Did I stop your train?
Monday night I was on the A train around 8:30PM, coming back from rehearsal with Antititled, when a young man pulled his girlfriend near where I was sitting.
I mean pulled forcefully.
He was standing right in front of me now, shifting nervously and mumbling about what he needed to smoke to calm down, she was hardly breathing, holding back tears. When the two seats next to me cleared out, he grabbed her wrist and practically threw her into the seat. When she tried to get up, he blocked her and then sat in the seat between us and made sure she didn’t move. She sat still, the tears came to her eyes.
I thought for a moment about what to do and decided to stand up.
Being on the Grand Jury earlier this year brought home for me the extent to which the simple physical actions of raising our hand and standing up for something, or not raising our hand and not standing up for something, can have a very real and tangible effect on people’s lives. For those of you who know me well, it will come as no surprise that this was a moment in which I felt called to stand up.
As soon as I did, a young woman from across the way motioned to me – did I see what was going on?! We have to tell someone! What should we do? She was whispering anxiously, terrified by premonitions of what awaited the captive woman.
The subway car was full mind you, plenty of others were seeing what was happening, but in our typical worn-out and violence-weary New York way, we were working hard not to see. As if blindness could excuse us from making an effort. I do this all the time. This time I didn’t, maybe because it was so close to me and maybe because I felt that I actually had the energy to make an effort. After all, cultivating energy is what my work at Force and Flow is about, and using that energy well is my highest prerogative.
I don’t know what to do, I confessed to the concerned woman, who I later found out was a young grad student from Ethiopia, recently arrived to NYC via Kansas. But I’m going to stand close to them so I can keep an eye, and if they leave the train I may follow and get some help.
I’ll come with you when you get off, she said, and we reached our hands out and held them for a moment, two strangers sealing a pact.
Here’s where knowing how to stand comes in handy, because other than standing I really didn’t know what to do. The bench where the couple sat happened to be at the end of the car, and the woman was pinched right into the corner. I stood against the back door, feet grounded, weight centered, body relaxed and at a slightly open angle to them. There was nothing threatening in my posture, but there was no doubt that I was there with them, aware and present to the situation. When the young woman leaned over to cover her eyes and start crying again, her head practically fell into my hand and I instinctively touched it lightly and asked her if she was ok?
She looked at me through heavily made up eyes and said, Oh, um, I’m just having allergies. I kept eye contact with her, didn’t say a word, just shook my head very slightly: no, that’s not it. Almost immediately, the man grabbed her again and pulled her out of the seat and away from me, muttering something or other. I touched the woman’s arm lightly as it flew past me and asked her again, are you ok?
When the man turned to me and started barking that’s she’s fine and to mind my own f-ing business, I admit my heart started racing. But I know how to stand, so I stood. This is what I train my body for these days – not just for muscular strength, but for the strength to stay soft, focused and grounded in an emergency. For the ability to calm my breath and my heart down, and for the power that comes from feeling my feet on the ground.
I do this because I’m under the impression that in the big picture, we’re in an emergency and this is the kind of strength we need in order to take it on: calm, focused, loving. But Monday night brought an emergency into the small picture of my day, and when my heart started racing I knew how to stay relaxed and say to the young man with my body language, I’m not here to attack you, but I won’t be averting my gaze.
When the train stopped at Nostrand a few seconds later, the young man said let’s go and grabbed the woman by the wrist to exit. I followed, because this was my stop and because frankly I was afraid for the woman and what would happen to her when no one was looking. I wanted to keep looking as long as possible.
The grad student from across the way also came out, and we made eye contact and checked to see where the couple was going and if there was someone to turn to for help. They were moving awkwardly and as the train was about to leave he grabbed the young woman and pulled her into the next car just as the doors were closing, leaving us in the station with no attendant or police officer in sight. My new friend started bawling. I wrapped my arm around her and we walked up to the street, looking for a cop: none in sight.
We have to call 911, she said through the tears, we have to call 911!!! So I did.
911 picked up right away, in less than one ring, and for this I am incredibly grateful. For someone who has spent most of their lives outside of “the system”, it was a reminder of how lucky I am to live in a time and place where there is someone to call when I see a potentially dangerous situation, where the phone is answered right away, where the police arrive almost immediately to help: not every city in the world has their act together to this extent, you know? And there are plenty of places in the world where what we saw happening is not only commonplace, but culturally condoned, so that the fact that the police were ready to stop a whole train of people in order to intervene is, as far as I’m concerned, on the scale of miracle.
Please forgive me if you were on that train, I would have been cursing too if it were me stuck in the station at the end of a long, cold day. But as a woman, I’d be contributing to a much bigger and older curse if I pretended that I didn’t see what was going on and at least try to do something about it.
Because I’d been able to stay calm and grounded, I had the wherewithal to get the train number as it was pulling out. I gave it to the 911 operator right away and she was able to get the train stopped as it arrived at its next station. Between my new friend and I, we were able to provide a slew of identifying details, including which car the couple went into, what they were wearing and how they were moving. Two officers met us on the corner of Nostrand and Fulton almost as soon as I got off the call, checking to see if we were OK and asking for any other details. When they left I helped my friend figure out how to get back to the Pratt housing – she was farther into Brooklyn than she’d ever been and still terrorized by thoughts of ‘what if’. Then I walked home the same way I always do.
I don’t know if there’s a happy ending. Even if the police were able to intervene and help the woman go her own way that night, I can’t stop her from going back to that or any other abusive man. And there are plenty of other women in similar or worse situations. But I admit that I went to sleep feeling good and incredibly grateful that night – for my new friend who reached out and helped me stand up for what I believe in, for the NYPD and the system that brought them to my assistance so quickly, and for the practices I have that help me cultivate and apply my energy to the things I believe in, no matter how unknown or threatening they may seem.