Angry Sardines in a Can

Do you remember that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine gets stuck on a crowded subway car and begins a spiral descent towards insanity as she waits wedged between a bunch of smelly strangers? I would like to tell you that scenario doesn’t actually happen in New York, but it does, and more often than I’d like to admit. You stick a bunch of New Yorkers into a tiny metal box, and all sorts of ugly behavior can erupt.

A month or so ago, I was on just such a train. Hurricane Sandy had just came through, and service had just been restored on my line. In a word, this train was crowded.


It never fails, though, that there is always one person too many who squeezes in as the door closes, and everyone collectively groans. A tiny metal can full of angry, irritable sardines. A man, small in stature, jumps in, wedging himself right behind me and a young woman of a more intimidating stature. We all sighed uncomfortably and dredged forward. Suddenly this woman turns around and accuses the man of touching her.

“Get off me mother-f***er. If you touch me one more time, I will beat your a**”

We all sighed uncomfortably again as we now realize we are on a one-way trip to Crazy-town. Let me say this:  as tightly as we were packed in there, we all were being touched inappropriately, and I can assure you that none of it was intentional. The situation drastically escalated as this woman turned around and began drilling her pointed fingers into the guy’s forehead. The energy in the car immediately shifted, but we all stood there silent as this woman became increasingly more violent. The man, who spoke English, stood there frozen allowing this violent form of public humiliation (thank heavens he wasn’t the sort of man to fight a woman). Honestly, the closest person to the action was me, and I stood there paralyzed and conflicted—I knew this woman’s behavior was wrong, but I also knew that any interference might escalate this situation towards an even larger altercation (this woman had friends with her and most definitely could take me in a fight). Sometimes when a spark of hatred erupts, the only thing you can do is to contain the flame. The woman barged out of the subway at the next stop and we all sighed in relief. The man stood silent still.

Tonight I witnessed a similar encounter. A woman wheeled her small child on to a very crowded Q train, and we all groaned—she wasn’t one person too many, but that stroller was. I’ll admit that we all thought this woman was obnoxious for about thirty seconds. As she wheeled in, the foot strap on the stroller struck the heel of an old lady. The lady turned around and snapped at the woman “get your kid off of me.” A tiny spark of hatred had formed. The young mother tried to adjust the stroller but it kept sliding back towards the old woman. She snapped again and shouted “Take that kid out of the stroller and fold it up! Get him off of me!” At this point, I turned off my Ipod to pay attention because the tension was thick as that the tiny spark of hate burned a little hotter. The old woman turned around and began to kick the stroller with all her might, kicking so hard that she was practically kicking the child. We all stood frozen and silent. The mother shouted back at the old woman in Spanish as she moved the stroller back. Stubborn and unhinged, the woman stuck pressed her foot against the stroll pushing the child and mom back as far as she could. I felt helpless in that moment as I looked down and saw the look of pure terror on that precious boy’s face. I pushed back on the crowd to give the mom space to move the stroller towards me, and my heart broke as this woman silently wept into a Kleenex. I looked down at the boy who was now hiding half his face behind his tiny fingers, and did the only thing I could think to do—I smiled and made a silly face. The boy pulled his hands away and grunted with delight, and the whole crowd around us laughed. The bubble of tension burst in an instant.  Another sigh of relief.  That mean, old bitty got off at the next stop, and we all turned compassionately toward the mom. I told her not to let that miserable old corpse get her down, that she had a wonderful child and that is all that matters.

It never ceases to baffle me, how humans can treat other humans and think it’s acceptable.  They react with pushing, shouting, insults and violence. And why? Because they were slightly inconvenienced on their commute? Has our standard of human decency fallen so low? I watch the news for ten minutes, and often I think so. Watching that woman kick the stroller and that man get attacked earlier made my stomach turn, and I felt completely helpless to stop them from happening. In both cases, it bothered me that we, as a group of respectable citizens, did nothing to put out the flame. If I can be honest, I was terrified of what would happen if I tried to step in (and I so badly wanted to step in)– would that tiny flame of hate explode into a raging wildfire? It’s quite possible, as the crazy in this town is completely unpredictable. I know that everyone else there felt the same way, so there we stood, frozen, until the fire extinguished itself. I wish I could say that in either of these scenarios I was a hero, but that is most certainly not the case. I did what I usually do in tense awkward situations, and I tried to make somebody laugh (lucky for me, toddlers are a great audience). I reacted the best I could with kindness because sometimes all we can do when faced with terrible people is…smile and make a silly face.