The Four Express train is always full. It transports us from South Bronx through Manhattan and into the heart of Brooklyn. People from all races, nations and socio-economic statuses are forced to press upon each while commuting to work and home, escaping to another place. On the train, you are an accidental member of the world’s most transient community.
Don’t crowd me! This is my space, bitch!
I did not squeeze onto the first train that passed, so with my suitcase and messenger bag stuffed with clothes and work, I edged towards the next train—you could hear the shouts over its rumble.
I don’t care who you are!
The young white men, dressed in summer checkered shirts and tight fitting slacks with a line of matching square patterns protruding from the back pockets, shoved in front of me. It seemed important that they catch the train.
A voice pitched in fear was camouflaged by the plethora of faces. I could track what side of the train it was coming from, but it wasn’t until I stood just two people away from her until I saw who it was. Two people shoved me from behind and a third crammed his arm into the door, interrupting: Stand clear of the closing doors please.
You want to come over here? Take another picture of my child?
A woman leaned against the train door while it accelerated from the 59th street station. Her knuckles white as she held the handles of a worn plastic stroller. She lifted the rear wheels of the stroller and then slammed them down. The sound effects emphasized her word—bitch. She stared towards the middle of the train. Her child, two-years old by my estimate, looked up, mouth wide and exposing unusually pale lips.
C’mon, you want this? You want to take another picture? Nobody is taking my child!
The focus of her ire was a tall white woman with long blond hair and an iPhone 6 in her hand. The woman had blue eyes and an Australian accent.
I have a photo here.
The woman chuckled—she knew nothing else to do– and turned away, faux-ignoring the mother, a petit but broad shouldered black woman, wearing a ripped mono-tone t-shirt and dark blue bonnet.
You have no idea. No idea! You take another photo and I will break your phone.
People crammed against each other and away from the protagonist, clearing a path for projectiles, whether they be fists, spit or other sundries. And then the mother let go of her stroller, lunged and swung her fists in rapid fire succession at the woman who nearly doubled her in height. There was a groan from onlookers on the train. Because it was an express train, the next stop was still minutes away. A swirl of fists. And then, like breath, those of us not involved moved further away and then somehow, back in, collectively filling the via violencia with bodies. I don’t know if we were pushed by people further down the train or if there was the human instinct to crowd the soon-to-be brawlers with our bodies to decrease the impact, for everyone.
My left shoulder stood between the women now.
Come here give me your phone.
Delete the fucking picture!
Fear again, now anger and now power. Both voices trembled in higher pitch, tea kettles about to explode.
Shouts from within the train car broke apart the confrontation telling the tall woman to delete the photos. Repetitive calls to “just delete the photo” from nameless by-standers. The mother lunged again and I leaned my shoulder into her body as if having been jolted by a braking train; she backed away. The white woman looked at me and said, I didn’t actually take a photo.
I told her to act like she was deleting a photo then. Someone else told her to do the same. She brought the phone away from her body as if she could use a pair of reading glasses and then the mother took her advantage. She grabbed the iPhone with both of her hands.
I will break your phone; you CANNOT have a picture of my child.
As an emergency department nurse I have learned through trial and painful error how to restrain aggressive patients and how to minimize the the risk of injury to all. My hands were now controlling the wrists of the mother who clawed into the phone. The white woman pulled back, now yelling at the mother to return her phone, her eyes welling with tears.
I will fucking kill you. I will strangle you with my headphones, I don’t care. You do NOT take pictures of my child. This is MY SPACE! I will punch you, I will BEAT you!
Yet, no more fists were to fly. The mother was not foolish; she knew she would not assault this woman. She was a lioness wisely protecting her pride. I felt a sensation of release in her tense arms when I grabbed hold of her. I told her calmly, Let go of the phone, she will delete the photos. Let go of the phone.
Though she did not let go, she did not continue to fight. I watched her arms, legs, teeth and mouth, knowing that I needed to assess any part of her body that she could use to strike out at me or anyone around. In nurse mode, my brain focused on staying one step ahead ready to catch or at least deflect the next fist that was to fly. I prepared to be spit in the face, perhaps because too much experience working with patients in the midst of psychotic breaks, drug overdoses or simply overcome by the fear of a medical system not designed for properly treat the resource poor.
