MAWG, the kid, and me

I took the LSAT a few weeks ago, and yesterday we got our scores. So for the past 24 hours I’ve been giving lots of thought to whether I do actually want to go haul off and become a lawyer, whether it’s worth $200k in debt and three years of my life to enter a profession whose function I only superficially comprehend and am only specifically interested in.

This morning, though, I had dropped Kat off at the bus station at some ungodly early time for a Sunday, and when an uptown A train pulled in to the station I got on and sat down in my usual state of oblivion to the outside world. But it’s hard to ignore it when a touristy middle-aged white guy (if this had been a movie he’d be played by Stephen Root – stringy combover, pasty pudginess and all, but I’ll just call him MAWG) starts slapping at the shoulders of a high-school-age black kid wearing glasses and an oversized white t-shirt, yelling at him for bumping into him while the kid was getting on the train and the man was getting off. MAWG was accusing the kid of stealing his wallet, and when the kid claimed he hadn’t, and the man checked and his wallet was, in fact, still there, the kid turned back onto the train and said (totally justified, in my opinion), “told you so, fuckhead.”

So MAWG punched him. Weakly, inefficiently, the punch glanced off the kid’s shoulder, but it was a punch nonetheless. The white man standing on the platform and the black kid standing in the train car faced each other down through the open train door, MAWG with his dukes up, bouncing up and down on his toes like a grotesque, middle-aged Rocky parody, and the kid obviously completely terrified but way too macho to run. MAWG kept calling the kid a “little bitch,” and reaching over to sort of half-slap him through the doors of the train, and it was completely clear that what this kid was waiting for was the doors to close and the train to leave and all this totally surreal, totally inexplicable aggressive behavior to be behind him.

But of course that’s not going to happen. MAWG had a black bag slung over one arm, and he whipped it at the kid’s head so hard that a camera flew out and shattered on the floor of the train. All at once, as if there had been some signal that I had been totally unaware of, everyone else in the car (who had been watching with the same perverse interest I had) got up and went back out onto the platform. MAWG threw himself on top of the kid, and they rolled around on the floor of the train. At this point I realized I was alone in the car with them, and I followed the lead of the other passengers and went into the next car over. At which point MAWG and the kid, Collateral-style, brought their fight into the open space between the cars of the train, slamming up against the door to the car I had moved into, at which point that same unspoken signal apparently went off, and everyone from this next car left onto the platform.

Finally a conductor came running down the platform, shouting for security, and in the commotion it was clear that in the course of the subway wrestling MAWG’s camera had shattered, and in retaliation he had snatched the glasses off of the kid’s face and pocketed them. As the two of them realized that their fight was to the point where security was going to step in, they separated, and MAWG shouted “fuck you, you little bitch” and ran up the stairs and out of the station. The kid shouted after him “give me back my glasses! I can’t see without my glasses!” and it was like watching an actor chewing scenery: his face, which had been angry and indignant, just broke down. His eyebrows fell, his cheeks hollowed, and he kept shouting “I can’t afford new glasses! Give me back my glasses!” while he cried and cried standing on the subway platform. Security appeared at the other side of the platform and the kid, dazed and sobbing, just stood there as they walked towards him. And I got back into the train and it pulled away from the station.

This whole experience has been haunting me all day. I was frozen to the spot the entire time, and I can’t shake the feeling that I could have done something – stepped between them, gone running after MAWG, given the kid my own glasses or told him I knew people who were lawyers and could help, that I saw the whole thing and I knew it wasn’t his fault. I’ve since called the police, in a fit of conscience planning to offer myself up as a witness, or to give a description of MAWG, the asshole who got away. According to police records no arrests were made this morning between 8:30 and 9 on the A train platform at 42nd street, there were no warnings issued or citations filed. But I’m still in knots that I could have done something. And I think, as effervescently idealistic as it sounds, that I could have done something if I were a lawyer. I could have given him my business card. I could have intervened with the authority of a JD behind me, instead of the authority of an arrogant but virtually jobless young girl. So there’s that, at least.


Salam E. Skinner said...


I had a similar experience once. I was at the Porter Square T (i.e. subway) stop in Boston. There were some homeless people off to one end of the stop. One of the women was being harrassed by one of the men, and she was yelling for help. The station was full of people, but nobody moved, myself included. For some reason I concluded that she was the one who was disturbed, and the guy was probably trying to calm her down. I didn't really have a reason to think this, but I suspect that I accepted it because it was convenient.

I was kinda far from the confrontation but I did keep an eye on it. I told myself that if "anything happened" I would try to do something. All of a sudden I saw the man hitting something on the ground, I could not see what. The woman was gone, so I finally woke the fuck up and headed for the corner.

Too little, too late... it was over in seconds. Perhaps someone nearby intervened. Nobody was seriously hurt that I know of, though someone, I think the man, was cut in the ear. At this point people kept the two separate and help had been called for so there wasn't much left to do.

The irony is that I had always told myself that I wouldn't let myself be ruled by mob mentality. Studies show (I think) that a person by themselves is more likely to help someone then a person in a large group. I made myself conscious of this. I had also taken some martial arts classes, and while I don't delude myself into thinking I have any serious skills, the experience did ingrain in me the idea that you can do something when someone is in need (whether direct physical danger or otherwise). And despite all that I still didn't act soon enough.

I would like to think that if the confrontation had been more directly in my presence, or more heated, that I would have done something, but I have no real reason to beleive this, and the evidence seems to point to the contrary.

I also hope that in the future, my threshold of "doing something" will be lower, so that in a similar situation I would try to act. But again, there's no reason for me to assume that this is true.

It's hard to act, especially when surrounded by strangers. But I think it is possible to teach yourself to act when needed, and an experience like this is useful in that effort. You can draw on it to motivate you if you ever face something similar in the future.

Yeah, as a jobless young girl it might not have been safe to try to break up the fight, but you might have been able to calm the situation down before the fight started. I'm not saying that to make you feel guilty, you shouldn't... (but you will anyway, probably, because you're a good person) I'm saying it to show that it doesn't necessarily take physical strength to help someone or even to stop violence.

Laurel Makepeace O'Keefe said...
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