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  LIFE AS A LOSER #176: "THE PROPER AUTHORITIES."  
   
   
 

Even though I'm not married to her, my girlfriend stayed with me at my apartment the other night, and we left for work together the next morning. Riding the New York City subway always provides me with quiet pleasure. Since I'm the last stop on my train, I always have a seat. I buy a copy of the Daily News, plop down, stretch my legs and kick back. By the time I'm finished with the paper, I'm at work. No waiting to change lanes, no thicknecks blaring their horns, no stressful left turns at busy intersections. I just zone out, catch up on the news and before I know it, my ride is over. It's quite nice.

A lot of it depends on what train you're riding. A friend lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, way down on nearly the southernmost tip of Brooklyn, and her train route is
notoriously unreliable. Sometimes the trains will run smoothly, and she'll be at work in half an hour.

 
 

More often, the underground traffic jam gnarls, and her overcrowded car will be filled with grouchy commuters, sardined shoulder-to-shoulder, sweaty and cramped, for almost an hour. The middle-aged women are always the worst. If you're in between them and an open seat, they have no qualms with Butkus-ing you, in a textbook open-field style tackle, to get that seat. They're always cursing and belligerent, with a rather frightening don't-fuck-with-this scowl. It makes me worry about all the future of my female friends. Middle age, I suspect, is not kind to women.

This particular morning, I left later than usual. My girlfriend kept me company. It's a busy time, and we had plenty to discuss. I was glad she was there. Sometimes subway trains are too quiet; I'm not the only one who likes to zone out. We hopped on at 207th Street and swooshed downward, through Washington Heights, past Harlem, 125th Street, next stop 59th Street, Columbus Circle. We had talked and giggled and laughed the whole time. We were in a good mood. It was my birthday week.

Like anybody else on the train, the man hadn't caught my attention. It takes a lot to get me to notice you on the train. Usually, you have to be making some unnatural noise, maybe shouting, fiddling with your cell phone, snoring maybe. The man was doing none of those.

He made a step toward us, an unusual movement. The train was not crowded, and it was a long way until our next stop, 56 blocks. It was a measured, purposeful move. My head instinctively turned away from my girlfriend and looked in his direction. There was nothing remarkable about him. Mid-thirties, light brown hair, slightly balding, wearing a brown trenchcoat, a pressed white shirt and tan tie. Even though it was not raining, and not likely to, he was holding an umbrella, which tapped along the subway car's floor, like it was a cane. Not a walking stick cane, mind you; he held it like a prop in a silent movie, tap tap tap, as if he were about to toss it into the air and break into song. But he wasn't smiling, and he certainly wasn't about to start dancing.

He took another step toward me and made eye contact. You're not supposed to make eye contact on the train. Just one of those things.

As he came close, I noticed he was taller than I thought he was. But, honestly, that was pretty much it. He looked like every other guy on the train, a nondescript nothing, just more background fuzz. He kept coming toward us, focusing on me. It appeared he needed something, likely directions. I've been riding this train for two years and take a good deal of pride in my mastery of the elaborate calibration of the New York City subway system, so I'm probably a good guy to ask.

He stopped over us, a little too close. His eyes narrowed, his lips pursed, and he spoke.

"I want to talk to you about law enforcement. What you're doing is criminal. You should be arrested. You should know that I will be contacting the proper authorities." He then shifted slightly to his right and lurked backwards slowly, almost floating, his eyes locked on us, his disgust and fury palpable. He stopped about five feet away, but his glare did not waver.

For a moment that lasted longer than I would have liked it to, I did a little internal inventory. Had I engaged in any criminal activities recently? Was I engaging in any of them now? I looked at my girlfriend, whose look of confusion -- not shock, legitimate confusion -- presumably mirrored my own. I could tell she was doing her own inventory. She realized about the same time I did that, no, as far as we knew, we were not doing anything illegal.

We were silent for about 10 seconds. Then she spoke, in a whisper: "He's still looking at us."

And his umbrella was tapping … slowly.

Not that I'd ever been faced with a situation like this before, but it seemed like the wise thing to do was to carry on as if nothing had happened. I found myself chuckling, as if she had just said something funny, or as if a friend we hadn't seen in a long time had just played a silly joke on us, ha ha, gotcha. I didn't dare look over at the man. Out of the corner of my eye, however, I could tell he was still staring.

We began to quietly try to make some sense of what had just happened. She pointed out, with a bit of alarm, that this well-dressed man didn't appear to be joking at all. I tried to minimize the situation, make her feel more comfortable, let her know she was safe with me. "He's clearly crazy, obviously," I said. I'm not sure that helped. Either of us.

My stop is 14th Street, but hers was 59th Street, that next stop. We needed to formulate a plan. She suggested we both get off at 59th Street, and I could catch the next train, but even in my shock, that wasn't feasible for me. I was late to work already. I told her to go ahead and get off like she always would, and if he made a movement to exit the train, I'd follow. As if in a vice, his head remained stationary, fixed on us.

Her stop arrived. I kissed her goodbye, with an eye on the man. He did not budge. She escaped unharmed. I theatrically took out a book I've been reading and pretended to study it intently. Stand clear of the closing doors, please. Off to 42nd Street. Off to 34th Street. The umbrella continued to tap.

I had a plan of my own. I was carrying the satchel I take with me everywhere, full of random notebooks and interview transcripts and baseball magazines, and I stealthily unzipped the pouch where I would ordinarily store the book. The scheme: Make it look like I was staying on the train, then, at the last possibly second, throw the book in there and bolt through the exit doors. This was the ride I took every day. I knew exactly how long those doors were open.

The train arrived. Commuters filed out. The man did not budge. 3 … 2… 1 … now. With a flash, I dashed through the doors, up the stairs, through the turnstiles. Halfway up the staircase to the outside, I got stuck behind two chattering high school students. I twisted my neck just enough to glance behind me. There were four people looking annoyed by the delay up the stairs … and then him. He was looking downward now, but, sensing the movement, his head snapped up.

Quickly now. I passed the high school students on the wrong side and whisked up the rest of the stairs around the corner. I work on 17th Street. There is a deli where I buy orange juice and wheat toast every morning. Everyone there knows me, and it's always crowded. I ducked in and feigned an intense interest in the dairy section. I idled there for about 15 seconds and turned around.

I recognized only the Latina man behind the counter. "Wheat toast? Yes?"

The man was gone. I loitered a bit, then took my toast and left. Looking a bit like Peter Lorre in "M," hunched over, paranoid, I shuffled down the street to my office, hopped in the elevator and sat down at my desk. My phone was already ringing.

It was my girlfriend. "Oh, God, you're OK. What the hell was that?"

I had no idea, I have no idea, but I can assure you: I'll be leaving for work on time, from now on.

 

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