There are a great many things I want to experience before I die. I am slightly embarrassed to admit that two of these are getting punched in the face and punching someone else in the face. Am I embarrassed because I’m admitting that I haven’t punched/been punched, or am I embarrassed that punching/getting punched is something I want to do before I die? I don’t know. Maybe both.
Lest you erroneously jump to the opposite conclusion, I want to state with unmistakable clarity that I don’t have a single macho bone in my body, and I don’t aspire to. As a rule I think violence is silly and differences can and should be worked out by other means. Nevertheless, getting punched in the face and punching someone else in the face seems like an essential and profound part of the male experience. It strikes me as the kind of experience that sears itself onto your consciousness, changing the way you look at yourself and the world around you.
Failing to punch/get punched during my 70 or 80 years on the earth will signify to me that I led an overly cautious life. It won’t make make me any less of a man, really. It will just mean that I probably played things a little too safely, and missed out on some vivid and intense experiences as a result. I mean, I’m not talking about a life of brawling in seedy bars in Bangkok. I’m just talking about living the life I currently have but with a one-off incident where I’m involved in a riot at an English soccer game, or have to fend off an angry mob in a small village in Burma because I unwittingly insulted the village elders. That type of thing.
I mention all of this because for I really thought last night was going to be the night. Melissa and I were out and about, and because it was raining cats and dogs we had to take the subway home. It’s worth noting here that in spite of its reputation, New York City is a very, very safe place. I’ve lived here for almost six years, and I’ve never once been mugged, or even come close. I saw a guy with a gun on the subway once, but that’s as close as I’ve come to anything dangerous. I walk around New York without even a second’s concern for my safety.
So we got on to a crowded train at around 10 PM or so, and when we did I noticed a rail-thin fellow in mustard yellow sweats walk to the exit of the train, yell something about stabbing someone in the back, and then retake his seat directly across from Melissa and me. I figured he was talking to a friend who had just exited, and didn’t pay much attention to him or what he had said. Before long, though, he was making faces at Melissa and trying to engage her in conversation. He wasn’t necessarily being crude or offensive, but it was making both of us uncomfortable.
My desire to punch someone in the face notwithstanding, I do not go around looking for a brawl, primarily because so few people know and will comply with the rules of a slapfight (only slapping, no one can laugh if you scream a little bit, and crying is allowed and even expected). What’s more, I’m not one who subscribes to a rigid code of honor or cares much about saving face. Unfortunately, this guy’s advances towards Melissa were only intensifying, and I felt compelled to do something. I didn’t feel like I could allow him to keep coming on to and embarrassing my wife in public, and so I said, “Hey. Stop it.” The minute I did this it became clear that this was what he had hoped I would do, as his attention instantly switched from Melissa to me. He began to challenge me to do something, to see who was quicker, and so on.
He wasn’t just a garden variety thug, though; there was an air of instability, even mental illness about him. I didn’t know if this meant I should be more or less frightened of him. He continued to quietly make threats, and began to work in mentions of stabbing and knives. Melissa and I stared straight into the distance, hoping not to elevate an already fairly tense situation. But as I tried to ignore him, listening to him make threats, part of me began to chafe and strain at the restraint I was showing.
I’ve felt somewhat put upon lately, and my ability to grin and bear unfair or boorish treatment is diminishing. Just the other day I yelled at the super of our building in a way that truly startled me. It just came out of me, out of a place inside me I had never seen before and didn’t know existed. I knew there was no point to confronting the guy on the subway, that the smartest and best and right thing was to continue to ignore him and walk away once the train reached our stop. But there was another part of me that wanted to walk across the train and smash his face in.
That part of me quickly died down, though, when he flashed his knife at us. It happened so quickly it took me a moment to process, but yes, he definitely flashed a knife at us. As I write this I realize it sounds like we were in grave peril, and yet neither of us really felt like that. We wanted to get off the train, and were definitely on edge, but something about the situation didn’t feel all that dangerous. Of course, that assessment of the situation changed when he jumped up from his seat and moved towards me.
I would be lying if I told you that a little pee didn’t come out. I’m kidding. It didn’t, but my heart did kick into “wings of a hummingbird” mode. He extended his hand, said, “Nice to meet you, I’m Justin. It’s not like that.” Showing just how programmed we are to respond to certain stimul in certain ways, I reached up and shook his hand as though he were my daughter’s prom date. I shook hands with him, a confused look on my face, half expecting to feel his other hand plunge a knife into my kidney. He walked to the other end of the train, we arrived at our stop, exited the train, and watched behind us to make sure he didn’t exit with us.
I’ve thought kind of a lot about that situation in the 24 or so hours since it occurred, ruminating on chivalry, honor, pride, and meekness. But mostly I’ve just been wondering if I blew my one chance to punch someone in the face before I die.