Inappropriate sharing, incomprehensible ramblings, uncalled-for hostility: yup, it's a blog.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The 'paying attention' experiement

So over the weekend, a shocking story popped up in the news: a guy got stabbed to death (repeatedly, in the face and neck) for not removing his bag from a seat on the D train. Apparently the stabber wanted to sit down, and the stabee was reluctant to put his bag on the train floor.

At first, I was sure the stabee kinda had it coming. I've been on crowded trains before, been exhausted or otherwise impaired, and really in need of a good sit. And there's always some person taking up two seats, with a bag, a dog in a bag, an excess of ass-cheek, or with shoes as they treat the cramped benches of the MTA transit system as their own mobile lounging unit. Usually my first instinct isn't to lunge at these persons with a steak knife, but I've had violent impulses.

Turns out the stabee was homeless, had serious mental issues, and was a germophobe. The stabee used his bag as a buffer to keep himself protected from other germ-carrying people of crowded NYC. Essentially, the stabber, when he told the stabee to remove his bag from the seat, was committing an act of violence even before he whipped out the steak knife and started jabbing the stabee in the face and neck. To the stabee, that bag was the only thing between himself and the germ-covered world.

The stabee, btw, removed the bag. He complied. He obeyed. It's been revealed that there were plenty of seats on the train, but the stabber zeroed in on that particular bag-occupied seat, for whatever reasons. Power-play, I guess. And after he stabbed the guy (severing carotid), the stabber moved to a train door, forced it open enough to slip the bloody knife out of the moving train car, let the doors shut, and said to himself, "I just want to go home," over and over. Meanwhile, the stabee was sitting in a seat that lacked a bag but filled with blood, and was wheezing, "I'm dying! Help me!"

And two dozen terrified passengers, probably exhausted or impaired (it was 2AM, after all, on a Friday night) were going thru their own confused, panicked paces, pressed in a clump at the end of the train farthest from the bloody, dying man and the man who wanted to just go home.

Those people, btw, were eventually locked into the car, trapped with the stabber and the stabee. When the D train pulled into 50th St, the conductor locked the doors of the car until the police arrived. Imagine being in that car, the blood, the murderer, the dead body, the windows, the passengers waiting to get on.

Anyway so today, Tuesday, I decided I'd take the train without using my iPod. Just to see, you know, just to experience what it is like to have your surroundings coming at you without the buffer of a podcast or a Beatles album. It's been--no shit--four or five years since I've just cold walked around the city without a soundtrack or an NPR podcast in my ears. Half the time, I have no idea what anyone is saying to me, and they have no idea what I'm saying back since we all have our ears plugged with our own personally-selected playlist.

So I left for work this morning. iPod Touch-less. No earbuds. Just sounds. My footsteps on the marble stairs. The squeal of the door in the lobby as I buzzed myself out. The insect hum of the traffic as I exited to the sidewalk. Construction. A guy in front of me calling to a girl behind me, in Spanish.

Then the train ride. Jesus. There was a clacking sound, of course, which I always hear even through my Gilbert and Sullivan, even through my 'Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me.' I read--even though I was willing to finally listen to the ride to work, I wasn't about to look at it.

And what I heard were mostly the sounds of other people listening to the music blasting from headphones. The car, except for the clack-clack of the train wheels on the rails, was silent. The only thing breaking the clack-clack silence was the tinny, distant mosquito-like cacophony of other people's music. And the occasional wisp of a turned page, since everyone was reading something.

I didn't get a seat (and didn't try to stab my way into one), but was able to take a position against a left-side door. The left-door position is better than the aisle position, because this far up in Manhattan, the doors only open on the right side of the car. If you're stationed at a left-side door, you're out of the way of passengers pushing up and down the aisle to get to a right-hand door for entrances and exits. Left-hand door positions mean you can just hang out, do your thing, ride along without worry of jostling or molestation.

The guy beside me was listening to his magic portable music-delivery device. Loudly. I could hear it as I read. And I was standing next to a seated person, a middle-aged woman. She was watching 'Lost'--season 3 I think--and I could hear that as well. And clack-clack.

I arrived at my destination, and pushed my way off the train--without stabbing anyone--and there was a new hum. Not an insect hum like when I'd moved onto the sidewalk from my apartment building, but the hum of bodies moving, cloth scraping, shoes against tile. There was a murmur as passengers greeted other passengers and we all moved collectively up narrow stairs, saying our 'Excuse mes' or grumbling our apologies while crashing into one another. It's a ballet, a Merce Cunningham extravaganza, moving through any train station: erratic, yet controlled. Syncopation and chaos.

On the street, more noise. Buses squealed as they passed, taxis honking for attention. Then into Columbia's College Walk, where the noise quieted, half-heard conversations. No stabbings, but it is Columbia--only a matter of time before a grad student loses it and screams about Kant before laying out a blood-bath.

And during the day! I left work a few times to go to a deli, because it was a slow day, a studentless day, and also a sunny day so I wanted to just walk around rather than stare blankly at a computer screen. I went for coffee, felt the sun. I went for a muffin, felt the sun. I went on the pretense of getting another muffin to feel the sun. Just to be out, soaking up the sun before it leaves us and winter settles in. And walking down the sidewalk, I'd hear the jingles of walked dogs. The clack-clack of high-heeled shoes. The random spurts of exasperation from stressed people. The insane mutterings of insane drug addicts. And without an iPod, I had to deal with these mutterings, which were always about getting either change or cigarettes out of me.

With earbuds shoved into my ears, I always had a plausible excuse to ignore, but without those earbuds, I had none. Sure, I could pretend to be deaf, but that seemed like cheating.

A guy I'd seen several times a day for nearly 5 years came up to me. "Quarter," he said. Drug guy. Clearly. I'd often seen him standing on one of the corners between my work and the place where I get coffee. Sometimes he was standing, and other times he was doing Kabuki, moving in slow, precise ways with his eyelids half-closed. I'd often seen him speaking to me, and would instinctively touch my earbuds while staring toward the distant horizon, pretending not to notice. This time, I didn't have a reasonable excuse to ignore him, so when he said, 'Quarter,' I stopped.

"I don't have one," I said. Which was true! I didn't.

"That's a shame, man," he said back. "I don't either, so I feel you."

Yeah, and then on the train going back home? Pretty unpleasant. I tried to read, but couldn't because of all the noise, all the conversations to eavesdrop on, all the tinny earbudded music to decipher. But I wasn't locked up with a madman, and I didn't get stabbed. So I guess it was a successful experiment: I heard the city, and it was saying, "Put the fucking earphones back on."

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