Last summer I had an encounter with a skinhead on the 1 train in New York City.
My partner and I were headed uptown—back to the little, lightless, roach-infiltrated Upper West Side studio we had creatively spun into a mildly cozy, albeit temporary, home. I was in the middle of two demanding and exhilarating months, making challenging off-Broadway theater. I was also having the worst period cycle of my entire 29-year existence, complete with the kind of violent, seizing megacramps that remind me that soldiers are exploding, children are starving, salmon is an endangered species, and the earth is burning and melting all at once. I should have been thrashing in bed all night, but I had no understudy. As they say, the show must go on.
On the humid night I met the racist skinhead, I had been on stage for hours playing a haunted, brooding, sexy, defiant rock star. My voice was hoarse from singing my guts out. My muscles ached from the fast-paced dance moves. Knowing that I was in a state that demanded tender escort, my partner picked me up after the show.
The train we boarded was packed and rancid. We sat across from a rangy white man with a grumpy disposition. He wore dirty, baggy camouflage pants, a military cap, and unlaced combat boots. After a couple of uneventful stops, he began to softly pitch the word waste in my direction.
“You’re a waste,” he said over and over. It sounded like spit. “You’re a waste.”
My cramping uterus caught fire. Flames rose in me like pending volcanic vomit. I had visions of myself hurling fire through him like some sort of antiracist dragon. Bursting into mortal combat. Reaching past his chapped lips into his big mouth to yank out the hate, to squish his wicked, filthy tongue in my hands like a frenzied chef shaping ground beef.
Instead I took a deep breath. I channeled my outrage into a form of meditation. I reminded myself that I am a writer. My job is to observe and to remember. When push comes to shove, memory is my greatest self-defense. I can be a warrior but I would rather be a poet. I think poets live longer.
I challenged myself to make direct eye contact with my rabid and loud-mouthed opponent. At first he seemed delighted by my gall. He raised his eyebrows, managed a smirk, and dared to insult me louder. “You’re a waste of the human genome,” he shouted. The other train passengers froze.
I wasn’t sure if his comment was about race, gender, or my apparent intimacy with another woman, but he was clearly picking a fight. He pulled off his cap to reveal and rub his bold, bald head. I scanned this wannabe monster for clues—proof of a broken inner child, a cracked mind, a shard of humanity. I told myself if I could find his humanity, I wouldn’t have to kick his ass. He started chanting “waste” again. He recited it like a baby who had learned a new word. Like it was the only word he knew.
Stops came and went. The car was mostly quiet. My partner asked me if I wanted to move but I slowly shook my head no. By now, I was totally consumed. And as I assessed him, something in me unexpectedly softened. I noticed his poor posture, his fidgeting hands. The tiny—almost timid—swastika tattoo on his right inner wrist. His dirty, chewed, and bleeding fingernails. His intimidated, wandering eyes.
When I finally registered his countless missing teeth, I thought, surely this skinhead has verbally assaulted strangers before. Surely some of those strangers have instinctively pounced on him. Surely those strangers had cracked his bones and called him “cracker” and perhaps felt justified, righteous, and brave in doing so. Surely they had taken it upon themselves to teach him a severe lesson. And maybe, as he fought or squirmed or pleaded or cursed beneath them, the skinhead secretly rejoiced in their rage because it was attention. Maybe the skinhead felt most worthy and meaningful when he was fighting someone—anyone. Maybe he wasn’t in it for the lesson, but for sucking energy. Maybe he was trying to use me to feel alive.
I refused to be used. I simply didn’t have the energy to spare. I stared at him and eventually his volume grew weaker. He seemed to realize that he could call me “waste” all he wanted and all he would get was a witness. A witness to the hunger, neediness, madness, cowardice, loneliness, and fear he pretended was hate.
Do you know what happened next? The racist skinhead said, “Thank you.” Then he looked away and stopped speaking altogether.
My partner and I got off at 96th Street. We emerged from the bowels of the Big Apple hand in hand—unscathed, if a bit shaken. Later she told me that she and the other train passengers had quietly stared him down too. We had been an army of witnesses. We live to tell the tale.
Lenelle Moïse (www.lenellemoise.com) is a poet, playwright, and performance artist. Excerpted from make/shift (#6), a smart feminist magazine that reflects a lively community of writers, artists, and activists. www.makeshiftmag.com