This is a true story that happened on a Saturday afternoon when I was taking the Q-train from Chinatown into Brooklyn The seats on this particular train were 2-seaters at a 90-degree angle to the wall, then a 3-seat bench against the wall, another 2-seater, etc.
I entered the car and took a seat at the end of a 3-seat bench and there were two white women in their 50s in the two-seater next to me. For the sake of clarity, I name them Tara and Colleen They look annoyed, especially Colleen. Behind them in the same 2-seater were two black girls about 5 and 6 years old. I name them Lily and Jasmine. On the bench-seat next to those little girls was a very large black woman. I name her Sherry.
As I sat down, Sherry was making loud moaning sounds, “Ooooh. Oooooh. Ooooh.”
I’d lived in New York a while by this time and seen people dancing on the subway, groping themselves on the subway, sleeping (a lot) on the subway and puking on the subway. I once approached an MTA worker in uniform who was standing in the train car, and told him I thought the man I’d been sitting next to might be dead. He said, “I can’t get involved in that. I’ll be late to work.” I had been threatened with being punched by a man who wanted to read his newspaper, and therefore I should not take the only seat next to him. I had literally been pushed off a seat by a deranged man talking to himself through his fingers who wanted to sit alone. We all let him do that. I’d sat next to a large man wearing a yarmulke and reading a Hebrew text who tried to push me off the seat with his hips and I almost fell, but I am not to be bullied and turned to sit with my back against him. I’d been on trains that smelled massively of body odor. I was used to being ignored by the people in the booths at train stations while they chatted with each other. The subway has its own drama and you get used to it.
And so at first I paid no particular attention, but as I listened to Sherry moaning, I saw that Lily and Jasmine were looking confused and a little frightened. I heard Colleen throw a remark over her shoulder, “You should teach them to behave,” which set Sherry to moaning even louder and rocking on the seat
Sherry said, “It’s not a racial thing. It’s not about race.” She looked at a man across the aisle and said, “It’s not about race is it?” He shakes his head, no. What else can he do?
I asked Colleen quietly, “What’s going on?”
Colleen told me that she and Tara were already in their seats when the little girls got on the train with their mother and took the seat behind Tara and Colleen. The girls kneeled on the seat facing toward Tara and Colleen. As the train was lurching at the next stop the girls’ arms banged over the seat into Colleen and Tara. Colleen turned and told them to sit down and that got Sherry involved defending them.
Colleen had not been speaking quietly, because I’m pretty sure she wanted to continue to make her point to Sherry and everyone else that she had the right to a peaceful ride on the subway without being knocked, however gently, by another person’s children.
Colleen said loudly, “I don’t suffer from white guilt and I’m not going to put up with rudeness.”
I understood now, why Sherry has been declaring that it’s not a race thing.
Sherry has heard Colleen talking to me, and she spoke up to say plaintively, “I’m just taking my nieces to Coney Island.” Then, “Oooh, oooh. It’s not a black white thing.”
My stop was next and I got up and went to the door.
Colleen said in a loud voice over her shoulder to Sherry, “See she is leaving because you are making a scene.”
I looked at Sherry, a severely overweight woman who was just wrung out. She was making a special trip with her nieces to the beach to show them a nice time and it’s gotten messed up. This wasn’t just for today though. This was at the end of a long line of Sherry trying to find out what the right thing is and doing it. And now she’s failed again. And will someone please tell her how to get it right. Live right, do right so everybody around her is happy. She was not even angry. She was really sad. And she just wanted this day to go well. Just something to go right. Some way to express the love and tenderness she felt for her nieces behind all her fears and stress. .
I looked at Colleen also overweight, but not so much. Her intention wasn’t to trigger all this pain. She has her own. Just like Sherry, she’s wanted things that she didn’t know how to accomplish and now she’s lost her value in this culture – her youth. Whatever little power she ever had in this world is slipping away and she is becoming invisible. No one marches for her. No one protests for her. No one declares in the news that she is important and that her life matters. She just wanted to ride the subway in peace and not have all her needs and sense of loss stirred up.
I said to Colleen, “Do not speak for me.” And I left the train.
That’s the end of the scenario. But still I think, that if they really looked at each other they would either have started laughing or crying and all that tension would dissipate. They’d be right there on the subway in a little community of humanity until one of them had to get off at a stop.