Unusual experiences on the subway are becoming part of my day-to-day routine here in Toronto. If you’ve been reading this blog for the past couples months, you’ll know I’ve come to appreciate the subway as a prism unto the human experience–and honestly, if you’d have had as many bizzare experiences while riding it you’d be inclined to agree. Yesterday, however, I witnessed something on the subway that nudged the “bizzare experience” line uncomfortably close to the “clandestine acts of racial violence” line. I hope to never get closer than that.
It started with Robert the Bruce suggesting we meet at this Irish pub called Dora’s for a couple of pints. Having just finished first term and having nothing pressing to do for the first time in almost two months, I readily agreed. At 10pm I was on board the subway. I was sitting across from this random guy with his grocery bags; a few seconds later two black girls walked over and stood next to us. And a few seconds after that, a crazy homeless guy walked up to them and dropped an n-bomb.
Now…okay: hearing the word “nigger” in rap songs still makes me uncomfortable, so hearing it used in its proper context was something entirely different. Girl 1 looked at him and said, “Are you being racist?” Crazy homeless guy didn’t respond; he just stood there, and given the fact that his eyes were black it was an eerie sight. The girls tried shoving him off the train at the next stop (Woodbine, I think), but failed. Me, I didn’t know what to do. At first I sat there; then, when it became obvious that confrontation was imminent I suggested the girls move down the car. They didn’t. Instead, they sat down in the corner next to me. Next, I suggested we get off at the next stop (Coxwell, I think) and wait for the next train–to which they said no, why should we let him dictate what we do (I’m paraphrasing here). Instead, they remained seated. Crazy homeless guy hovered over them–and then called them niggers once again.
Girl 1: “Did you call us niggers?”
CHG: “You heard what I said.”
Girl 1: “Wanna get him?”
Girl 2: “Yeah.”
The girls then proceeded to bundle CHG to the door. As they opened at the next stop Girl 1 leaned back and then punched him in the face; as CHG was sent reeling, Girl 2 leaned back and punched him in the side of the head. The two of them then wrestled him off the train; he turned, spat at them, they spat back, and the doors closed. And so it ended.
Now…I had no idea what to do here. None. What do you do? Should I have stepped in? Should I have said more than I did? The answer, I think, is no. And it’s an awful feeling, watching something like that unfold over which you know you have no control.
The incident left me shocked, terrified and with a throbbing heart. But more than that, it made me feel sad–for both parties. On one hand you’ve got the CHG, and as you’re watching two girls punch him in the head and throw him off a subway car you’re thinking to yourself, what possible chain of events could have led this man to this place? This is somebody’s child–yet here he is, homeless, insane, muttering racial epithets to strangers on the subway. On the other hand you’ve got the two girls, whom random guy with groceries applauded after what they did. It’s upsetting to think that these girls could think of no other solution than violence. Granted, I’m not black and can’t pretend to understand what it feels like for a black person to be called a nigger–but still, I’d like to think I’d have the courage to just get up and walk away. Clearly, they felt otherwise–and because of that, I’m left with a subway memory that makes seeing a parade of cats seem positively trivial.