So Friday night I rode Metro North home from Manhattan. I’m sitting all the way in the first car, which tends to be the quietest, and just as the train is pulling out of Grand Central a guy sits down across the aisle from me. He glances back over his shoulder once or twice, then says, “Man, that guy just hit me.”
I look up, then glance toward the back of the car, but don’t see anyone. “What guy?”
There are doors connecting each car, and each door has a window in it. The guy is looking through those windows into the next car. “Look, that’s him there. Look.”
I lean out into the aisle. As the train moves through the tunnels it bends, so that the windows aren’t aligned, but I catch a glimpse of a guy in white in the middle of the next car. “Who is he?”
“I don’t know,” says the guy sitting next to me. He’s in his thirties, short, a little stocky, maybe of Indian descent, with a shaved head and stipples of acne scars across his cheeks. He’s dressed in dark colors, jeans and a lightweight zip-up sweatshirt. He looks a bit like the captain who dies at the beginning of Star Trek (2009). His name, I learn later, is Bob.
He says, “I was getting on the train, right, and I kind of bumped into him, and I said I was sorry, but he just sort of grabbed my face, like this, and shoved me back. See, that’s him right there. He’s coming.”
I stand to block the aisle, but Bob says, “No, man. Don’t get involved. Really. It’s cool. Sit down.”
Reluctantly, I sit back down. I’m thinking that maybe blocking the aisle will spark a confrontation and make things worse, or draw unwanted attention to Bob. He has a styrofoam container on his lap, Indian or Mexican food.
He shakes his head. “You know what? If he hits me he hits me. What can I do?”
He turns to face the window and tries to look inconspicuous as the other guy comes down the aisle toward us.
The guy is big and beefy, dressed in work boots and a white T-shirt. Maybe of Irish descent. Probably a construction worker, from his build and dress. He’s about sixty, with a full head of white hair, and was maybe handsome once, but now sort of looks like a crazy pirate. He passes by Bob, and for a moment I think everything’s cool, that the guy’s just looking for a seat.
Then the guy catches sight of Bob out of the corner of his eye, and without a word he turns and punches him in the cheek. Bob’s food goes flying and he holds up his hands as the guy punches him again.
I leap up and wrap my arm around the guy’s throat and try to drag him back, but he’s probably got a hundred pounds on me. Still, Bob manages to scramble up from his seat and into the aisle. The guy lunges at Bob, still punching him, as I try to hold the guy back. Behind Bob, the conductor, a short young guy, shouts, “Hey! Hey, guys! No fighting on the train.”
Bob falls onto his back, and the crazy guy falls on top of him, with me still squeezing the guy’s throat. Bob is punching back now, and screaming, “What the fuck, man? Why are you hitting me?” Crazy guy keeps punching with his right hand, and since my right arm is around his neck I can’t stop him. I let go of his neck and try to grab his arm, but it’s an awkward position and I can’t do much. The conductor is still yelling, and so are a bunch of people behind him.
Finally Bob scrambles out from under crazy guy and stumbles to his feet, and the conductor grabs him and pulls him away. I stand up and back off. Crazy guy is still on the ground between us, and Bob is screaming, “That guy just fucking attacked me for no reason!” and the conductor is saying, “I know, I know. Just calm down.”
Crazy guy pulls himself to his feet. He turns on me, and his eyes look totally insane. There’s a cut between his eyebrows, and his face is slick with blood. He’s an inch or two taller than me and a lot heavier, and I can see that he’s about to take a swing at me. Up until now I’ve been too surprised to be scared, but now I’m scared. I back away, holding up a hand and saying, “Man, you need to calm down.”
I move into the area by the doors, where there’s more room, and crazy guy follows me, but slowly, somewhat dazed. The conductor comes over and stands beside me. It seems to occur to crazy guy that an altercation with the conductor might involve some serious jail time. He wanders away to the far end of the car and stands there, wiping blood out of his eyes.
There are a bunch of other people there, a man and a woman and some kids, and for a moment I’m afraid they’re friends of crazy guy and are going to join the fight. One of them approaches, a white guy with a mustache, average build.
“Do you know that guy?” I say.
“No,” he says.
Bob is still screaming. His voice is almost cracking with emotion. “Come over here and hit me again! You crazy fuck! Come over here and hit me again!”
I really wish he would stop doing that. For a moment it seems inevitable that crazy guy is going to wade back in. Then crazy guy starts yelling back. “You ran into me!”
“I bumped you accidentally,” Bob yells. “And I said I was sorry. You crazy fucking asshole!”
“And you’re a fucking … “ Crazy guy pauses. I get the sense he’s trying to come up with a racial slur, but isn’t sure which one might apply. “…piece of shit!” he finishes.
“You fucking hit me, asshole!” Bob yells. “And look at you, bleeding like a little bitch! Come on, try it again. Try it again!”
The woman is trying to calm Bob down. She says repeatedly, “Do you have a family? Listen, do you have a family? For their sake just walk away.”
By now the fire seems to have gone out of crazy guy. He’s standing in his end of the car, shaking his head and shrugging, acting drunkenly nonchalant about the taunts, as if he’s above all this.
