One Wild Ride
Closed in on all sides, jostled by bodies to the left and right of me, human beings, strangers, close enough to kiss. Still, I hardly noticed my lack of personal space. I was lost in the music. The rocking rhythm of the subway car always took me to that place. The place of the music; doo whoops mostly, doo-whoops made only for me. I was sure that no one else heard them; certainly not my grandmother. She snatched and pulled me closer to her, abruptly ending the concert in my head.“Laney come over here by me, chile. Them women’s talkin bout us. They don’t like colored people,” she’d said.“No Mamma,” I’d replied. “That one over there is talking about her boyfriend. She said he’s a low life womanizer. And the other one’s agreeing with her, that’s all”
“Now how would you know that? They’s speakin Spanish.”
“I don’t know . . . I just know.”
I never quite knew exactly how I came to my comprehension of Spanish. Probably hanging out with my Puerto Rican friends had a lot to do with it. Whatever the reason, it was something that made me feel unique. In a time when there were many fewer Spanish speaking people in the city, who looked to be of African descent, I was a “secret agent”. I was “down low” “under cover” with my secret ability to crack that code. How I loved stepping up to translate for some poor “communicationally challenged” person. In those moments I was a super hero. There were many such occasions when I felt my Spanish empowered me. But there is this one time in particular that really stands out in my mind.
Once again, I was on the subway. It was some years later and by then the subway had become my least favorite place to be. Gone was the music. My personal inner music had been replaced by big loud boom boxes that other people were “good” enough to play for all the rest of us, whether we wanted to hear it or not.
Seated in a corner seat for two, a young African American kid was sitting next to me. He had one such boom box but thankfully it was turned off. I was busy practicing good subway etiquette. Feet pulled in eyes averted. Sunglasses always worked for me. Most of all I always adhered to the two golden rules: stay alert and mind your own business. Like most New Yorkers I was well versed in the art of not getting involved with other people’s drama.
Leaning against the doors on the other side were two Latino kids, speaking in Spanish. They were notable because one was uncommonly tall and the other uncommonly short. Something about their demeanor made me uneasy. I realized they were staring at me. My heart racing, I averted my eyes but listened intently. I was relieved to learn that it was the kid next to me who was the focus of their attention. They were plotting on how they could “jack him” for his boom box. The tall one said,
“You go and set him up and I’ll have your back. He looks like a punk. This’ll be easy. Just grab the box and see what he thinks he gonna do about it. I got the knife if you have any trouble.”
Then before I could think better of it; I turned to the kid and broke a golden rule.
“Do you understand Spanish?” I asked.
“Well, those kids over there are planning to take your boom box and the tall one has a knife,” I said. And with that I started to get up and move out of harms way. ‘My work here is done’ I thought. But instead the Black kid blocked my escape.
“Just sit tight, I got dis…. I got dis…” he said.
A voice was screaming in my head. ‘Sit tight! I gotta get outta here! I’ve broken the golden rule and now I’m gonna pay the price!’
Then the short one was standing over us.
“Nice box,” he said.
“I like it.”
“I’ll give you five dollars for it.”
“You stupid!!” yelled the kid.
Heads jerked up. There was an uneasy pause. I could feel the increased tension in the car. The train was pulling into the station. Then the Black kid was on his feet. Pushing the short one out of the way with disregard. Charging over to the tall one. Shoving his finger in his face. He screamed,
“ I will kick yo ass all over dis frickin subway car and if you pull dat knife I’ll shove it straight up yo ass!!! And yo boy dere, I’ll use him to wipe up the blood!!!”
I was petrified. I don’t think I could’ve moved out of harms way even if I’d wanted to, but surprisingly I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I was strangely impressed, mesmerized. I watched the Black kid ranting, cursing and screaming, making hideous threats. As the doors opened, he and his boom box backed out of the car, spewing venom as he went. He timed his retreat perfectly. It was poetry.
The two would be predators watched helplessly as their prey took his flight. When they turned back to the car everyone was looking at them. No one bothered to avert their eyes. Clearly, their humiliation was complete. In a voice at least two octaves above normal; the tall one said,
“We should’a kicked his ass!!”
“Yeah!” from the little guy. “We should’a took his coat and his box!!!” He said a little too loud. Then he paused. “How do you think he knew about the knife?”
Then . . . they both looked at me.
It’s funny about human facial expressions or is it body language? At that very moment they knew I had warned him . . . and I knew that they knew. An eerie quiet fell over the subway car and a familiar ‘hood’ refrain started stumping around in my head: ‘Snitches get stitches! Snitches get stitches! I started to avert my eyes but then I thought better of it. I remembered the bravado. That kid standing up for himself against two guys, one with a knife. So instead, I met their glares with a steady one of my own. It was as though my South Bronx had suddenly kicked-in. That’s when I heard it. It was very faint at first. But gradually it became more and more pronounced. The music! The subway car rocking to the rhythm and Michael Jackson singing in my head: “Bad, I’m bad, you know it!!” Steadying my trembling nerves, I placed my right hand inside my bag menacingly as I’d seen done in gangster movies. I had to make them believe that all five-foot-two of me was ready to spring into action if necessary. Cold stare, rocking, head bobbing “Bad . . . You know It!” We stared at each other, for what seemed like forever, my heart beating to the rhythm in my head. Then, finally, the tall one blinked. He turned away and the small one followed.
They got off at the next stop. As the train pulled away they looked through the window and gave me a ‘We’ll get you’ look. I responded by pulling my hand out of my bag with my pointing finger posed as a gun. I blew on my, would be, revolver and smiled at them broadly as the train left the station . . . and the music played on.