Bad Day at Black Rock

What was Wednesday?  Was there something in the air?  Did a be-mean-to-Stacie memo get handed out at subway entrances during the evening rush?

Whatever it was, I definitely had bad subway mojo Wednesday night.  First there was the fighting couple sitting across from me.  I hate seeing couples fight.  In general, I hate seeing fights of any kind, but with couples I’m always on alert for signs of domestic violence … and then with the stress of figuring out what I could do to defuse the situation (yes, as if that’s my responsibility).

The focus of this fight was his anger over how nicely she put herself together.  Who was she getting all dolled up for?  And didn’t she know how much he hated to know that other men looked at her when he wasn’t around?  Then he pointed across the aisle at me.

“Look at her,” he said.  “Why can you go out like that: so plain no one would notice you at all, let alone look at you twice.”

Um, yeah.  That would be me, the entirely sentient, sighted, hearing being that’s sitting right across the aisle seeing you point at her face and hearing you shout about her complete un-noticeable-ness.  Thank you.

I guess, compared to his very made up girlfriend, I looked pretty plain.  But hey, even if I am the plainest woman on the planet, that makes it ok to point at me and shout my plainness to the whole train car?

I transferred to the express and we chugged over the Manhattan Bridge and stopped at Grand Street.  Many people got on, including a harried-looking Asian woman pushing a stroller full of packages and nudging her toddler son ahead of her.  I was sitting in the third of a three-seat row, and the woman pushed her son toward the middle seat while she maneuvered the stroller.  I looked at him and smiled.  He recoiled in terror.  Yes, complete and abject terror.  His mother, unaware of me or what had just happened, kept pushing him toward the seat while he kept looking from her to me and back, pointing at me to help her understand why that middle seat was just not going to work for him.  She finally settled the stroller and took her seat.  She moved to push her son at me again, but noticed his face and his eternally pointing finger.  She followed the point and looked at me.

Foolish me.  I expected, at that moment, that she would give me one of those embarrassed, I-don’t-get-my-kid smiles that parents sometimes find themselves giving.  I was prepared to smile back, even offer another smile to her son so he would see how not terrifying I am.

Rewind.  She followed her son’s pointing finger and looked at me.  Her face changed from harried to horrified, and she grabbed her son, pulled him to her tightly and leaned as far away from me as possible, stroking her son’s head and comforting him in the face of such a trauma as being anywhere near me.

*   *   *

While it’s true that flowers don’t spring up in my wake as I stroll the streets of the city, neither is it true that all life withers and dies beneath my gaze.  I’m actually just a regular person — not too beautiful, not too unbeautiful, not too fancy, not too plain.  And I’m pretty certain I don’t look like a demon.

Clearly, however, I should be walking around with a bag over my head.

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22 thoughts on “Bad Day at Black Rock

  1. How absolutely depressing! I want to believe that people are basically kind and good…Damn… Good thing I’m reading this post with the sun streaming in…
    Bonnie

  2. molly

    I am sorry this happened. I am sure it was them and not you. In a very short time, two different groups of two people saw you in two completely different ways.
    I often feel on public transportation that we meet our gods and our demons. I often hear people praying on buses. They are talking about the weather, their jobs, their families, but they are implicitly asking a higher power to do something about it. Or they are attributing to a total stranger some horror of behavior which cannot possibly be about that real person — there is a fantasy devil they have to deal with in some way.
    This is a powerful and compelling piece of prose. Congratulations on that, if you can care about the writing. It gave me shivers. I am only sorry that it was also a real experience.

    1. You’re right, Molly. Both things were about those people and not about me. And I always know that, but the slap-in-the-face of it still stings. I can be rational about it later, but in the moment …

      Thanks for the compliment on the writing. This was a post I didn’t really think about in terms of ‘crafting’ the way I usually do with my posts. I just wanted to get it down and move on. It’s nice to see that the writing can still come out well even when that’s true.

  3. People basically suck. Forever judging others on appearance and reading so much into such a very small piece of data. You are not the one who should be wandering around with a bag on your head; some folks just have no manners.

    1. See, I should just be walking around remembering that people basically suck! No, really. Sometimes I’m saying something like that in my head like a mantra … like when I’m carefully, practically crawling my way home over iced sidewalks that no one had the decency to clean!

  4. aka Mopsy

    Insert appropriate obnoxious-people bashing comment here. By the way, did I ever tell you that someone once spit on me on the T in Boston? ~ Mopsy

    1. I have to say, Mopsy, that I’d rather have either of the things that happened to me happen than to be spit on. That’s such an assault! I’m sorry that happened to you. (And no, you’ve never told me that story.)

  5. Seriously? I can’t believe you had two such bad experiences in one commute. What a craptastic day.

    Though it is sort of funny that in the one case you were noticed for being un-noticeable, and then in the next apparently you were so noticeable as to cause fright. People are so weird. And so aggravating.

    Also, I agree with molly about how powerfully this was written.

    1. Thanks, Linda. I think the power of those two incidents was so strong because I’ve come to expect something so different — for all the negative experiences I’ve had, I tend to expect to be treated wonderfully well all the time, even by strangers. And I usually am treated well by strangers. I have so many stories (some shared here) about funny and kind interactions with people in public. So when that doesn’t happen, it shocks and disturbs me more than maybe it should.

