A week ago Saturday, when the coronavirus was only just beginning to alarm, I returned home from Phoenix, Arizona, where I had been visiting my cousin and his family. I flew into Newark, took New Jersey Transit to Penn Station, and then the subway from Penn Station home to Brooklyn. After enjoying the big blue skies of Arizona and the absence of helicopters, horns and sirens, the transition to NYC, the place I used to love to come home to, was rough. Penn Station this Saturday night seemed particularly filthy and bleak.
I arrived at the platform of the 2/3 subway stop at 34th Street/Penn Station at around 10:45 p.m. A musician was playing guitar and singing sweet melodies. He was Black. There was a middle-aged white couple dancing together and otherwise having a raucous good time. They were casually but well dressed, probably professionals of some sort, and clearly in a party spirit.
So as I’m standing there watching and listening to the musician and doing my best to disregard the dynamic duo, the woman goes and snuggles up to the musician behind the neck of his guitar, while he’s playing, puts her arms around him and starts swaying and mugging for the video her guy is taking. She gets her jollies on like this for a bit, with the musician doing his best to grin and bear it, and then she takes it up a notch: she spreads her fingers over the neck of the guitar and, still holding onto the musician (who is still trying to perform), she starts pretending she’s playing the guitar too, posing and laughing while her guy films.
This was the moment when I had had enough. I stormed over and shouted “what are you people drunk or something? What the hell is wrong with you? What you’re doing is incredibly obnoxious!” And then, “you’re touching his instrument!” (Yes, I meant his guitar.:)) For some reason I was focused on the touching of the guitar but in fact the line was crossed when she touched the person, not to mention interfered with his performance.
I thought that would stop the bad behavior and be the end of it, but instead the woman approached me aggressively, getting in my face: “What’s your problem? What’s your problem?” Me: “What you’re doing is wrong! What you’re doing is obnoxious!” And then, again, “you were touching his instrument!” (When I’m in a rage I don’t have my best words.) She kept coming at me while I kept backing up because at this point I’ve been reading about the coronavirus for days and I don’t want anyone close to me.
She gets her face about six inches from mine (“what’s your problem?”). I back up again and shout “get away from me! Coronavirus!” but she keeps moving toward me. So I stop, again yell at her to get away from me, and, without thinking, stand my ground and thrust my arm out to stop her. And because she is still moving toward me I end up pushing her. Yes, I pushed that lady, right in the chest. I was a little shocked that things had gotten physical (I’m 65!) and before I could process the situation and what might happen next (are we going to throw down or am I going to run?) her man came and pulled her away.
I shouted at her again to stay away from me and walked to another part of the platform. On my way to my new spot I went over to the musician, who was still playing, put a dollar in his guitar case and said I’m so sorry, that was so outrageous. He looked at me with a deeply sincere smile and said thank you.
The train came and the brawling parties got into different cars. As I rode home fuming I started to unpack the scenario and wish I had articulated the offense more clearly. Because here’s the thing: nobody should touch anyone without their permission, but for sure white people should never touch Black people without their permission. The history of slavery makes that non-consensual touch an act of white supremacy. And the obnoxious couple being white made it trickier for the Black man to extricate himself. A white man in that situation has more freedom to control it. The scenario also reminded me of the colonial style of tourism, with white tourists treating native people as less than human, props for their amusement and frivolity. I think I finally reacted when she started pretending to play his guitar because I come from a family of musicians and I know how personal an instrument can be, but really, I wish I had called out all of the behavior for how demeaning and racist it was.
I was still furious when I got to my stop in Brooklyn and was hoping the obnoxious couple would by chance be getting off there too, because by then I was ready to articulate more clearly the nature of their offense, and honestly I was also so ready to kick that lady’s ass and pretty sure I could do it. She was younger than me but a skinny little thing in heeled boots, and on my side I had rage and a heavy backpack, which I was thoroughly prepared to use.
Fortunately they did not get off at my stop. But I’m glad I intervened.