Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"How To Pick a Fight on the Subway and Not Die" By Joseph Nielsen - 2016 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist

                        



"How To Pick a Fight on the Subway and Not Die"  

 By  

Joseph Nielsen



I wasn’t expecting to take my two boys and baby girl to see fireworks at Coney Island tonight, but I tend to gravitate towards choices when they’re unexpected.
It all started with the usual chore, get a nine year old and six year old boy to put on their shoesharder than you thinkand make sure my make the baby stop crying kit is stocked up: bottles of water, formula, diapers, wipes.
After just missing a Coney Island bound F trainif only my boys had found their shoes fasterwe eventually board the next F train. The usual drill. I scream at my two boys, Go! Go! Go! like some SWAT team mission given the order to save the president, while I get my fat ass stroller on to the train without causing too much of a bump to my baby girl.
We get parked in the middle of the train- that’s where the air conditioning is best.
Down at the other end of the train car there’s an older man with his what looks like 15 and 12 year old sons. I notice them because I recognize the beginning of a familiar conversation. “Where’s that “ (insert bag or something) and then the realization, “You left it…” The train has an unspoken motto similar to Vegas, what gets left on the train disappears forever- or something like that.
Except the berating of the 12 year old that lost the item soon escalates. This 40 something well sized stocky father yells at this kid, “I can’t believe you left the bag, how many times. I’m so angry right now I could punch you. If he [the 15 year old] wasn’t with us I’d kick you off this train and leave you there. I would punch you if there wasn’t other people around. When we get home, I swear I’m going to punch you!” Then a moment of silence. Then he screams, “THIS FUCKING KID!” Repeat a couple of times like a Gerard Butler screaming “This is Sparta!”
My two boys look at each other, getting fearful from the screaming angry man, not sure what to do. I wait a couple of minutes, though I’m clearly already disturbed by the clear intention of violence towards a kid. So after the next “THIS FUCKING KID” I scream back out, “I HEARD IT.”
Yep, this is something I do.
Before I say what happens next, let me make my intentions clear since they’re not as holy and heroic as I may be naturally leading you to believe. First, I am very passionate about defending the innocent- violence towards kids is wrong. I grew up with violence and screaming in my house, and I don’t like to see it happen under any circumstances.
But just as much as I have a Superman complex, I also have a story-telling complex. I collect in my brain anything weird or interesting. I desire it like a fish does waterand really, like a human does water because wed die without it. So anyhow, there is some Superman in this story but I am also getting my story fix in this confrontation.
So as soon as I yell back, I HEARD IT. I get the immediate response back from the man, “You talking to me?! I’m having a conversation with my son.”
I say the obvious, “you’re yelling, you’re scaring my kids.”
He responds, “I’m a nice guy. But if you didn’t have your kids with you right now, I’d jump on you right now.” I believed him, but I know how this works.


No doubt if this man, who is more angry than Hulk realizing Sonic Drive-In just messed up his order for the third time, no doubt if this man “jumped” on me I’d probably get the crap beat out of me. I’m a big guy at six foot two, but I have no fighting history to back up that girth. But this is how these situations play out.
Before I spoke up I’ve already created my contingency plan, I concealed a small stick to use as a shiv if the person attackedIm not stupid, I watch prison movies. Advice for life: if someone attacks you, poke them. Like on Facebook, poking scares people off.
But 99% of the time no violence will happen if you carry out this course: don’t egg the person on; don’t answer their questions; say only facts in a way that repeats what they just said. Also don’t show any fear or emotion; don’t break eye contact. (Also, this 99% of the time only applies to sober people and people 6’2” or taller.)


