Public transport is one of those things in life that I have been blissfully spared in the last 20yrs in SA. Well, I fly, of course, but not up there with the illustrious ones in first class. I have travelled to London and to Paris in the last few years and because these journeys are so few and so short I prefer to spend my time in the city, not beneath the city. I want to see the city, so I stay above ground. Trains I have taken, but that’s still above ground, and it’s so much more fun to drive and get lost and pop into little villages for lunch and discover charming little antique shops or whatever, and take ones time.
Here in America I take public transport, and I find I love it. It is the theatre of life. People are fascinating.
I’ve sometimes thought, as I’m thinking now, sitting on the train to Grand Central, and writing this, that I’m either very lucky or something else is going on. What? I have no idea. When I get on the train and sit in a two seater, as I have done today, I notice that all the other seats fill up, but the seat next to me remains empty. I have my handbag on my lap. I’m only occupying one seat. The other is clearly available, but no one is sitting it. This happens quite a lot and I wonder why no one wants to sit next to me. I look nice. I smell nice. I have good clothes and shoes. My hair is well styled. My make-up is as it should be and my hands are manicured. I have a joyful aura. There is not a thing repellent about me, but the people always sit next to me as a last resort. Bizarre!
I’m not complaining. These seats are not spacious and to have a two seater to oneself and having space to type away on the iPad or open a newspaper is lovely. The question, however, remains: why does everyone have someone next to them except me? I’m ashamed to say that it occurred to me it’s because I’m black, but I recoil from that thought. It’s too stupid. Adult people don’t really have time to think like that anymore. It’s public transport, and I’m not the only black person on the train, although I am the only black person in this carriage. Anyway, I don’t believe it’s that. If I have been the victim of racism since I have been in the USA, I have been a blissfully unaware victim. Mostly strangers of all creeds and colours have been very nice to me. So nice, in fact, that they allow me to be the only one in the carriage to have two seats to herself. I guess I’m just fortunate.
There was that guy in Stamford. I was on the platform and a train came along and stopped and the doors opened so I got on. I had a lot of luggage, a suitcase and two other bags and a big handbag. No one else got on, and while I was wondering why, a guard came to the door and shouted at me like a banshee “Get off the train. Get off the train.” So I started to pick up my many cumbersome bags and because it took me a few seconds he shouted again “Get off the train. Get off the train”. I shouted back at him, “Well, don’t just stand there, help me.” But he didn’t help me. He just shouted at me again “Get off the train. Get off the train.” By the third time he shouted I had my baggage together and I got off the train. I decided to ignore what had just happened and I asked him, in a very civil manner “Where do I get the train for New Haven”, and he shouted “Here, it’s here”. I was incensed. I yelled at him, “You are the rudest man in America’. He turned and walked away without another word. He’s the only one who has been unpleasant. There was the guy who barked at me the other day at Greenwich station, but that was funny. At least, I was amused. It was early on Sunday morning. I think he had a hangover, poor bloke.
I thought there was going to be a fight on the subway today. There wasn’t enough room on the sub-train, there never is at rush hour, but we squeeze on anyway. I was pinned between two men and unable to turn around to face away from either of them. I was uncomfortable with the proximity so as soon as people got off at the next stop I moved to stand next to a couple of women.
One of the women, a black woman, yelled at the other, a white woman, “What are you staring at? Turn your face and stop staring at me”. The other woman said “I’m not turning my face. So are you going to punch me again?”
Black woman “I didn’t punch you. When did I punch you?”
White woman. “As I got on the train, you punched me”.
Black woman ” You must be on some medication, you better take some more. I didn’t punch you.”
WW. “Yes you did.”
BW “You better back off white bitch or I’ll back you off.”
WW. “I’m not backing anywhere. So it’s a race thing is it? It all comes down to race”.
The white woman was talking calmly like she was reading a bedtime story. The black woman was yelling and making a big scene. She was eating meatloaf or something so her hands were full. I didn’t see the punch. I wonder, since her hands were full, whether she did punch the other woman. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, does it? This is America and agitated as the black woman was, if it ever got ‘there’ they would arrest her first and ask questions later. It went on like this for two more stops, then the black woman got off the train. The white woman turned around and I saw her face for the first time. She was scary looking. If she was an actress I would have cast her in ‘Prisoner Cellblock H’. I had noticed her earlier because I was standing behind her on the platform. She was wearing a very attractive 50’s style dark green and white cotton skirt, but she wore a halsten tweed cream jacket, thick white stockings and bottle green brocade maryjane shoes. I thought it looked interesting, but ugly. Actually, on the ramp it could have rocked, but on her it just looked wrong. Even from behind it looked wrong.
I was scared for a moment that it would escalate into a physical fight. The black woman looked like one who fights and fights often. The white woman was standing her ground and her calmness was menacing. I was scared because I was standing right next to them and a fist missing it’s mark could land on me. What if it escalated into a full fight. We were cheek by jowl in that train. There would have been no escape. I contemplated getting off the train, but the prospect of missing out on witnessing the crescendo of this real life drama was an unwelcome prospect. Besides, we hadn’t yet reached my stop, so I stayed. But there was no further drama. The black woman got off the train leaving a shower of unrepeatable expletives and insults raining down on our ears.
It was interesting to watch other people’s reactions to the commotion. They had none. Looking at other people you wouldn’t even think there was a commotion. They were all looking away and no one was hearing. Of course there are a lot of people with music in their ears, but even the ones who, like me, didn’t have ipods blanked the drama. I was watching them like they were the television. I should be grateful they didn’t both turn on me and ask me what I’m staring at. If they had it would have been my cue to get off the train fast.
Public transport can be so very entertaining.