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Monday, January 29, 2001
By Paul Ford
The train rattled gently. Once more his fists tensed.
A pretty blond came on the train at Rockefeller Center and sat across from me. The stainless steel walls reflected the yellow of her hair and the black of her dress. A man with a two-day beard sat next to her. They spoke in Russian. The conversation became loud. He grabbed her wrist. She pulled her arm back and sneered, shook her head so hard her hair spun out, and spoke a long stream of coldness. His eyebrows lowered, eyelids shutting halfway.
I thought, “If he hits her I have to do something.” He jerked his body towards her, grunted, shoulders tense. She flinched into silence and turned away, closing her eyes. The man yelled at the back of her head, filling the carriage with foreign consonants, his tongue knocking the top of his mouth. The other passengers looked away. I tried to read my book.
“If he grabs her wrists hard, that's when I have to say something, and absolutely he will kick my ass for interfering. Beat to shit by a Russian mobster.”
The man was 6'3'', my size, but the fat on me was muscle in him. He looked like an asskicker, the simmering bar-fighter whose chest always aches with turbulent pride, shoulders too wide to fit in the door. She was the moll, make-up running with tears, sharp tongued, long-experienced of raging, roiling violent men and their heat. They came out of a bad movie, a two-for-one Wednesday-night video rental. He plays the low-level, wife-beating mobster who chases the hero through a warehouse and gets shot in the chest in the first 15 minutes.
“What am I going to do if he hits her? I'll stand up, I'll pound my seat, I'll scream incoherently, and that'll confuse him. Everyone on the train will stare at me and see me yelling at him, and it will be so weird that he'll stop hitting her, and he won't even think to beat the shit out of me.” Lights flashed as we went through the tunnels. The only other men in the train were South American restaurant workers, still in their smocks, all below 5'4''.
There was a lull in the argument. She moved a seat away from him, and he began to settle down. The train stopped at Jay, and I could have moved to another car, but that would have been avoiding the responsibility placed before me; I would ride with them, and intervene if their argument became violent, until I reached the Smith and 9th St. stop.
“What will be nice is when his feet stomp my teeth in.” Now we came to Bergen St., two stops from home. All of a sudden the woman began to yell. In response, the man lifted himself a few inches off the seat, levitating in muscular rage, and grabbed her wrists again. I opened my mouth to say something - but he released her and sat back on the orange plastic bench. Both of them breathed hard enough for me to hear.
The train reached Carroll. A few women came on, laughing to one another, and one man, alone. I listened as the blond's voice rose, in a new, steady stream of angry words and sobs. The train rattled gently. Once more his fists tensed.
The train came out of the tunnel in Carroll Gardens, turning right and drifting to a slow stop along the Smith and 9th platform. I stood and shouldered my bag, gripping a steel pole, watching them from my right eye. I wanted to speak at them, but what advice did I have for the couple who had dragged their shitty lives into the blue-yellow of boxcar fluorescence? The women were still laughing at the other end of the train. The blond began to sob again, but the man stayed still in his seat. The doors opened with a ping and I took two fast steps away from the Ftrain, glancing back through the scratched Plexiglas. I said “ignorant fucking asshole” to his turned-away face in the window, loud enough for myself to hear. I walked down the wet, icy stairs. Now he could punch her if he wanted, and no one would say anything. The train coughed and hissed, and left for deeper Brooklyn.