I was standing on the subway platform Friday afternoon, looking forward to the weekend. It started out as a normal commute home. As the train came into the station it was packed with fellow commuters. I know just where to stand to be next to the doors when the subway stops. My station is a transit point between three lines so there are always a lot of people exiting and getting onto the train.
When the doors opened two people stood just inside the car clogging the exit points. And they refused to move, leaving less than a foot for the multitudes exiting. You might remember I’ve given great thought to this problem and outlined my own plan for helping to alleviate this self-centered phenomenon.
I usually think to myself “why don’t these people just move outside the doors and let everyone else off?” But instead, I crossed life’s invisible boundary into the otherworld of human behavior and, without thinking, said out loud: “Why don’t you guys move out and let these people off.”
One of the perpetrators was a young man in his twenties, well-dressed and holding a bouquet of flowers. He turned to me and started yelling vile expletives. Surrounded by my fellow commuters I was both embarrassed and shocked. Before opening my mouth I had done a quick survey of the wrongdoers, neither of whom looked huge or threatening. (The guy was holding flowers!) I did not foresee this happening.
I’ve been watching HBO’s 5th season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, written by and starring the originator of Seinfeld, Larry David. When I describe the show to the uninitiated I simply say “It’s Seinfeld on steroids.” Like the original sitcom’s character George Castanza, Larry says things we might think but would never act upon. He is oblivious to their consequences.
I laugh at the situations he gets himself into. But it’s a nervous laugh. The show straddles a very fine line of reality. What starts out as a normal, albeit tense interaction, tumbles out of control. Actually, it weaves back and forth across this psychological border often, producing a highly charged energy that is far from relaxing. It’s theater but I can picture myself getting too close to this edge in my own life. Had I just crossed into this world under the streets of Washington?
Luckily, I am a fast thinker (the result of growing up in a bizarro family where I had to learn to verbally protect myself at a moment’s notice). I replied to the dorker (Metro’s term for a door hog), “I hope the person you’re giving those flowers to treats you better than you have treated me.” On the commute home I thought of better replies but considering the moment I gave myself a pat on the back for a good comeback. He was silent.
As I entered the car I looked more closely at him and was shocked a second time to discover he was wearing a yarmulke or “keepa” (Hebrew for this religious skullcap). Not only was he Jewish but his supposed devotion to our religion seemed to exceed mine. His moral standards should have towered over me. How could one of my “own” treat another that way –treat ME that way?
I was immediately taken back to the 3rd grade when I met my first Jewish bully, Sidney Minz (my apologies, Sid, if you grew up to be a well-adjusted person). I remembered how astonished I was to encounter a fellow Jew who was mean. I had mistakenly assumed that all Jewish people were kind (an attempt by my young mind to identify and feel attachment to the group I’d been assigned to at birth).
When I sat down I pretended to read my novel while ruminated about this encounter. I looked up ever so discretely to take a closer look at my antagonist. I saw him furtively glance my way. I looked down while thinking of the ultimate retort.
In a situation like this, when you don’t actually know the person, context is important. I went with what I knew. What would be the best reply to a devout Jew with a questionable character? I chose an intelligent riposte with just a hint of guilt: “When you wear that keepa you represent all of us. You should be ashamed of yourself.” Simple and to the point, it had the added bonus of letting him know he had transgressed against a fellow Jew. And my paternal admonition would remind him of his father, or better yet, his mother. Perfect.
Larry, however, would have taken a much more direct approach. Crossing the line, he would have made his way to the young man who by now was at the other end of the subway car: “At Yom Kipper I will forgive you,” he would say. The ultimate Jew-to-Jew comeback. The next scene you would see him sitting down at High Holiday services only to notice the rabbi standing at the pulpit was this same young man with flowers.
If the line in my life moves just ever so slightly it could happen just like that.
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