On my latest trip to New York, I enjoyed days in Manhattan and returned to a friend’s Bronx apartment each night.
On the particular evening I am about to describe, I had spent too much time in Chinatown and missed the express bus. I hurried to the regular bus, but it had just pulled away. It was late; it was the subway or nothing.
The subway is fine. It runs with great frequency and is much faster than a bus. In early evening, however, it’s miserably crowded.
Several trains heading in different directions can share one track, so you won’t be surprised to learn that I got on the wrong train. It was headed to the Bronx all right, but with a southeast destination, worlds away from the one I wanted.
The train was packed, and I grabbed onto a pole, which I held for dear life. I had erred big time, and, worse, I was obviously a wimpy, victim-ready outsider among the other passengers, who all looked like hoodlums, gangsters and every other kind of miscreant. There were surely some fine, hardworking, law-abiding citizens on that train, but the subway car in which I was stuffed appeared to hold nary a one.
I knew I was in trouble, and as we sped deeper into unknown territory, I slowly edged away from the pole to grab a bar above seated passengers. I needed help.
I found myself face to face and knee to knee with two young men, and they were scary. If you’ve seen any horror movies lately, these fellows resembled humans who do really bad things to other humans. I imagined that whenever I got off the train, these two, and maybe a cadre of other like-minded individuals, would accompany me to relieve me of my purse, backpack, watch, ring and shoes. I hoped that was all I’d lose.
I wanted to live, so I decided to immediately dedicate myself to that end.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said, directing my words to a fellow sporting a do-rag and neck tattoo that read, “Kill or be killed.” It was in Gothic script.
Not only did Gothic look up, but I had also piqued the interest of a dozen or so others, including his companion, who had one center gold tooth with a diamond in the middle. (It may not have been a real diamond, but it surely did shine.) His neck tattoo read, “War, not peace.”
What’s with that ironic quote? I thought, but I had to focus.
“I’m lost,” I said in a fake firm voice. “You look like someone who can get me to Pelham Parkway.”
There were snickers from people around me, but Gothic put a stop to that. He rose and bullied his way to the subway map, then called out above the crowd. “Look here!” he commanded me. “This is where you gotta change trains, next stop.”
He continued with further directions, and I nodded, committing his words to memory. If he wasn’t tricking me, and if I made it safely, it would be a miracle. Fortunately, I believe in miracles.
Then Gothic pushed his way back to Gold Tooth. No one had taken his seat, and I realized that there is a pecking order everywhere. Alpha males rule. I was also aware that this could backfire.
“I see that there are still gentlemen in the world,” I said. “Thank you for helping me.”
Neither Gothic nor Gold Tooth responded, and other riders eyed me in guarded silence. Would one of them follow me and render me shoeless? Would I be accosted by others on the next platform?
The subway slowed into the next stop. I headed to the door, offering another thank-you to Gothic, my benefactor.
Gold Tooth, who had not yet uttered a single word, mumbled back, “You gotta be some kinda teacher!”
“What makes you think that?” I asked.
“You act like one,” he said, flashing that diamond.