The Transit Authority

Readers and contributors relate tales of subway fights and granny attacks on public transport.

August 1, 2008


I hear them before they all tumble in-a group of about 20 male teenagers, shouting and pushing each other through the door. We are on the Bronx-bound 4, an express subway that shoots north up the eastern spine of Manhattan. My boyfriend Ben is sitting next to me, and just like most New Yorkers in transit, we know how to tune out the world around us. But sometimes that world trickles in, uninvited and unavoidable.

One of the teens glances over and as he walks by, he quickly tries to sit on my lap. "Get the fuck off me," I say, pushing him off. He stumbles over, almost mockingly, then stands up while grinning at us from underneath the low brim of his cap. Though I'd taken care of it, Ben shoves him again, hard. The teen falls against the orange chairs, losing his balance and collapsing on the floor. When he bounces up, arms flailing and furious, Ben is standing and staring back.

Boyfriends protect. Boyfriends defend. They also do stupid things, like provoke an entire group of much larger and stronger teenagers thirsty for a brawl. Now, it's my turn to save my boyfriend, whose tall and willowy body is no match for his will. I grab his jacket and pull him back down to the seat, pushing my weight on him to prevent him from standing back up.

Subway fights are ugly. The narrow floor is soaring underground, and the option to escape is limited and precisely timed. The shouts and jeers are joined by the scream of metal on track. For an excruciatingly long minute, all I see are faces and curledup fingers, and then hear a string of inaudible words mixed in with chink. This isn't the first time I've been called this, and it won't be the last. Sometimes it's from the mouths of whites, Latinos, even kids. This time, it's from a rowdy group of young black men. And this time, we are surrounded and alone. The other passengers-tired workers and old women with their bundles-look away, unable to help.

Then surprisingly, someone does.

He's part of the group, standing farther away and watching quietly. He looks older and bigger than the rest. With one arm holding Ben down, and my other arm pushing off the others, I look up at him and our eyes lock for a fleeting moment. That's all it takes. His massive body plunges down the floor, and he grabs his friend by his T-shirt and slams him against the door. "If you touch them," he hisses. "I'll fucking kill you." He presses him harder against the door. "I'll fuck you up right here."

The crowd backs off. The teen, still scowling, tries to cool down. "Chill, he's just a Chinaman," his friends say, loudly. "He's just a chink, don't pay him no mind." The train stops, and as quickly as they surrounded us, they disappear through the open subway doors. The other passengers stare at their feet-ashamed of us and of themselves. The subway lurches on, its familiar rumble joined by a crackled announcement and the rattle of a panhandler's cup.

"Good thing I meditate," Ben says softly, turning to me with a tired half-smile. My arm is still draped over his chest, my other hand over his. That's the thing about subways. It's not about the final destination, but how we manage to get there all in one piece. And before I can respond, the subway screeches to our stop.

Kai Ma is a writer and reporter living in New York City.


At 7:30 a.m. I arrived on the Aobadai station to a burred swarm of dark suits and ties, bumping and elbowing their way to the front of the platform. Pushing my way through the barrage of newspaper-carrying businessmen, I checked the hanging green sign to make sure that I was headed the right way toward downtown Tokyo. Barely a month into my new life in Japan, I frantically chewed away at my chocolate almond Pocky, eagerly awaiting my first day of work. I'd never seen a station packed like this, from platform edge to the station wall, even on opening game days when I would take BART up to the Oakland Coliseum. Surely, we couldn't all fit.

At 7:35 a.m. the train arrived, perfectly on time. Being stuck in the back, I didn't mind having to wait for the next train, which would come five minutes later. Maybe I could get a seat, I reasoned. However, once the doors slid open, reality bitch-slapped away all my wishful thinking. I was instantly catapulted forward with the force of everyone behind me, losing grip of my tasty breakfast. Suddenly I was part of a larger organism, with no control over my movements, the 8th and 9th legs of a centipede snaking around the train to find room.

Taking small quick steps, I had to keep moving to avoid falling on my face. I landed firmly squeezed between two Japanese businessmen, one reeking of cheap cologne and cigarettes. I was then spun around in a complete circle, pushed forward and then thrown back harder. Bending my knees to absorb the impact, I found my ass squashed up against a soft tan leather briefcase. I had little doubt that my butt cheeks, now firmly implanted, would darken the light tan color with two oval imprints. I hoped he'd appreciate all the time I'd spent running stadiums.

A slim elderly lady no more than 5 feet tall slipped through the crowd in front of me. Trying to get behind me, she lowered her head and proceeded to ram me in the stomach. Each time the top of her head collided with my belly she pulled back just an inch or two in order to pound me once again. Unable to move, I stood there with raised eyebrows and an open jaw, paralyzed with shock, wondering if she was mentally ill or just part of a culture I did not yet understand. After four or five hits she increased her velocity twofold.

When it seemed like no one else could squeeze onboard, station workers with white gloves and light grey bellhop-like uniforms came storming. With each one manning an entrance, they used their backs to push everyone in. The movement flung my assailant to another corner. As the train departed, I was securely imprisoned, hands glued to my side like a soldier awaiting orders. Resistance would be futile.

Scouring the train for a system map, I turned my head and ended up hitting my face against the pole. Up to this point I had thought that living in Japan would be a breeze. With a large red bump on my forehead, I was now marked as a just another hapless tourist, a culture shock victim who didn't have a clue. The ringing in my head only signaled the many bouts of miscommunication, frustration and downright insanity that was to follow.

After avoiding further attacks by elderly Japanese women, Calvin Shih came back to the San Francisco Bay Area and currently works as a research monkey in commercial real estate in San Francisco.


