The wave of tension that tightened the spines of the thirty-odd commuters on the platform is familiar to any urbanite. I was living in Toronto at the time, waiting for a train in one of the downtown stations. It was early evening and the subway station was busy, but not packed.
We heard his voice before we saw him coming down the escalator with his friend. The two of them entered the station like they were arriving at a frat party. They were about eighteen, well-dressed in hip-hop fashion–young white middle-class men, quite possibly on their way to successful careers as Bay Street investment bankers.
The vocal one was bragging at the top of his voice about all the things he was going to do to his “girlfriend” when he got home.
“Man, I’m going to fuck her up the ass so hard it’ll make her brain hurt!”
There is a particular vulnerability experienced by subway commuters in the face of aggression. One moment we were busy thinking ordinary commuter thoughts: wondering what to have for dinner or looking forward to a favorite show; and as soon as we heard this young man’s voice there was a palpable shift of thought process from the pre-frontal cortex to the amygdala. Everyone stiffened and began to look around, evaluating the situation. What is the level of threat? Should I leave the station? Make sure I get on a different car.
Being inside the train makes it worse as it removes the flight option. The reaction of most commuters in this situation is to pretend not to exist and hope to wait out the encounter without attracting attention. I have read accounts of women being vocally or physically harassed on trains while their fellow commuters did not react at all. As a large man, at 6-foot-4 and well over 200 pounds, I have rarely been in a situation in which I have felt physically threatened, but I have often noticed the heightened awareness of female subway commuters to their surroundings. Women I do not know pay attention to my presence when I am traveling alone, and will sometimes adjust their position to put a more comfortable distance between them and me.
In this particular instance most of us quickly decided that this loudmouth was no immediate threat and the initial tension quickly became a simmering anger at his vulgar misogyny. I must confess my own response was not very enlightened. I have little patience for people who conduct themselves in public with utter disregard for the feelings of others. In the case of young men like this I tend to revert to the code of conduct I was raised with, and feel a powerful urge to take them behind a woodshed and beat some manners into them. This is not a rational thought process as I refuse to resort to corporal punishment with my own children, but something I experience on the level of instinct.
The young man had stopped nearby, and as I was reconsidering my attitude towards violence, he continued to elaborate on his plans in pornographic and not very imaginative detail.
And then something remarkable happened.
I hadn’t noticed the young woman before, and I must have looked away because when I glanced at the young man again she had appeared as if out of nowhere. She surprised him as well. As soon as he noticed her, his current boast died mid-sentence and was replaced by a look of confusion. She approached him slowly but with a purpose, tears running openly down her cheeks. She was about the same age and height as he was and when she was right in his face, she stopped, put her arms around his neck and simply stood there, crying silently as she stared into his eyes.
He was pole-axed. He honestly seemed to have had no notion that anyone might be impacted by his words, or that anyone could even hear him. Completely deflated, he could only stare dumbly into her crushed expression. His hands eventually found her hips, and for a moment they looked like dancers lingering in an embrace after the music has ended–hesitant, awkward children at their first dance in a more innocent time. He eventually managed to get out a few words.
“I was just talking shit. I didn’t mean nothing… I wasn’t…”
She didn’t say a word. Just stood there crying, sharing the sorrow he had brought out in her. Soon he was crying silent tears as well. The language that had so empowered him a few moments ago was laid bare, and he found he had no words to fix this, to undo the effect of his carelessness and ignorance.
I spent several years working in theatre full-time, and have been directly involved in nearly 100 productions in my life. I have seen many more. Rarely have I encountered a moment on the stage that equaled this for dramatic intensity and grace. That young woman’s courage utterly stripped the young man of his pretense and entitlement. Her incredible generosity gave him the gift of his own humanity, which he had lost, forgotten, or possibly never been shown in the first place.
The tension that had initially united the rest of us was transformed into rapt attention, astonished silence. How long did we watch them cry together? I have no recollection. I don’t remember the embrace breaking. Probably the train arrived and we boarded, leaving the two of them weeping together. Did she ever speak? Did he ever manage to get out an apology? Maybe she eventually just turned and left, leaving him forever altered by the encounter. It doesn’t matter. For those of us on the platform that day our perspective was enlarged by the simple understanding that such moments are possible.