“Come on,” the conductor says to Bob, ushering him back.
“I didn’t do anything,” Bob says. “That guy just hit me.”
“I know,” the conductor says. “Come on.”
Bob says, “Can I get my food at least?”
The conductor surveys the remains of Bob’s food, which looks like it’s been hit by a bomb. “Your food…” He shakes his head. “It’s gone, man.”
The conductor leads Bob away, and I gather up my things and follow after them. They pass through the next car, and then into the one after that. At the far end of that car they pause, and the conductor says, “Have you been drinking?”
“Look, I’m not going to lie to you,” Bob says, “Yes, I’m drunk. But I’m not that drunk, and I didn’t do anything to that guy. He just hit me for no reason.”
“I can be a witness,” I say. “I saw the guy hit him. It was completely unprovoked.”
“All right.” The conductor turns back to Bob. “The police are going to meet us at the next stop, all right?”
“No, man,” Bob moans. “I didn’t do anything. I just want to go home.”
“I know,” the conductor says. “Do you want to press charges?”
“No, I don’t want to press charges,” Bob says. “I just want to go home.”
I keep glancing back toward the front of the train, but there’s no sign of crazy guy. A few minutes later we pull into the Harlem-125th Street station. The doors open and two uniformed cops come aboard. Young guys. One of them, a tall, pale, skinny guy with black hair and a cynical gaze, approaches. “Is this the guy?” he says, looking at Bob. The conductor nods.
The cop says, “So what happened?”
Bob explains about bumping into the guy as they were boarding the train, and how the guy shoved him, and then came over and attacked him. Bob says, “And he flashed some sort of badge at me. He’s a firefighter, I think. Like, what the hell does that mean?”
“All right,” the cop says. “Step off the train.”
“No, man,” Bob moans. “I don’t want to get off the train. I just want to go home.”
“Well, you shouldn’t have been fighting then,” the cop snaps. “Come on.”
Bob follows the cop out onto the platform, and I stand in the open doorway, watching. The cop questions the conductor, then questions Bob. An announcement comes over the PA apologizing for the delay.
I step out onto the platform. The other cop goes looking for crazy guy, but returns a short time later, exasperated that the conductor didn’t tag along to point out crazy guy. That cop and the conductor head off toward the front of the train. The first cop asks Bob for ID.
The other cop emerges from the train at the far end of the platform with crazy guy in tow, and questions him.
The first cop says to Bob, “He just hit you? You didn’t do anything?”
“No, man,” Bob says. He gestures at me. “This guy here, I don’t even know this guy at all. He can tell you.”
The cop says, “You’re a witness? You saw what happened?”
I say, “Yeah, I saw where the gentleman hit him on the train here.”
The cop turns back to Bob. “Do you want to press charges?”
“No, man. I don’t care. I forgive him. I just want to go home.”
Finally the cop says, “All right.” He holds up a bulky black device with a slip of paper showing. “Sign here.” Bob signs.
The conductor returns. He says to Bob, “You want to get back on the train? That guy’s off. You want to get back on?”
“Yeah,” Bob says, and we step back onto the train. The doors close and the train starts moving again. A well-dressed older couple is sitting nearby, and the woman is staring at us with a mix of suspicion and curiosity, and making no effort to be subtle about it.
The conductor passes us, and Bob tries to hand the guy his ticket, but the conductor waves him off. “No, don’t worry about it.”
When the conductor’s gone, Bob says, “Thanks, man. If you hadn’t been there I might have been in a lot of trouble with the cops.”
“Yeah, sure,” I say.
“What’s your name?” he says.
“David,” I say, and we shake hands. “What’s yours?” I ask, and he tells me.
He says, “Sorry, man. I didn’t mean to get you involved in this.”
“No, it’s fine,” I say.
“You go sit down,” he says. “I’m fine.”
“No, I’ll stay here,” I say. “I’m not doing anything.”
He sighs. “Am I bleeding?”
“Your cheek there,” I say. “I think there’s a spot on the back of your neck too. Turn around. No, the other way. Yeah, right under your ear there. There’s a little cut.”
He groans. “Am I bruised?”
“Like, the whole side of your face.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I can feel it. Man, how am I going to explain this?”
I grimace sympathetically. He talks through the circumstances that led to the initial collision again.
I grin at him. “You’re tough, man. You stood right up to that guy. You didn’t take any shit from him.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Damn it. His first punch got me right in the jaw there. That really messed me up. I would have done a lot better if it weren’t for that. If I wasn’t drunk it would have been a different story.”
I’m thinking that he acquitted himself pretty well, considering that the other guy was three times his size and came away with a face covered in blood.
“Sorry to get you involved in this, man,” he says.
“No, it’s fine,” I say.
“You should go sit down,” he says. “Relax.”
“All right.” We shake hands again. I pat his shoulder. “Stay strong, man.”
As I make my way back to my seat, I pass the conductor, who says, “Thanks for the assist, man.”
Twenty minutes later, as the train is pulling into White Plains, Bob appears in the aisle beside me.
“David,” he says. “Thanks again, man.” He shakes my hand.
“Yeah, no problem,” I tell him.
He makes his way out onto the platform. The doors close, and the train starts moving again.