  6. molly

    I just flashed back to the day my daughter was wearing tight white jeans. She was maybe 13 and beautiful like a filly horse. Sassy and full of animal energy.
    An odd man on the commuter train followed us off of the train and down the street. He came close enough to spit a big gob of phlegm on her right buttock, and then walked quickly away. She didn’t wear those jeans again soon, maybe not ever.
    I don’t know why men hate women. It is one of life’s mysteries. I know that my daughter has just recently recovered some desire to flaunt. I don’t blame that man particularly more than the rest of the world around us. Most of all, I felt guilty for not protecting her adequately. I really didn’t expect him to spit on her.

    1. Molly, this is so awful! I really don’t have words. Just so awful. And how could you ever have known that man would assault your daughter that way? How can you ever protect against that?

      (I was watching a British sketch comedy last night and in one of the bits one character spits in the face of another. And it’s supposed to be funny to the audience — because it’s so unexpected, because it’s so extreme, because the character doing the spitting is so ridiculous — but I mostly reacted with anger and disgust.)

    2. That is a dreadful story. I’m sorry that disgusting thing happened to your daughter.

      Long ago I read a children’s book wherein one character explained that while we may hate people who are mean to us, we REALLY hate the people we are mean TO.

      So I think men hate women because they mistreat women, and I think they mistreat women simply because they can, the way a small child will try to scare a pigeon sitting placidly on the sidewalk, and because it quells anxiety to exercise power, and because our society supports that behavior in so many ways.

      (And one might perhaps say some or all of the same things in an analysis of racism.)

  7. Well, I will tell you what I thought when I saw you for the first time. I remember I was 2,500 miles away from any kind of home, friend or family, and that I had refused to venture out of my apartment to go even just around the block for the first two days.

    When I finally did venture out on that fateful day, the bus map –with all its color-coded madness and criss-crossed lines–terrified me. And when I got on the bus and asked the bus driver three times where exactly the bus was going, he was frustrated with me said to me in an accusatory tone: Where are you from?

    I found my way to the Family Support Center, and met Gayathri, who was running around like a mad woman (gotta love her) for one reason or another and was making me feel nervous.

    Somehow I then wondered into the computer lab, desperate to escape all these strange new faces and high-strung people via the isolation and familiarity of the internet.

    And there you were… I asked you something–I think I asked you if you knew Stacie –and you turned to me, with total calmness and gave me the most beautiful smile I think I’d ever seen, mixed with just a hint of your joyful laugh. From that very moment on, I knew I would be okay in New York.

    Melodramatic? Yes. Truthful? Absolutely. That moment has always stood out to me; its the reason I was drawn to you as a beautiful, powerful, educated, peaceful woman–the kind of woman I strive to be one day, no matter who points at me on the subway 😉

    1. Sarah, you’re so unbelievably sweet. Your comment makes me feel great on this snowy day when I’ve just finished a particularly rowdy and crazed math class! Had I known that was how you were feeling that first day, I probably would have added a big hug to the smile! (… although maybe that would have freaked you out and sent you packing?) The comment thread on this post is inspiring me to write a new post … there’s always a little more to say, isn’t there?

  8. Raivenne

    Strangers on mass transit are almost akin to strangers in a forum on the Internet. There’s a certain level of anonymity that some people take advantage of by being callous, rude or just outright mean. In either incident, they did not know you (and since odds are you’re not likely to cross paths again), they had no regard for your feelings.

    The mother with the child was blatant in her disregard. It’s a hatred she’s overtly teaching her child and doesn’t care that you know it. I suspect with the guy, the insecure, controlling, jealous jerk that he was being at that moment anyway, really didn’t think about your being within ear shot. He was too busy trying to make a point (however shallow) to his woman. When you think about it, his comment is oxymoronic. He makes a statement on your being unnoticeable but, hello, he “noticed you” enough to make the statement.

    @ Molly wow! The phlegm was clearly a substitute for something even more foul. I wish I could exclaim how I couldn’t believe such a thing happened, but I’m far too jaded for that. What that beast did would have been completely disgusting to a grown woman, but to do that to an obviously teen-aged girl was simply abhorrent. There was no way you could have protected her from that because a decent mind could not come up with that as something needing to be protected from. I’m glad your “filly” is slowly regaining her spirit back and didn’t let this break her.

    I love Sarah’s post. It epitomes the saying “Today, give a stranger one of your smiles. It might be the only sunshine he sees all day”.

    1. You’re so right, Raivenne. I considered leaning over and speaking to the mother, saying something like: “Now that you’ve taught him to be this afraid of us, you’ll need to move him to another city just so he can get through the day.” It wouldn’t have had any positive effect, however, so I stayed quiet. As for the man and his girlfriend, almost everyone I’ve told this story to has commented on the fact that he noticed me even has he was shouting about my complete unnoticeableness … and that was exactly the point his girlfriend made. It’s interesting to me that he couldn’t see that obvious comeback before he decided to single me out.

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