Standing Up to Strangers

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“You’re the asshole here, not me!” a stranger yells at me.

I open my mouth to yell back, but I stop myself. Instead, the righteous anger boiling up in me abruptly dissipates. I’m a pot on a burner twisted fully on, but with that comment, she’s just knocked my lid off. The entire subway car is looking at us. Is she right? Am I the asshole here? A few moments before I’d raised my voice to her, I alone the single person on this subway car willing to stand up to her transgression. That’s what happened right?

I look around at the other commuters I thought I was defending, and as they all turn away to avoid my gaze, I consider that, somehow, I might be wrong and that she might be right. You know, about me being the asshole here. Then I look at the kid in the stroller she’s pushing. She’s got a kid. So, yes, that makes me undeniably, incontrovertibly, definitionally the asshole here.

Let me explain how I got to the point of yelling at a woman with a young kid in a stroller, and thinking I was doing the Right Thing by doing so.

I internalized the imperative of standing up to strangers when they’re acting like jerks from my parents. My mother is a compassionate United Methodist Christian, but she also has whatever gene it is that makes people throw buckets of red paint onto socialites wearing fur coats on opening night at the opera. She hasn’t actually done that (that I know of) but she did once throw a lit cigarette into someone’s car.

It happened during a particularly dry Colorado summer when the wildfire warning was on high alert. I watched with awe and horror from the backseat of our Ford Aerostar minivan as she put the transmission into park at a red light, got out, ran up to the car in front of us, picked up the still burning cigarette the driver had just flicked out onto the street (not the bushes on the side of the road, but the street itself), and threw the smoldering butt back into the car from whence it came. Words were exchanged. I couldn’t hear what was said exactly, but I could guess the gist. When she got back in the car, I felt a swirl of both embarrassment and admiration for what my mother had just done. She composed herself, staring straight ahead until the would-be forest arsonist drove off.

My father, a shy man who believes in hard work and not making a scene, would never shy away from making a scene if he felt the call to moral action. Once, while on a flight to a family vacation to Disney World — a first and one time occurrence for our family — a pair of businessmen continued their conversation at full volume while the flight attendant explained the emergency procedures. My dad tapped one of them roughly on the shoulder and chided him, “Excuse me, could you please shut up? I’m trying to learn how to keep my kids alive in the event of an emergency landing.” Shocked, the man whose shoulder he tapped turned to face my father. The stranger saw something behind my dad’s bespectacled face that he decided he didn’t want to press. He quietly turned forward and they put their conversation on pause.

In each of these examples, of which there are many, you might notice that the response is a few notches more intense than necessary for the offense in question. I have carried on this part of my family’s crime-fighting tradition. I think we respond in the way we do (i.e. disproportionately) because we actually hate confrontations, yet feel compelled to confront. Our shy personalities hold back what could be just a polite volley of a request, which in turn causes us to compress with fury at the unfairness of the injustice we’re witnessing, a fury which builds and builds until we have no choice but to let it burst forth as a full on verbal firebombing.

That’s right, there will be no Kitty Genoveses when we’re around, even if it means a few people’s feelings get hurt in the process, or even if it means it embarrasses anyone we happen to be out with in public. And while I have intervened in physical altercations on the streets of New York City a few times during the last decade of living here, more often than not my moments of vigilantism take the form of telling someone they’re being, in my not-so-humble opinion, inconsiderate.

“Excuse me, this is a one-way bike lane.”

“Excuse me, the line starts here.”

“Excuse me, let people off the subway car before you get on.” This is the rebuke I deliver to strangers with the greatest frequency, and with the most noble conviction in my voice when I do.

Sometimes, the vindication is immediate and sweet. The perpetrator will apologize and I, in all my generous grace, will deign to accept their apology. Other times, though the degenerate remains unrepentant, other bystanders will thank me for my intervention. Well, they won’t say the words, “Thank you for your intervention,” but I can tell by the look on their face that they too are happy the sneaky latecomer got in the back of the line where they belong, and even happier that there was someone else around brave enough not to be a bystander.

Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

And so, about a year ago, rather than be a bystander, my moral compass directed me to yell at a mother with her kid on the subway.

It was rush hour on a packed L train. I was headed home after work and, having managed to snag a seat, was looking forward to settling in and reading for the next thirty minutes. I stared at my Kindle, trying to zone out the scrum of stress around me.

