I noticed the man -- as most people on the 4 train did -- when he asked a woman for her seat. I was leaning on a door nearby.
The woman stood her ground a moment: "Why you gotta pick me out when I'm surrounded by all these men?" She had a point -- there were men seated on both sides and on the bench across from her. Clucking in disapproval, she got up anyway.
The man heard the shaming, accepted it -- and took her seat. I realized then how fucked up he was. The woman came over and stood next to me, shaking her head with amazed disapproval.
New Yorkers maintain each other's privacy even in the closest quarters. We respect each other's walls in order to maintain our own. But I decided to break the agreement for a second. I leaned to the woman and said, "He only picked you out because you looked the youngest."
I made her laugh and her eyes twinkled. She was about fifty-odd, coming home from work, maybe. My gesture offered, my gesture accepted the way I intended. A little joke, something to ease the odd tension. Quiet descended for a few seconds and we returned to our urban, private headspace.
But not the man. "You shut the fuck up," he slurred from his seat down the train.
Me? "Sir, I wasn't even talking about you," I white-lied. The woman backed me up.
He continued: "No you be getting in all my business. You shut your fucking mouth. Or I'm gonna beat your fucking ass."
Awkward eye-rolling silence. The scene he created began to dissipate and the train resumed its hum. "Do you think he's been drinking?" I whispered to the woman, making her laugh again.
"You get outta my fucking business," said the man, suddenly alert. He got up from the seat and moved toward me, staggering a bit. He was a big guy -- but drunk. People parted. Was this happening?
"I wouldn't fuck with me, Sir," I said.
I write comedy because I sit on a lot of suppressed rage that has no other healthy outlet. I make a deal with myself when I write that I'll bare my teeth but never bite. It's the baring of teeth that's funny because it can still be generous. The biting is never funny. It's the difference between the comic viewpoint of a humanist and a misanthrope. I've always felt that misanthropy is for the weak. I can't stand it as I hate that which makes me bored.
My rage rarely finds another outlet beyond humor. But when the man's fist connected with my nose there on the 4 train I suddenly became one of those other people. The kind of people who fight. And suddenly everything became a Tilt-A-Whirl moving very, very fast.
I wasn't kidding when I said, "Don't fuck with me." I felt not a shred of fear. I'm stronger than I've ever been. I'm ripped at 41, cheerily going balls-to-the-wall into midlife. He was wasted. He might have been my age -- I couldn't tell beneath the years of alcohol. We grappled. People were scattering all around us, bailing to the other side of the train. I spun him around and body-slammed him into a newly-vacant seat. He was winded. I pinned his arms to his stomach.
And the situation could go several ways. I was in a great position to lay down some hurt. Nobody on the train could dispute my right to do so.
I put my face really close to his. "Sir, I'd fucking CALM DOWN if I were you. You're a fucking drunk. You're fucking wasted. Do you hear me? You need to CALM THE FUCK DOWN."
Our eyes were locked. After a moment I looked around. Every single person on the crowded train was staring. The man slurred something I didn't understand.
A young guy approached and stopped a few feet away. "Let him go. It'll be all right." Defusing a situation already defused. Well -- not quite.
I said firmly, "I'm not letting him go until he stops coming at me. You gonna get between us, or what?" I turned to the man. Eye-to-eye. "You gonna fucking cut it out?"
"Let me go," said the drunk man, weakly. Submissively. I noticed that the sleeve of my jacket was somehow caught on his wrist. I looked him hard in the eyes and yanked my arms away. He slurred some bravado as I moved to the middle of the train. People pretended to return to their bubbles of privacy but I caught their glances.
There was respect in their eyes. And maybe disappointment -- the guy deserved to get the shit beaten out of him. I hadn't held up my end. And in the averted glance, a mutual acknowledgment of the weirdness of it all.
-- How's my nose?
-- How odd that sixty seconds ago I had no idea this would happen.
-- I'm so glad I gave up drinking.
-- I'm glad I'm leaving New York.
-- I stood up for myself.
-- My nose feels tender but fine. Fucked up my fingernail, though.
-- Is there anything funny here? I don't know what it is yet.
"You did the right thing, man." It was the intervening young guy who broke my bubble, speaking across several other commuters.
"You did the right thing," he repeated.
I patted at my heart and gave a nod of appreciation. Bare your teeth. Never bite.