in the face.
As we continued to exchange insults, I took a moment to read the reactions of our audience. And I finally recognized the difference between a sane and crazy person in a public street fight: The sane person does not engage in public street fighting.
Most normal people steer clear of all the crazies roaming the streets of New York. It’s sometimes unavoidable, but once in the situation, the best defense is to disengage from the crazy person.
I have a friend who deals with a crazy by pointing at the offender and informing those around him of the situation: “Crazy person. Craaaazy person. Over there. Not me … I’m sane.” While this might not have exactly the intended effect, it does alert people that something is amiss. Another, more sadistic friend simply maintains eye contact while nodding. This often exacerbates the situation but does deflect attention from him.
As the yelling continued and the pounding in my head worsened, one thing became clear to me. You do not win an argument with a crazy person. You walk away. Or you become the crazy person. So finally, despite my desire to defend my character and rebut his surprisingly varied invective, I decided to shut up.
The man continued his barrage against me, communism and all the other evils running rampant in New York. But then something happened that I should have predicted from the beginning. He got bored of yelling at nobody.
Before I knew it, we were at 42nd Street. As the doors opened, I turned toward my interlocutor. I put on my biggest grin and gave him a cheerful wave: “Have a very nice day, sir!”
He twitched. Fists clenched. A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead. As the doors opened he let out one last gem: “You look pretty nice. FOR A PROSTITUTE!”
Touché, crazy man. Touché.
I walked off the train in silence and let him continue our fight without me. And it felt good. But not as good as watching the police officer on the platform walk past the quiet girl with glasses and toward the screaming man holding the train doors open.
Meghan Keane is a Phillips Fellow and freelance writer living in New York.