And this morning, in the heat of the moment, I lost it on the metro.
Normally I don't have class until eleven on Wednesdays.
But this morning I had a meeting with my stats group at eleven, so I had to go to the earlier econ class at nine-fifteen. As usual, I'm running late, and at nine o'clock, a good five minutes after I should have already been on the metro, I run onto the 1 train as the doors are about to close.
As soon as I get on the subway, I notice the enormous (we're talking five hundred plus pounds) homeless guy I sometimes see in the 116th St. stop. He's sitting there, quietly, staring off into the distance and muttering to himself. He's never done or said anything weird, but I recognize him because aside from being the size of a minivan, the man has a smell that is nothing short of noxious, so I always notice when he's around. The entire subway car full of people is discreetly covering their noses with their sleeves, but all of our upper-west-side middle-class white guilt stops us from getting off at the next stop and switching to the next car.
I sit down on the next section of seats over from him, and minding my own business, listening to my ipod, I take out my iphone to strategize my next move on Words With Friends.
A few minutes later, out of the corner of my eye I see the enormous homeless guy (who is also partially disrobed) coming at me. All of a sudden he's on top of me with his giant hands around my neck trying to strangle me, screaming bloody murder about how I'm shooting microchips at him and trying to kill him.
The next two minutes happened so fast that I barely remember them, but I do remember that I was on the floor of the subway car, screaming for help, trying to pry his hands off my neck and kicking him as hard as I could. Everyone around me on the car jumped up but the only one who did anything was a girl about my age (and size) who started beating him with her huge golf umbrella.
This startled him enough for him to let go of me for a second, and I scrambled out from under him (miraculously thinking to save my bag and laptop in the process, but not my umbrella), and ran to the end of the car. The men passengers are yelling at the him to stay away, while all the women are standing protectively around me as I'm standing there, completely in shock about what just happened.
The girl who hit him with her umbrella -- who not only stayed with me until everything was over, but who I later learned was also the girl who notified the conductor and stopped the train -- said that the next ninety seconds, until we got to the 96th St stop, were the longest ninety seconds of her life.
I barely remember them.
At the next stop everyone in the car got off the train and a few people gently ushered me into the next car over. My logical thought at that moment was that I would wait until I got to my stop and then notify the police and transit security, but I didn't think to tell the conductor or anything. Luckily Britney, the unsung hero of my morning, took care of that, and at 103rd St. the train stopped and the conductor came to see what happened. I realize now that if she hadn't done that, I would have gotten off at my stop and called the police, but the train would have kept going with the crazy homeless guy still on it, which would have made it difficult to later track him down.
The conductor came over to make sure I was ok, and then called the police, who eventually came and asked me if I wanted to press charges. I was shocked, and definitely shaken up, but not badly hurt (just a little scuffed around the neck) and even in that state I knew that this poor guy didn't belong in jail, he needed help.
I told that to the police, and the friendly lady police offer I talked to (as the eight other policemen surrounded the enormous homeless guy to stop him from lunging at me again) said she couldn't agree more. She said if they arrested him, he'd be out again by tomorrow, since he'd appear in front of a judge who would just declare him unfit to stand trial.
They've arrested him before multiple times for a variety of things, including indecent exposure and public urination (although never for attacking someone) and it seems that every time he's had an interaction with the police, he's always been muttering something about microchips and crazy women trying to kill him. Apparently he's a clinically certified paranoid schizophrenic who, up until today, was big, loud, scary, and olefactorily offensive, but essentially harmless.
But despite being jumped on, strangled and crushed, I really didn't wish him any ill will, and I honestly thought that he was much better off getting the psychiatric help he needed than ending up in a jail cell. So I told the police I didn't want to press criminal charges, but that I still wanted to ensure that he wouldn't be allowed on the metro again.
I was lucky enough that I wasn't seriously hurt, and that it happened first thing in the morning on a train full of people, most of whom were willing to help. God forbid it happened late at night when I was alone with him on the platform, or worse, alone in a closed subway car. I can't even imagine what might have happened if he had jumped on a woman with baby, or a frail old lady.
I have no idea why he decided to attack me. I'm guessing it was because he started talking at me, but because I was listening to music I couldn't hear him, and to him this looked like I was ignoring him, which fueled his senseless, misdirected anger to a breaking point. Although it's possible that not even he knew why he attacked me.
But as much as his actions were most likely beyond his own cognizance, that very fact makes him that much more dangerous, because there's no telling where or when it could happen again. Although I didn't think jail was the right place for him, I was adamant that he be removed from the metro and steps be taken for his psychiatric evaluation and institutionalization. As sad as his situation may be, crowded public spaces are no place for someone so volatile and so physically threatening.
Britney and her friend generously stayed with me the entire time that I talked to the MTA conductor, the NYC Police and the Transit Police, they both called their offices and said they'd be late, and they happened to be getting off at the same stop as me, so I wasn't alone until I got to campus.
Once I got out of the subway I didn't really know what to do. My adrenaline rush was starting to wear off, and my heart was still pounding, but at this point I was already at school and I had work I had to do. I didn't feel shaken up enough to take a cab home, but I certainly wasn't about to get back on the metro.
So I bought myself a coffee, took myself to school, and started working my stats project. Hour by hour the day became a regular Wednesday, interspersed with coffee, lunch, and telling my shocked friends the story of the morning.
It's been twelve hours and oddly enough I feel fine. As bizarre as it sounds I think experiencing the attack -- as opposed to seeing the whole thing unfold -- was a lot less traumatizing, and the shock of the experience dulled my memory of those critical minutes, so I don't really have an "attack reel" looping in my mind. But after the adrenaline wore off (and after five hours of coding stats variables) I felt like I'd run a marathon, so I took myself home, put on some sweats, got in bed and read a trashy novel for a couple of hours.
I also booked my ticket to Mali and talked to my brother and my mom, so now I feel a lot better.
If there's one thing I learned today, it's to be aware. Be aware of your surroundings, be aware of your instincts, and be aware that the out-of-the-ordinary can happen.
But if there's one thing that this whole experience really got me thinking about, it's humanity. In the span of sixty seconds I experienced some of the very worst -- being violently attacked by a stranger -- and the very best -- being bravely protected by a stranger -- of humanity.
The police officer I talked to told me I was lucky that people helped out. He'd heard of people on the subway witnessing a stabbing and rather than report it at the next stop, wait until their stop, maybe fifteen or twenty minutes later, to get off and mention that someone had been stabbed.
Talk about your jaded New Yorkers.
I was lucky enough to have a subway car full of people who not only got up to protect me, but who physically got involved in the altercation, possibly risking their own safety. Not only that but these two girls took an hour out of their busy mornings to stick around and make sure I was OK.
You really don't see that every day. That, or a giant five hundred pound homeless man attacking a 5'2" girl one fourth his size.
But ultimately, when I remember today, I'm going to remember Britney, who beat the guy back with her giant umbrella, and her friend, who shielded me from him during those agonizingly long (for them) ninety seconds until the next stop, the train conductor, who stopped the train for twenty-five minutes, at the annoyance of dozens of morning commuters, to make sure that the situation got taken care of, and the friendly lady police officer who cracked jokes to try to make me feel better.
Sure, a crazy homeless guy tried to kill me today, but I'll mostly remember the people who were there to help.
And the fact that I lost my favorite umbrella.