So I carry on this apathy staring contest with this angry man, feeding him terse factual answers related to him scaring my kids while he tells me so many times that he’s having a private family discussion. He says, “I pay to use this train.” I say, “I pay too.” He tells me his kid lost three brand new shorts he just bought. I tell him my kids have lost money and it’s really pissed me off too. He says, “I’ll stop yelling if you give me the money to cover for the shorts he lost.”
This is really in my mind where I say, “dammit, he got me there.” Unless they were really cheap shorts, I don’t think the twenty seven dollars in my pocket will cover them. While staring back without emotion I contemplate the response, ‘I only have twenty seven dollars. Is that enough to make sure you don’t hit the kid.’ But then I’m pretty sure that would be the part of the story telling where I’d be like, “and that’s how I lost these front teeth.”
I know this guy has a right to be angry, the other week my six year old took twenty dollars out of my wife’s wallet and put it into a massage chair at the Laundromat. Anyhow, understanding aside it’s not acceptable to shout at the top of your lungs “FUCKING KID” or “I would punch you if” on a train. I don’t care if you just paid five dollars in trip fare and however much on shorts for a wasted trip. As I learned from growing up in the South, if you can’t pretend to be a good parent in public then you ain’t a good parent at all.
So. He’s still fuming. I keep staring. He’s staring. He tells me again that out of respect for my kids, he’s not going to beat me up right then. His 15 year old son steps in and points out he’s making my baby cry. She wasn’t crying but I’m pretty sure she would be there if I looked at her or showed any concern. After a couple of more prompts from his 15 year old son he finally sits back down. He continues to complain about “this kid” but he stops yelling out threats of child violence and eff-bombs.
There were about ten other passengers on the train watching this unfold. (I’ll probably get on YouTube.) At the next stop, the buff teenager on my left gets off the train and mouths “good luck” with a smirk as he steps off. Another older couple gets on the train, totally oblivious to the angry conversation that just took place.
Then the guy’s stop is coming up. Before it’s time to get off he gets back up to tell me in a calmed down version of his angry voice. “I’m a nice guy,” he begins. Clearly. “You don’t get in other people’s business on the train. If it wasn’t for your kids, I would’ve jumped on you. You might not get lucky with someone else. You don’t get in other people’s business.”
Back to staring, trying to convey with my face “I don’t give a shit and I know you can’t do shit unless you want to get arrested.” But I throw in a “thank you” for his useless advice. As the door opens, he reiterates “I’m a nice guy” along with a “have a good day.” I throw back a, “have a good one.”
So. Yep.


First my six year old boy asks me the obvious question, “Why was he so angry?” I tell him he was mad like how when he took the twenty dollars from Mom. Except I try to explain, the kid was just forgetful and whatever… the man was talking about punching kids and that’s wrong. I reiterate this a couple of times so everyone around me listening knows, “I’m a nice guy.”
Typical conversation with my kids. 
Me: Should you ever punch a kid?
9yo: (very serious) No.
6yo: but what happens if you punch a kid?


And then back to our regularly scheduled unexpected adventure. We go get off at the New York Aquarium stop instead of going all the way to Coney Island. You can see Coney Island from the platform. I drag the stroller, clunkity-clunkity up to the higher platform. No fireworks. Go back down more steps. Clunkity-clunkity down the stairs and then clunkity-clunkity back up the stairs with my fat ass stroller on to the other side. Still no fireworks.
I mix a bottle. Feed the baby. Like a boss.
I think, might as well get back on the train and go back home. Of course I decide this just as an F train stops in front of us and opens its doors. “Bravo team! Go! Go! Go!” We get back on the train, my nine year old hesitating because he didn’t see his younger brother run to the other door and get on the train and run behind me.
Getting on and off the train is a regularly traumatic event. It’s not designed for spacey kids.
On the way back to our station of origin, I try to explain the importance of soliciting the unexpected to my nine year old. I tell him how I knew that guy wasn’t going to fight back. I gave him no reason to escalate. I tell him that I had no problem letting that man yell at me if it meant he would have less anger for his son.
I tell him this is how I get stories, how I get inspiration for movies and bedtime tales. I tell him that if he solicits the unexpected, he’ll find no problem coming up with Minecraft machinema. So I ask, “What should we do next? I overheard that man say they lost their bag at Smith 9th street.”
My nine year old wants to go home, of course.


So I say, “We’re gathering a story. This is what we have so far.” I then tell him the story I’ve told you thus far. I end with, what happens next? We go home? That’s not a complete story. How unexpected would it be if we went and found the backpack? It’s normal for stuff to disappear on the subway system when left, but what if it hadn’t already vanished? What if we could find some way to return it? How unexpected would that be?
So we skip our stop and travel an extra five stops to the last known sighting of the angry man’s bag. We get off the train. I ask a cop on duty if he’s heard anything. He hasn’t. We clunkity-clunk it down and up the stairs to the other side of the platform. After checking the second trash bin for any discarded bags, we then resign to the fact that some things do happen as expected.
What you leave on the subway stays in the nether world of the subway and is sacrificed to appease Mayor Bloomberg’s alter ego or something like that.
He’s looks at me quizzically, wondering if he should feel more disappointed than relieved that we get to go home now.
My five year-old is eagerly but groggily expecting something else to happen. Only the number of accidents that require doctor visits will prove if my second son fully has my love for taking risks.
My little girl is asleep.
Resigned, I lead my tired adventurers on to the next train home.

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