I Need to Stop Trying to Dole Out Street Justice

I’ve taken the New York transit safety motto "If you see something, say something" very seriously -- maybe somewhat stupidly.



May 1, 2012 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

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This is how I look, in my head.

I’m probably going to get stabbed one day.

I don’t want to get stabbed, of course, but I also don’t want to shut up. I’ve taken the New York transit safety motto "If you see something, say something" very seriously -- maybe somewhat stupidly.

 I have trouble knowing when to be quiet and not dole out what I think of as verbal vigilantism, even though it's probably putting me in an amount of danger that doesn't justify the risk.

I live in New York and take public transportation, which can be a constant proving ground for knowing whether to speak up or keep quiet -- whether it's a your standard late night too-drunk person, or creep or horrible parent. A few months ago, I was waiting on the subway platform at 42nd Street and Broadway where an older, sad-looking violinist was being yelled at by three women. 

As the violinist packed up her gear, I approached and asked her, "Why did you stop playing?" 



She shrugged, "Because they yelled at me to stop."



"Do you have a permit to perform in the subway?" I asked. She said she did.

 "Then you have every right to play without being bullied."



That’s when the leader of the bully trio approached me and demanded, "Why don’t you mind your own business?"



To which I replied "Why? You didn’t mind yours."



This lady, not a fan of my logic, yelled, "I paid her to shut the fuck up!"



"Can I pay you to shut the fuck up too?"

 I asked, clearly not a fan of keeping my bones unbroken.

Thankfully, one of her pals helpfully decided to hold her back, whispering to me "You don’t want to mess with her; she’s crazy."



Well, clearly. So why did I feel like it was OK, or safe, to intervene? That's when I realized that perhaps I’m a little uhinged, too. Why else would I get involved and get myself into potential danger all the time? It's a problem.

Most people have the sense, or the reasonable amount of politesse, just to be privately annoyed when they see a lunatic harrassing a busker.  It doesn't do any good, but for some reason, I have trouble keeping myself from doling out street justice all the time. It's like I'm an incredibly stupid, useless superhero.

When it's a kid, it's especially hard not to say something. Recently, I was on the train when a woman and her very young son were selling candy. A man politely very politely said "No thank you" to his sales pitch, and the kid actually started talking back and calling him names, to the point where an elderly woman and I both suggested he knock it off.  The kid left and returned a few minutes later, pointed to me, and said, "She’s the one who yelled at me."

As my elderly sidekick could physically not hear what was happening, I don't blame her for literally turning her back on the fight.

"Who the hell are you to reprimand my son?" she demanded.

I replied, "Who are you not to?"

Had she not been holding a Jamba Juice, I’m sure I would have been dead. This kind of thing ought to teach me to be quiet, but it doesn't. 

I’ve questioned the motive of my actions often. Am I hoping for some kind of glory, or pat on the back?

Whether it's been defending a middle-school classmate to no effect or calling out public masturbators, I did not get glory -- I get yelled at or nearly beaten up. Although I know it's dangerous, and that I should probably stop, part of me is glad that I involuntarily react this way -- that I just can’t resist pointing out when someone is being an unfair jerk.

My boyfriend always tells me, "Don’t try to argue with stupid," and I agree. Is butting into a fight and waving my finger going to make a bully change his ways? Eh, probably not. But maybe. Maybe he will want to knock my teeth out, but maybe this is one thing that will embarrass him into doing something different. Perhaps it’s that’s tiny possibility that makes me unable to stop speaking up.

There are a lot of these times when things aren't "serious" enough to merit going to the authorities, and who will speak up, if not caring citizens?



But I do need to be smart about when, where and how we do it. After that violin player incident, I walked to the other end of the subway station to avoid further confrontation. I was shaking with rage and fear, but had the clarity to realize I can’t fight three angry drunk women.

When I got on the train,  the leader of the trio ran up to the doors as they were closing. "Have a nice day bitch!" she yelled.

I  smiled and waved, grateful for the doors.