Originally, I described this incident in an email to a friend. Although he sent it back to me upon request years ago, I lost it somehow. So relying on my memory which is foggy sometimes, here’s the story as I recall.
The train was packed at rush hour in Portland’s downtown shopping district. I was standing in the crowded elbow-to-elbow aisle when somehow, the train’s movement jostled me directly into the ire of a fellow passenger, who was seated next to me.
“You’d better get that thing outta my face,” she yelled at me. I looked around, wondering who had offended her. She pointed at me. “Yeah you, Mr. Big Belly.”
I’m actually a slender fellow, but genetics endowed me with a mid-level protrusion that appears as a basketball under my shirt. I hadn’t felt any contact with that part of my anatomy, so I quickly checked to make sure the barn door was closed. Like any man, I sometimes forget to zip up, and I mortified to think my equipment was peeking out at this woman.
Finding everything okay, I told her I was sorry.
“You sorry all right,” she snorted.
Any decent person, I thought, would have left it there. My apology evidently wasn’t enough. This conversation was being viewed intently by my eight-year-old son Zak, who was separated from me by about seven feet and several other riders. His grandfather kept a hand on him, because I could see the boy’s face beginning to redden. He’s always been a very protective lad, and this woman was picking a fight with his dad.
“Oh yeah,” she continued, “I can see you’re embarrassed. Uh huh. You need to keep that big belly outta my face.”
“Ma’am,” I countered, “I already apologized, even though we never touched.”
“That thing’s still in my face,” she growled.
“Well I’m kinda pinned in. Sorry.”
This still wasn’t enough. She began to berate me, seeming to enjoy my reddening face. By then, Zak had seen enough.
“You leave my Daddy alone, mean old lady!” he shouted at her. Tears of anger stood in his eyes, his jaw was clenched and his fists were balled. He was battle-ready. I made eye contact with my father-in-law, whose grip tightened on my fearless super hero.
“Oh,” she said, sitting up and enjoying herself, “I see your little boy fighting his daddy’s battles, huh? Well you hush up and mind your own business little dude!”
Now, my fellow passengers took notice of the middle-aged bully, who sat in a seat while elderly people stood. Rudeness is rarely ignored in this relaxed city, and our fellow passengers were quickly tiring of her game.
“Hey leave him alone lady,” one piped in. “He said he was sorry, why don’t you just stop?”
“And why don’t you mind your own business, ugly sweater boy?” This woman enjoyed ripping into anyone who dared engage her. A chorus of others objected, but it seemed to fuel her zest.
As she turned to harass me again, Zak ripped from his grandfather’s grasp. He bridged the distance in three steps and would have punched her square in the face, had I not caught him in mid-air.
My poor boy was sobbing with fury. He cursed the woman for attacking his father.
“He’s a nice man you old meanie!” he shouted.
Seeing my sweet son so upset, others on the train began chastising the woman who had started this mess. Rather than have my struggling son duke it out with her, we exited the next stop. As we de-boarded, she was still going at it.
“OOOH, he mad, that little boy! Lookit him go!” She laughed at him and pointed, which only made Zak wrestle even harder. He actually squirmed out of my arms and started back into the train, but I caught him and pulled him back.
Before the train began to move, he raced to the window where she sat and banged his fists against it. I grabbed him and picked him up, turning so he couldn’t see her any more. It took a few minutes to calm him down. I was touched he felt protective of me, but sad that he was so upset. Holding him tight against me, I reassured him we were okay. Gradually, he calmed down and relaxed in my arms, quietly sobbing into my shoulder.
Later that evening, after the boys were in bed and my wife and I sat relaxing with her parents, I wondered what makes people so combative. We were comfortable, relaxed and festive as we enjoyed the cold December evening. We were blessed to be so happily enjoying the holidays together.
Over the next few days, I pondered what had happened. Perhaps, I thought, my assailant had a rougher life than we could imagine. Maybe someone close to her was abusive. Had she a loved one who died over the holidays? As I remembered her worn clothing, I wondered if she even had a home waiting for her. Suddenly I felt guilty for feeling so angry. While I abhor anyone taunting my children, I’d likely never see her again.
Pride can goad us into feeling entitled to retaliate when attacked. Yet I remembered the lesson of turning the other cheek, rather than returning unto others what is dealt us. One introspective evening a few days later, I prayed for this lady, asking that she find happiness in what seemed to be a tortured soul.
Now I drive a bus and see a wide variety of my fellow citizens every day. Whenever there’s a passenger issue, part of me remembers that incident a decade ago, and I look for peace hidden within the turmoil.