We ride the subway a lot.
Unless we're on the bike or borrowing our friend's car (phew, it saved our bacon this winter), we are on the trains. Two to school, two home. For Carver and me, that's eight trains a day, sometimes more if we go somewhere while Juniper's in school.
We see dogs, cats, people asleep. We hear F#%@ a lot. Rats on the tracks. Middle schoolers like monkeys when they get out for the day. Isolated businessmen on the way to work in the morning. Lots of people reading iPads, Kindles, Nooks, newspapers, and books. Hasidic mothers praying with their Bibles. Black Muslims distributing the Final Call. Jehovah's Witnesses offering scripts. A man playing a panflute while a woman holding a baby passes a cup for tips. Dancers who do back flips on the Q as it thunders across the East River. Mariachi bands who stroll in full costumes.
It's all interesting and mundane in a city with an average of close to 5.5 million people riding trains every day. We talk to other families. Carver plays peekaboo with anyone who'll let him while he's riding in the carrier on my back. Juniper will engage with her seatmates over how old she is, sing songs, color in her book, stare out the window.
In other words, they are New Yorkers.
Spring Break week and we're off on adventures around the city. Yesterday, we hustled to catch the 4 express train to the upper east side to meet up with our friend Bryan for a morning at the Met. The Met, you might have read, is being sued for misleading visitors into paying a $25 entry fee. It is a suggested fee (and admissions covered about 11 percent of operating costs last year) as is the American Museum of Natural History. I told the staffer I'd pay $10 for the four of us (children are free regardless) and she said, great, here you go. Given that we're usually in a place for about an hour, paying $25 seems steep.
So, there we are, on the subway, headed for fun. We've studied the map, have some key areas picked out, and are working it like a scavenger hunt. I'm knitting, Carver's in the stroller, and Juniper's tucked next to me chatting.
At Union Square/14th Street two women get on, a heavyset black woman in bright blue and purple (maybe scrubs and a jacket?) and a thin white woman in a gigantic black puffy coat. She's got sunglasses on but they aren't enough to cover her old-before-her-time face and spotty teeth. We can hear the arguing on the platform before the doors open. I tuck my knitting away and consider getting my cell phone out for photos. Yes, I take photos all the time of people and then toss them when they are unnecessary. Weird things happen, sometimes it helps to have a photo.
Look, I could F--- it or F^4@ through this, but that's a pain in the neck.
It's unclear what started the argument, but when they got on the train, it went something like:
Fuck you, bitch! I'll fuck you up!
Fuck you, bitch! Don't go talkin' to me! I'll fuck you up!
Fuck you, stupid!
Fuck you, I'll fuck up your weave!
The black woman sits kitty corner from us; we're next to the doors at the end of the car. The white woman sits in the middle of the center bench across from us. (On this type of train, there are is a two-seater, then a door, a long bench, a door, a long bench, a door, another two seater.)
Juniper's eyes are big with alarm. She scootches closer to me and says, "Mama, I don't like these people. I don't like what they are saying." No one does, baby, no one does. The woman to our right and I exchange "wtf" looks because this is unusual. And loud.
White woman sits down and fires off final salvo to the black woman who has pulled out something to read. Fuck you, you fucking bitch, I'll fuck up your weave.
The black woman leaps out of her seat and hurtles down the car, pouncing on the white woman. Purse flies, bodies hurl backwards. They fall on Juniper and Carver. I shove an enormous ass off Carver, shouting, "Get off of my kids!"
Immediately, the train springs into action. Two men flank us, one at the end of Carver's stroller, the other in front of them, because the women are still fighting -- not yelling, but full-on fighting -- on the floor in front of us. One was a black man in an overcoat that looked warm for the day. It was unbuttoned. I know, what an odd thing to notice, but your mind attaches to curious details. More people jump into the fray, trying to separate them. All I can hear is a man saying, "Get off of her!" and one of the women yelling back, "She started it! She attacked me!"
Juniper is hysterical, crying because these women are scary and have fallen on her and she doesn't understand what is happening or why they are so mad. She only knows they are really, really, really mad. As the struggle on the floor continues, we get up. People help us. I think a black man in a blue jacket comes behind us as we make our way to the other end of the car. I look down as we evacuated. The white woman is flat on her back, sunglasses gone. Her face is purple with rage? the fight? being squished on the floor?
We aren't being leisurely. We scoot down the car. As I sit, I pull Juniper into my lap. She is crying and talking and trying to make sense of it all. She wants to get off the car, but it's an express, we won't stop for several more blocks. The man who walked behind us mouths, I'm sorry. It is no one's fault but the women's. I shrug, I smile, it's okay. The women around us try to soothe Juniper. A white woman, dressed for the office, a black woman, and I, all within a few years of each other it seems, talk about Mister Rogers. We agree, we thought his show was a little creepy. We didn't none of us like the puppets. But we all like his sayings.
Juniper calms amidst the talk. Carver is wide-eyed, but he's sucking his thumb.
The white woman helps move us from this car to the next before she leaves the train. The brake on the stroller is locked. She almost gets stuck for another 30 blocks but we're able to get settled and she jumps off. As we leave the car, the women are still arguing. The black woman was on her way to work; she's a caretaker for an elderly person.
When we get to our stop, I tell Juniper we'll call Papa and check in. The more she hears the story, the less scary it will seem. Her lip quivers, but she nods. After we emerge on 86th and Lexington, she says she saw the fighting woman from the train. (She was on the stairway, fixing her hair. Her hair did get fucked up.)
I stop for coffee because I need coffee and I need a moment to catch my breath. My hands aren't shaking, but the realization of how quickly and how close they were to being injured has unnerved me. Juniper, I promise, can have a lollie for being brave.
We call Papa on our way to the museum and tell him our tale. She's very brave, we say. We meet up with Bryan and tell him our story. The scariness retreats. By the end of the day, it's something that happened on the train and she (nearly) shrugs it off.
Today, we took the C to the 4 express to go back uptown. No mention of yesterday's excitement.
All in a day's ride.
We have not talked about the women's race because it doesn't seem important to the fight.
I describe them as best I remember because stories are better with details. But witnesses have spotty memories. How tall were they women? Eh, maybe 5'5" at best. Heavyset? Curvy. Old before her time? Meth head (maybe recovering). But in the moments of arguing and fighting, it wasn't an issue to either of them, or Juniper, or anyone else. Just two batshit women brawling on a morning train.
I mention the race or skin color of the people I remember. There were so many faces on the train. Everyone standing, as if ready to jump into action. Not gawking, not rubber-necking, but together, waiting to see if they were needed.
I try to think reflectively how this would be different if I was different. Would so many have helped us had we been a different color? Poor and not so middle class? I'd like to think those things wouldn't matter. It's not possible in this scenario to know, but it's worth thinking about.