Back of the bus.

Such a loaded phrase, from Rosa Parks to the bum shitting his pants to the mean girls calling everyone and everything bitch.

What am I looking at bitch?

I'm looking out the window bitch.

Who do I think I am bitch?

I am Pete Townsman bitch. Yes, I know that sounds like Pete Townsend, and don't ask me who that is.

The fat lady.

Such a loaded phrase, such a loaded dress. She's oozing out, gravy dripping off the plate. Every bus has a fat lady, and you'll find her reading some religious pamphlet or romantic novel. If God had great pectoral muscles and rode a horse, they could make one super-book and save on the ink.

"Can you please stop?" the fat lady asks.

This was not a good idea. The girls let her have it. Some responses are eloquent, "Bitch your ankles are popping out of your shoes!"

Some are rhetorical, "Bitch you think I give a shit bitch?"

Some are haiku, "ho/ass/bitch."

I look out the window. The sidewalk is spotted with the sticky constellation of gum spots. Every spot marks an incident where a chewed piece of gum either dropped or flew out of its host's mouth. Look closely: each piece is a nude contorted into an uncomfortable pose, embedded into the cement landscape.

Every bus has a boy scout. This one wears penny loafers and beige slacks. He's a clean-cut finance guy who has no reason being on the bus. One suspects he may be picking up his BMW from the mechanics.

"Come on guys, that's not cool," he says.

Throw in half a dozen more bitch this bitch that from the girls. He exits the bus at the stop. Before the back door closes, one girl rushes to the door and throws her super-sized Coke at him. It splashes all over him as the bus rolls away.

This time I look over, leaning my face into a whirlwind of bitch.

Who am I bitch? What the fuck do I want bitch? What am I looking at bitch?

I'm looking at how sad we are, all of us on this slimy thing as it throws up black exhaust with a cough so sick it rattles the windows.

I'm looking at your tight jeans and the mounds that contribute to their contour.

I'm looking at the words written on the ass to entice boys who will love you deeply for one night in your girlhood bed, the hope-filled glitter on your eyelids, and the paintings of little palm trees on your fingernails. Each tree is different and I'm reminded of little islands, like your fingers, and a time when all people had their own island. But the bad people came to an island that was not theirs and stole its people away. Now there is anger, a deep wet pool that will beat out the staring sun.

Tonight you hold him lightly by the waist as he thrusts back and forth, his passion short lived yet without doubt as he releases his child into you. This child will climb out, scratching its nails against the walls and into the world we unwittingly share.

The crying the fat lady does tonight will be the only thing left unbroken.

Jimmy Chen's work has appeared in McSweeney's and Failbetter, among others. He lives in San Francisco.


It was one of those moments you wish you could do over and say the right thing. I did not expect an attractive Asian woman to try to sit in my lap. Certainly not in a subway car in Bonn, Germany.

I'd been anxious over a lost steno pad, which contained notes on my vacation through Germany's Rhine-Ruhr region. I'd discovered it missing at the end of a day of sightseeing. Retracing my steps all over Bonn had proven unsuccessful. There was nothing left to do but wait until the museums opened the next morning and try my luck with the lost and found. I'd have to go early as I was due to leave for Frankfurt before noon.

My vacation had begun over a week ago in Wuppertal. One of the key features of this small city is its overhead light rail system, which was built in 1901 and is best described as an inverted monorail, with the tracks, motors and wheel above the cars. Unfortunately, the system was closed for maintenance while I was there.

Between Wuppertal and Bonn, I visited a string of cities crowded along the Rhine River. One of them, Essen, had a maglev exhibition that I wanted to see. "Maglev" is short for magnetic levitation, a technology that uses electromagnetic force to propel the train and suspend it above the track. The German system is the most developed in the world. It's also frightfully expensive, which is why there's only one operational maglev system in the world-in Shanghai. (Ironically, Germany only has a test track and has yet to build a commercially operated line.)

The maglev exhibition was located next to a convention center, which was holding a shopping fair. The subway ride was packed with shoppers so I stood in the aisle and hung onto the overhead railing. At one point I released my grip from the rail to check my watch. At that moment, the train swept around a tight curve and dumped me in the lap of a woman sitting nearby. I spluttered an apology and stood back up, embarrassed. Had I been able to speak German better, I would have explained to her that this kind of fall was rare for me, that I'd already ridden that same year on two light rail systems (Salt Lake City's Trax and Boston's T) without incident.

Nearly a week later, it would be my turn. So there I was, riding on the Bonn subway, worrying about my lost notepad. I'd taken the forward most seat in the forward most car; it was by itself along the wall. Soon after I boarded, two women got on and headed in my direction. I'd seen them before, somewhere around town. One was east Asian and her companion looked to be Latina or Middle Eastern. The Asian had attracted my eye: probably in her late 20s, with even features, shoulder-length hair, no makeup and a potentially proportional physique (the fall coat she wore obscured an accurate assessment).

But at that moment on the subway, both of our minds were elsewhere. She and her friend hurried to sit down before the train started moving again. As the friend sat down near me, the Asian woman lowered herself onto my seat. Feeling something underneath her, she sprang back up in surprise. She muttered an apology and sat down next to her friend. Deep in thought, my response was feeble.

Thinking back on the incident, I regret the way things turned out. Obviously, what I should've done was to have seized her hips as she descended onto my lap, and held on for dear life.

Theodric Feng has ridden mass transit throughout Germany and over a dozen cities in North America, plus a few other places. He used to do an Asian American radio show in Washington, DC.

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