I find that an excellent way to deal with discomfort in new social situations is to make jokes with the people I already know about starting fights with strangers. My wife and I were with a couple who are our longtime friends at a party in New York City recently where we did just that. As the husband, Virgil, and I tried to outdo each other with the outrageous ways we’d get all up in some dude’s grill, he slipped in, “Oh, I just got in my first fight on the train the other day.”
He then recounted how some guy sitting next to him on the morning train started to fall asleep, as many people do, and started to slump over such that his left arm was cradled in my buddy’s right arm. And this wasn’t a gentle cradling, but more a sink it all in there as though the only things supporting the snoozer’s body weight were Virgil’s lap and right forearm. Unable to bear this physical invasion, Virgil jiggled the guy out of his slumbers and asked him not to lean on him. The guy was less than understanding, telling Virgil that, as a big guy (he’s not fat, but is tall and broad shouldered), he should pretty much expect this. The situation diffused before becoming physical, but it got a little heated.
This type of scenario plays is not frequent on the train, but not uncommon either. Although highly irritating to the participants, it often brightens the day of surrounding passengers. We might claim to abhor violence, but the fact is that any hint of it gets our blood pumping and produces a feeling of excitement. Who didn’t love when Mad Men’s Pete Campbell got into a wrestling match on Metro North with the husband of the woman he’d been sleeping with and then punched in the face by the conductor? I bet several people in Virgil’s vicinity that day recounted his story to friends and family.
I’ve witnessed a few interpassenger scuffles in my day. Most of them, like Virgil’s, are about personal space. The best I ever saw involved an aggressively nerdy guy’s reaction to one of our favorite train neighbors: the arrogant guy in the suit and tie who sits with his legs spread as wide as possible because, naturally, nobody else around him exists. On this day, after nerdy dude had gotten up to let suit man take the window seat—which of course included suit man’s meticulous and slow folding of his suit jacket before sitting down, forcing nerdy guy to stand in the aisle and block everyone else who was boarding from finding a seat—it was not long before suit man started to go spread eagle.
Nerdy guy withstood this for about a minute-and-a-half and then half-shouted so that just about everyone in the car could hear, “Do you mind moving your leg? I mean, I know you have really big balls and everything, but I could use the room!” Suit man, unflappable, replied in a condescending tone with some insult about nerdy guy’s appearance. To be honest, what he said could have been great or it could have been stupid, but this was a few years ago and all that lives on in my memory are nerdy guy’s outsized-testicle comment and the giddy, nervous feeling that all hell was gonna break loose.
Neither of these guys let it drop for a little while and it seemed that it might get physical. Maybe nerdy guy would spit toward suit man’s face and miss, and then suit man would punch him in the face. A neighboring passenger would come to nerdy guy’s defense and the whole situation would escalate into an all-out brawl complete with pie fight—like the one at the end of Blazing Saddles. (The guy who played Mongo in that movie just died on Thursday.)
As for me, I got into a skiff once several years ago. I was sitting in the aisle position of a three-seater and a guy about my size (I’m 6′ 1″ and about 215 pounds) was at the window. We were coexisting quite peacefully. Enter a scraggly, smelly due who was bigger than either of us and decided it would be a good idea to wedge his large self between us. I never understand big guys who choose to sit between two other big guys—I’d rather stand. But if someone makes a stupid, annoying choice like this, you have no option but to accommodate him.
To make matters worse, Scragglepuss was one of these passive-aggressive types who hover over you without saying a word, expecting that you will eventually interpret the shadow they cast over your body as a request for a seat. How difficult is it to say, “Excuse me.” Or “May I squeeze in there?” It’s all very presumptuous. And if that weren’t annoying enough, once I figured out that he wanted to sit down, he stood blocking the opening in the aisle where I would have to get up to let him in. But if he wasn’t going to speak, neither was I, so I just looked up at him. When he still didn’t say anything or move, I looked back down, whereupon he agitated, “How about you let me in there?” I shot back (perhaps inelegantly, but concisely), “I can’t get up unless you step aside.” Other passengers’ eyes widened. Their nostrils flared. You could see that they were smelling blood.
But unfortunately for them, that was the end of the show. Scragglepuss got out of the way, I let him in, and predictably he took up enough space that I had to hang half my body into the aisle for the rest of the ride to Grand Central. I considered changing seats or standing in the vestibule, but I decided I just couldn’t give Scragglepuss the satisfaction. After about a half hour, my spine started to ache. I also got hit in the head three or four times by backpacks and laptop bags, but I swear it was all worth it. And I bet the people sitting around us had a little more spring in their step that day.
Have you ever witnessed or been in a fight on the train? Let’s hear your story.