“What a bunch of fucking assholes!” said a stressed-out voice from the scrum.

I looked up at the woman who’d yelled the accusing profanities. She was in her late twenties, around my same age. She was angry. She was angry at me. Not me specifically (not yet, anyway), but I was a part of her undirected, diffuse anger. This in turn made me angry. What had I done to deserve this anger? It felt unjust.

“Nobody offers me a seat? You fucking assholes!” So she wasn’t mad at everybody on the train. She was mad at the smaller subset of seated people on the train. That included me. This was getting personal. I felt even more defensively angry. What had I and my fellow sitters done to deserve this wrath? Was nobody going to stand up to this libel, to these false accusations?

She looked around wildly, like she was waiting for someone to confront her but knew that nobody would. I can’t say if at this point I comprehended that she was a mother with a young child in a stroller, and that the nice thing to do would be to offer her a seat. It’s what many people do. It’s what I usually do, but I didn’t consider that I could just do that — offer her my seat — and defuse the situation. Instead, it was clear what course of action I had to take. I had to stand up to the stranger who was acting like a jerk.

“If you would have just asked nicely, I’m sure anybody on here would have gladly given you their seat,” I said. Actually, that’s not true. That’s what I meant to say, but I didn’t get all of it out before she interrupted me. Instead, our actual exchange went like this:

“If you would have—”

“Was I fucking talking to you, asshole?” She lasered her rage directly at me. For a moment, I was stunned into silence, but I recovered.

“Actually, yes, you were talking to me. You called me an asshole!” I said.

“You are an asshole!” she yelled.

“I’m not an asshole! I would have given you my seat if you would have just asked. Just ask for a seat!” I yelled back.

“Fuck you, you fucking asshole!”

“If you treat other humans like humans they’ll treat you like a human back!” I really yelled that. I yelled at a stranger a sentence that used the word “human” three times.

“Don’t you fucking talk to me in front of my kid, asshole!”

So by this point I must have known, even if I somehow had not noticed before, that she had a kid with her. I mean, she just said it out loud, plus the kid was right there in the stroller, a couple feet away from me. Having been reminded of the child’s presence, I should have apologized and just let it be. I did not.

“It’s not nice to get on a train and start calling people you don’t know assholes!” I screamed.

“I’m not calling anyone else on the train an asshole but you, asshole!” she screamed back. When I screamed it was clear that I was on the verge of completely losing control of myself, while somehow she was able to scream with poise. Whatever our stupid argument was about, based on performance alone she was winning.

“You’re being rude!” I stammered, grasping for an edge.

“I’m being rude? Then how come nobody else here is coming to your side, huh?” I waited for someone else to come to my side. This moment would have been a great moment for someone to come to my side. The perfect moment for that, really. Nobody did. Me and my 200-beats-per-minute heart rate were all alone.

I didn’t know what else to say. She, on the other hand, was not out of things to say.

“You’re the asshole here, not me!”

Her words hung in the air as I looked around at the other passengers pointedly looking away from us. I was not a hero standing up to a stranger. At best, I was one of two crazy people making a car full of people’s commute home slightly more grating than usual. At worst, I was a jerk yelling at a mom in front of her kid.

Since I’d failed miserably at standing up to a stranger, I tried to change tacts. I stood up for a stranger.

“Look, sorry,” I mumbled as I got up. “Here, take my seat.”

“I don’t want your fucking seat, asshole!” she replied.

She didn’t take the seat. I didn’t sit back down. Nobody else took the seat. “Fucking asshole,” she kept saying, not under her breath so much as just with her breath. Her kid remained quiet and calm during the entire exchange, like this wasn’t that big a deal to him. Or her. I don’t remember. I do remember that the kid had straw-blonde hair, like his/her mother.

I looked down at the Kindle in my hand — yes, I was holding a fucking Kindle while I was yelling at a woman with a kid — and I saw that my hand was shaking. I felt stupid and mean.

The subway doors opened and I moved to get off, even though it wasn’t my stop. As I was trying to step out, some people from the platform shoved their way onto the packed train, bumping into me as they did. I kept my mouth shut.

Nate Dern is a senior writer at Funny Or Die. His first book, Not Quite a Genius, a collection of stories and essays, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2017.

Standing Up to Strangers