Illustration by Russell Christian.
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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
I was on a downtown train at about 2:30 in the afternoon on my way to meet Morgan for a few beers and what would be either a late lunch or an early dinner. I was standing in the middle of the car, not focused on much of anything, not paying attention to anyone around me, just letting my mind drift this way and that.
A man shoved past me on his way down the aisle. It was a little brusque, I thought, but hardly unexpected. Then he stopped, turned and said, "You want a beef, you just go up and ask for it."
At first I had no idea he was talking to me. I also assumed at first that this comment of his had something to do with the availability of free meats somewhere. But then he added, "You got a beef with me, you just come up and say it--don't just stand there givin' me these hard looks across the train like that. You wanna beef? I'll fuckin' murderize your ass in about a second."
Oh, I thought, he is talking to me. It also became clear that meat wasn't the issue. While I wasn't thrilled with the idea of having my life threatened by an angry crazy man on the subway, his use of the word "murderize" warmed my heart.
It wasn't clear what I'd done to set him off. It sounded, though, as if he thought I'd looked at him cross-eyed or something. If I believed for a minute that he would listen, I would've tried explaining why that simply wasn't possible. As it was, I said nothing. Just shrugged at him
"You got a beef with me? Then just come up to me and say something. Say it right out. You don't like me? Well, I don't like you either, motherfucker. I'll stick a knife in you before you know what happened "
I sighed. I recognized him now. I'd heard him on this same train a couple times over the previous weeks. Every time it was the same thing--he'd pick out some poor sap at random, accuse him of some sort of minor offense, then threaten to kill him for the remainder of the ride. Morgan had had a run in with a similar angry crazy man last year. Perhaps most of us have by now.
"C'mon-step up and pick your beef. Be a man--make somebody proud of you for once. C'mon, you want trouble? I'll give you trouble right here and now "
The train stopped, the doors opened, and several people stepped off. I saw that a seat behind my new friend had opened up, so I stepped around him and sat down.
When the doors closed again, he leaned against them and continued lobbing the threats.
"You know what color I am, and I know what color you are, and you know what? I don't like you either. I'm gonna kill you. Believe it. Gonna murderize you, motherfucker "
There he was with the "murderize" again, and I couldn't help but smile. I had visions of a hand grabbing his collar, a fist drawn way back, and the inevitable, Why, I oughtta My smile broadened. He didn't notice, just rolled on.
These situations are always tricky. When you're dealing with an normal angry person--a drunk, say--who's going into a little too much detail about what they're going to do to you and why, you have nothing to worry about. It's always the ones who say nothing that you have to look out for. You never saw that Tomisaburo Wakayama shooting his mouth off, did you? Nossir. He just walked over the hill or into the room and did what he needed to do without any undo extemporizing.
When the angry person is paranoid and nuts on top of it, however, that's when things become more unpredictable. You never know when the straight razor or the gun or the sharpened chopstick was going to slide out of the pocket of his army jacket. In this case, I didn't much think he was going to do anything. He'd never done anything all those other times I'd heard him. He was just a walking flea market of misdirected animosity. But you never know. This time that mythological "hard look" I'd shot at him across the train might just well have pushed him over the edge.
The other night in the bar, Morgan and I were talking to the bartender about conflict resolution. She told us about having to break up fights between drunken 22-year-olds at 3 in the morning and about the time she accidentally cut off an ice cream truck, whose driver flew into a rage and began screaming at her. Both drivers stopped and got out. Instead of swinging at each other with tire irons (as these things are usually settled), our bartender apologized to the ice cream man andsaid it was an accident, and he gave her two quarts of ice cream.
I was somehow under the impression that if I were to say anything at all to this fellow, no matter how soothing and well-modulated, it would simply enrage him further. Besides, I was beginning to find this all fairly entertaining. And the more he jabbered on, the less concerned I became.
"You tell me what your problem is, man, you don't just give me a look like that and think you're all a big man and "
Yes, yes, yes.
Everyone else seated around us seemed as unimpressed as I was. Maybe they'd heard his "kill the white guy" rap before too.
At the next stop, the doors opened and he stepped off. I was at once relieved and a little disappointed. It had sort of been like The Incident, but shorter and stupider.
Time was, scenes like that would've left me flooded with adrenaline and hate, my hands shaking and my eyes glowing with rage and frustration. Now, however, realizing that very little is worth all that, the doors sliding shut were simply another curtain coming down. I felt like applauding.