Darkness on the Q train
By Eric Grunin
So this awful scene happened on the Q train to Brooklyn, around 12:30 am today. It took place over the course of five or ten minutes, about the time it took to get from 34th Street to Canal. Ultimately no blows were exchanged, but it was the closest I've been to an actual fight in many years.
On one side of the car, a girl of perhaps eight sat between her mother and father, who appeared to be in their early thirties, upper middle class, and African-American. They were well dressed, the mother in a white coat, the daughter wearing a colorful knitted scarf, the husband in fashionably distressed jeans.
Leah and I sat across and to the left. To our right, directly across from the family, was a middle-aged Russian woman, with glasses and thinning dyed hair, reading something on her phone. I call her 'Russian' due to her accent, and the fact that she was on the Q train, but of course she could be from anywhere in Eastern Europe.
Otherwise, the train had all seats filled, about twenty standees, and the usual Brooklyn demographic mix.
The mother was quietly but persistently reproaching her daughter, asking why she was “always wanting more things.” The child looked bewildered. It was uncomfortable—the mother was going on for a while, while the girl remained silent—but not worse than that.
Then the Russian woman said, equally quiet but equally reproachful, “She’s tired. She’s out past her bedtime.” The mother ignored her, very likely did not hear her.
The Russian muttered another, similar comment, then the husband responded with open anger: “What the fuck are you saying? Why the fuck do you care? Why? Why?” The mother told him not to curse. The Russian woman responded that she was only saying that the girl was tired and it was late and there was no reason to be abusive. The mother told the husband to not use bad language, that she had not even heard what the woman was saying, then told the woman to mind her own business. The Russian responded, possibly attempting to dial it down, by saying that the girl looked like “a wonderful child”, and the mother responded “yes she is a beautiful child, who was raised by a good mother, who was not you.”
The husband continued to talk aggressively, and was clearly on the verge of making physical threats. The Russian said she would call the police.
The mother asked, still keeping her temper, if she was saying that she was going to call the police because they had their child out late? The Russian said no, that it was because the husband was disrespecting her. The mother asked “Are you saying this because we’re black? You wouldn’t do this if we were white.”
The Russian said: “No, me—I’m an immigrant. I’m a minority.”
This unexpected and unexpectedly personal response caused a moment's pause; and then it all started again. The Russian could not stop responding to the threatening husband, the husband could not stop responding to the disrespectful Russian. Perhaps if the husband's initial response had been something akin to "Yes, she's tired," things might have ended right there? But perhaps not. I try not to guess what's in people's heads, except in the very broadest sense.
Leah and I decided to intervene. We got between them, I facing the Russian, Leah the mother. I told the Russian that she had said what she had to say and could stop now.
I found out later that Leah told the mother that she was right and the other woman was wrong, that the mother accused us, as white people, of siding with the white person. Leah repeated that no, the other woman was wrong, the mother was right. Leah felt the husband seemed to understand this.
Suddenly the mother got up, crossed over to my side, and got right in the Russian’s face, screaming at her. The Russian raised her cell phone to take a picture, which got the mother even angrier, the Russian saying “don’t touch me!,” the mother inches away from fully assaulting her, barely restraining herself, flailing to the point where she was grazing my jacket (my arm was between them). I did not move, but said “Please don’t touch me. Please.” After a bit of arguing (“I’m not touching you.” “You are. Please.”) the mother went back to her seat.
Leah and I now faced the mother together—the father was now noticeably quiet—and said “You did nothing wrong. You were right. She was wrong.” I held my hands up, as non-threatening as possible. She continued yelling at us as if we were defending the other woman: “Why’re you lying, saying I was touching you?” We avoided argument as best we could.
When she asked “Why is she getting into other people’s business?” I said, loud enough for others to hear: “Every person on this train is freaked out this week. Everybody.” The mother: “I'm black, I’m not Donald Trump, what’s she got to be scared about?” Me: “Who knows? She’s an immigrant, who knows what she's afraid of? Who knows?”
After a few more angry words at us—we simply kept responding “We agree with you. You did nothing wrong”—she stopped. I would like to think that naming the demon helped, as it often does, but that could be my vanity talking.
In case it's unclear: I don't really believe that "she did nothing wrong"--right and wrong were almost irrelevant concepts in the moment. Going on the assumption that she felt humiliated by the stranger, and fighting so as to save face, we said what we thought might allow her to back down with her honor intact.
By this time the Russian had gotten off at Spring Street. We sat down and pretended to look at our phones. I desperately wanted to get off at Canal and walk off the adrenaline, but I could tell Leah didn’t understand, so I didn’t press it.
On the bridge, the mother made a phone call and retold the story, referring to the Russian as “this white bitch,” and complaining that nobody on the train paid any attention to the Russian’s disrespect “until I got into her face, then some white people got up. They said maybe she’s upset about Donald Trump, I said I'm black, I’m not Donald Trump...How does she know why we’re out late? We could be coming home from a funeral…” and then I couldn’t hear any more. The family got off at Atlantic.
The whole thing was heartbreaking. None of these people had a true quarrel. Every one of these people was utterly miserable before the scene began. The mother was inexplicably angry at her daughter, the Russian seemed to be psychotically identifying with the child, and the father was instantly ready for a fistfight. Nobody could figure out how to back down without losing face.
Leah and I wondered if we should have intervened sooner, and what exactly had set the mother off to physically menace the Russian. It's possible that my turning my back on the mother signaled to her that I was sympathetic to the Russian. In the moment, however, she treated me as a sort of guard rail, getting right up to the edge and screaming, without fear of going over the edge.
Afterwards a couple of people who had been on the sides came over and asked what had happened. I explained as best I could (still shaking with adrenaline), and they were really nice about it, saying we had done a very good job. That helped, helped a lot, because we had no idea.
So this is how it happens, this is how ordinary people, under extraordinary pressure, can become awful and stupid and violent towards each other.
Truly we live in dark times.