A white woman, who sounded like a therapist, like the one I had seen years ago near Union Square, stood next to the mother and with all good intentions, failed to calm the woman: I know you are in pain. We see that. Let go of the phone and tell me about your pain.
It was comic relief for that protracted subway ride; gallows humor—a missionary kind of model when the “with too much” tries to soothe the pain of the one without. We still had not arrived at 42nd street.
I held her wrists, controlling her fists, two of her weapons secondary only to the power of her words.
No one knows about my child but me. You will not take her away.
Her child cried and she released the phone. I held her wrists a second longer until she gently pulled them away from me. We looked at each other, then she reached for her child. She had no intention to cause harm, she had no intention to stage a scrappy battle on the subway—so long as she, and her child felt safe.
The white woman quaked. I let one of my bags fall to the floor and stood squarely between the mother and the photographer. With both women in my peripheral view, I asked the white woman quietly what her next stop was. She said 42nd Street as they train decelerated. I told her that when the train stopped she was to walk in front of me so I would make it harder for the mother to swing at her on her way off the train.
The train stops, doors open to a crowd of people hustling to get on, many who just missed the previous train.
I will kill you if you try to take a photo. I will strangle you with this cord. You no nothing about me or my child!
Tears streaked the face of the woman with the phone. I do not know if she actually took a photo, I have no idea what she said or did to inspire such wrath.
Stand clear of the closing doors please.
And she disappeared, her life interrupted by this exchange.
Everybody hear that? this is MY space.
The mother’s eyes welled with tears. Someone offered to give her a seat and she declined.
I’m FINE, thank you. You have no idea.
She was right, we had no idea.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when I got off the train at 14th Street. The woman with the child stayed on the train, she stared at the passengers like a caged animal—no one would take her space. She had won, she had to win, she would do anything to win. But what did she win? What was she fighting for?
At Union Square, the sky opened with scattered clouds. The late summer humidity was just bearable and the people shopping at the farmer’s market walked briskly to work after buying flowers and fruit. There was kale and fresh meat, stores of iron all priced beyond nutritional value but at a rate the elite would afford. Above the subway was access to nutrition, for a price. I bought flowers and coffee for my lover, just a few dollars short of twenty total.
In New York City, for $2.75 you can travel to almost every corner of the metropolis. Anyone, regardless of race or socioeconomic status (if you can spare the $2.75) has access to this city, and yet the access remains limited. What is hidden in the crowded subway cars, in the remote boroughs, that has been pushed away from the central neighborhoods by gentrification, by fear and by urban “development,” is a growing community, a global community of people with exponentially less while their ousters gain exponentially more. And in this I too am complicit. In this, as a nurse, one who has helped remove abusive parents from children in an emergency department, who has faced off with patients wielding knives, fists and words, desperately protecting themselves from a medical system not designed to meet their needs—from a medical system, in the U.S., that historically ran experiments their community—on their families—tortured the poor to develop drugs for the rich. It is this growing chasm between the resource wealthy and resource poor that is a fundamental deterioration of our global community. It is the lack of acknowledgement of the behemoth that allows us not to see the other side. When it surfaces, we pick sides according to race and socioeconomic class and judge the other, though we may have only witnessed it for the duration of two subway stops.
What is not seen is most dangerous when it erupts.
This microcosm in this city is a metaphor for evolving global circumstances—war, poverty-driven contagion, religious fanaticism and nationalism. All deterrents to peace that are fueled by ignorance of the other. Sometimes we only get a glimpse of that other, and if we are not prepared, if we are not educated with some modicum of tolerance that comes from inspiration to learn about what we do not know, thus purposefully placing ourselves outside of our comfort zones, looking through the nebulae that our own cultures have created, we have nothing to offer. We make dry attempts at hollow compassion that ultimately only serves ourselves and we remain ignorant to the root.
There is no simple fix. There is no formula to address this chasm. And yet, if it does not remain clearly in the forefront of health care education, on the agendas of of transcultural powers in politics and health, then we will continue to fuel a losing battle. Income and health inequity, globally, will tear down the weak scaffolding of “development” and attempts at peace.
When I arrived at my partner’s apartment, not far from Union Square, she had a headache. I walked a block to a pharmacy on the corner to buy acetaminophen for her. In front of me, a woman in a sundress purchased baby formula with government issued food stamps. Across her exposed back were words tattooed between her scapulae:
My witness is the empty sky.