Not Racist

It was almost five, rush hour, and Times Square to boot. And you can let the first train go by if it's jammed, and wait for the next one, but the truth is, it isn't going to get any better, not for hours, really, so when the uptown express pulled into the station, I joined the throng and pushed my way in.

There really wasn't room, but with a little bit of squeezing and a few "Sorry's," I wormed my way in, through the crowd, so I could stand, right up against the people around me, as tightly packed as I had ever been. But that didn't make me the last one on the train. A few others pushed on behind me, including the last two who stood pressed against the door when it finally closed--a big black man and a small white older woman.

I had noticed the man when we were still on the platform. He was talking too loud, making comments to the trainman, comments to passers-by. Annoying, a little unhinged, but not really my problem. Until the doors closed, and the train--"a Bronx-bound Express," my favorite in the city, one beautiful fast run from 42nd Street all the way up to 72nd with no stops--pulled out of the station, and the guy started harassing the older woman beside him.

"What are you doing on this train?" and "Where are you going?" he started in.

She was a New Yorker, no ingénue. Still, it was unsettling, and she was stuck right next to him, with nowhere to budge in the car. And people don't do this in New York--bug you on the train. Not unless they mean trouble.

She didn't respond, but he kept at her. "What's your problem?" and "Cat got your tongue?" That sort of thing. Finally she said, "Leave me alone."

The train, with all those people, seemed to go quiet. "Why?" his voice echoed through the car. "Don't you like me?"

A tall white man, young, a student maybe, with a backpack, was crammed in nearby, his back to them, though.

He turned his head, slightly--it was all he could do. "Leave her alone," he said.

The black guy raised his voice. "Who asked you?"

"Leave her alone. She's not bothering you."

"Hey," said the black man, louder still, "you're racist!"

My God, I thought, we're going to have a fight, right here, in the car, with nowhere to move, no possibility of getting out of the way. I could be hurt. The white student--brave, I thought, and good to come to the defense of the woman--could be hurt. And the old woman.

"I'm not a racist," said the student. "I just want you to leave this woman alone."

The train was hurtling along--this is one of the longest stretches without stops in the city. The crowd was mixed, mostly black, some white. Bronx-bound, up Broadway, but stopping at 72nd and 96th first, both upscale neighborhoods. Riverside Drive. West End Avenue. There were some younger black men right in front of me, against the other door, across from the harasser, the woman, the student. None of us could move, but one of them nodded toward the student.

"He's racist," he said, but matter-of-factly, and with a smile. Another man, a few feet away, laughed and reached over the heads of some passengers and gave him a fist bump --"Yeah, he's racist."

I was facing them. Nice faces. Nice smiles.

"I'm not racist," the white student repeated, but I was no longer scared. No one was going to hit him.

"Did you vote for Obama?" the harasser asked him, defused now.

"Yeah, I voted for Obama," the student answered.

The harasser nodded, and announced, overloud, to the train in general, "He voted for Obama." Turning to the older woman, "Did you vote for Obama?"

"Of course," she said. Which was no doubt true. Probably everyone on this train, on every subway in New York, voted for Obama.

"Then that's all right," said the harasser. The train was slowing down to stop at 72nd Street. "That's good."

The train pulled into the station, and the older woman got out as soon as the doors opened, along with a sprinkling of others, all white. I'd been planning to step off myself and wait for the next train, but didn't. The student stayed, too. We had voted for Obama. We were not racist. The doors closed. We rode on together.

Not racist, but the next stop was 96th Street, the last one before Harlem, and when the doors opened, every white person left on the train got out. This was our stop.