Being a native New Yorker demands that you uphold the virtues of common courtesy. It’s as if we’re all other-worldly superheroes sent to the city to defend a sacred code of ethics. We come from a planet in a distant galaxy where everyone always holds the door for others, subway riders let people off the train first before getting on, and no one ever places an order at a deli before asking the person next to them if they’re being helped or not. We will not tolerate anything less here. And when we see these virtues not being upheld in Gotham, we must exact justice. This is the line of thinking that almost got my ass handed to me over Thanksgiving.
I have never been in a fistfight. I mean, I haven’t actively avoided getting into one, but I’ve never gone looking for a fight either. I’m a bespectacled, 5-foot-2, hipster-looking Italian guy, so I don’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of men (or women, for that matter). No, not all short guys suffer from a Napoleon complex, or in my case, a Joe Pesci complex. Most of us are comfortable and confident enough in our own skin to not have to prove ourselves by getting into physical altercations. Also, we have huge penises. (Is that off topic? Sure it is. But I just want to paint an accurate picture of myself for you.) This is all well and good, but there’s one problem: I live in New York City and that, by nature, means I am bound to get into a fight sooner or later.
The holiday weekend coincided with my mom’s birthday, and she was coming by train into the city from Long Island so I could treat her to a nice lunch. I always go to the urine-soaked, stroke-inducing Hellscape that is Penn Station to pick her up whenever she ventures to Manhattan, because I’m a good son. On this particular day, I got there a little bit early because I had forgotten to buy her a card and needed extra time to pick one up from the Penn Station Kmart (OK, so I’m not that good of a son). Anyone who has had to navigate through the throngs of listless, lumbering knuckle draggers that seem to permanently inhabit Penn knows there is an exact science to walking there. The main lanes of foot traffic run east to west through the station as people are making their way to and from the tracks. In order to get to the various stores and restaurants that line the periphery, one must cross from south to north, through about 10 to 15 lanes of this traffic. The golden rule is, always give the right of way to the other people. They’re trying to make their train. Your fat ass is just trying to eat some Taco Bell.
I weaved, bobbed and sidestepped my way to the entrance of Kmart, narrowly missing a few holiday travelers. And just as I was about to cross the threshold into the store, I was blindsided by a very large man in a smelly-looking sweatshirt (that’s the only thing I remember about him, so I will be referring to him as such). Smelly Sweatshirt spun me half around as he hit into me, overtaking me and looping into the lobby of the store. I knew he was probably looking to start something, because when I stopped in my tracks in disbelief in front of the store, he was already standing across from me, waiting for me to say something. I opted for the old head-shake-with-outstretched-arms gesture. This is universally accepted by New Yorkers to mean “what the fuck?” Smelly Sweatshirt responded by outstretching his arms to mimic mine; we were now like two territorial peacocks matching wits in the wild. He cocked his head and grunted an intimidating “what?” through a thick Long Island accent. Now, I didn’t have to say anything in response. I could have just gotten out of there, or maybe complimented his smelly sweatshirt in an attempt to diffuse the situation. But my New Yorker sense was tingling. I couldn’t let this slide. I had to uphold the law. So, I clarified the situation for him: “Come on, man. You hit into me and didn’t even say ‘excuse me.’” Smelly Sweatshirt saw things way differently. He claimed that I stopped in front of him, causing him to bump into me, and then he called me a “jackass.” It was a solid opening argument on his part. He managed to refocus the blame onto me with utter disregard for reality and punctuated it with an insult for good measure. At this point, I took a step toward him, and he leaned a little closer to me. My heart began racing, because this was the moment of truth.
I had a choice to make. I could see his “jackass” and raise him a more vulgar expletive — “douchebag,” “asshole,” “motherfucker.” All options were on the table. From there, things would predictably escalate until Smelly Sweatshirt killed me with his bare hands, leaving me bloody and broken on the gross Kmart floor. My mom would happen upon my lifeless corpse. She’d kneel down, cradle my head and ask the heavens, “why?!” The headline of the next day’s New York Post flashed in my head: “SMALL BOY BLUDGEONED WHILE BUYING BIRTHDAY CARD FOR MOM.” All this might sound a little melodramatic, but in a city where things like random subway platform shovings and the knockout game exist, anything could happen. My mom’s special day would be ruined if I made the wrong choice, and that was the one thing that could not happen.
So, I took a gamble. I gave Smelly Sweatshirt a dismissive wave of my hand, turned my back on him and walked deeper into the store. I looked like a coolheaded badass, but in reality I was crying like a bitch on the inside, terrified this man was going to follow me. My chest was throbbing as I entered the greeting card aisle, which was sectioned off in a secluded area of the cavernous store. I was certain he’d sneak behind me as I picked out a birthday card and shank me. In Kmart, no one can hear you scream…
But then, something awesome happened — nothing. I picked out a card, paid for it and left the store without incident. To my relief, Smelly Sweatshirt was nowhere to be found. My mom’s train pulled in a few minutes later, and instead of arriving to find me on an ambulance stretcher, she found me waiting on the platform with a smile and a card. I hugged her a little bit tighter than I had the last time I saw her, thankful that I had avoided what could have been a pretty bad situation.
We went on to have a great lunch, and when it was finished, I tipped over 20% because tipping over 20% is another common courtesy you adhere to when you live in this city. Fighting for what’s right doesn’t mean having to use your fists, especially when you’re 5-foot-2 and easily confused for a middle school student. We can’t all be New York superheroes. Sometimes it’s safer just to be Clark Kent.
Featured image courtesy of Rail Fan Window