I had my first taste of New York rage a few days ago. I’d just spent forty-five minutes on the subway to Bay Ridge to look at apartments, now ascending the stairs to the surface in the middle of rush hour. The foot traffic on the stairs was shoulder-to-shoulder, every step at full occupancy. At the very top of the stairs and leaning against the last bit of hand rail was a dude, just standing there leaning, looking at his phone, leaning, standing, against the hand rail, standing, a dude, leaning, a five-foot-eight abandoned sack of laundry. His existence at the top of the stairs against the hand rail created just enough of a choke point to throw the entire flow of the more than two hundred exiting subway passengers into disarray.
Independent of this laundry sack man situation, I, having just climbed a flight of stairs after forty-five straight minutes (and, let’s face it, four straight months) of sitting, exhaled heavily as I weaved around. I exhaled like a not-yet-tied balloon when you unpinch the end, cheeks puffed out and all. “FFFFOOOO.” It was only my heart changing gears, that’s all. But I was in close proximity to the in-the-way guy since he was, after all, in the way. The next thing I knew, HE was exhaling heavily, cheeks puffed like an aborting balloon. I recognized this as mimicry. His breath was too precisely the same as mine in timbre and duration. Mimicry was mockery. From this, I could only infer that he’d interpreted my exhale as a spiteful sigh directed at him for standing directly in the path of hundreds of people on a stairwell. And then he’d thought “How dare he” and retaliated with an equal and opposite sigh, a taste of my own medicine.
The whole awful ordeal of me sighing and then him also sighing played out in two seconds as I passed him, but I spent the next ten seconds processing it, and with each passing second I felt some gland somewhere pumping more and more of a long-dormant chemical into my blood and limbs, some volatile, jittering hormone I’d scarcely tasted since middle school but tasted frequentlyin middle school. I think what got me was the presumption—that there was only one plausible reason that I, an adult man in Brooklyn at rush hour climbing stairs, might sigh: to target him, an innocent bystander, with passive aggression. The proverbial Audacity of This Bitch split me in two, one side so in disbelief that I felt compelled to look back, the other side so unsurprised by this typical, camping-out-on-the-subway-stairs-ass fool behaving like staircase fools do that he hardly seemed more remarkable than the weather (gray and bad). The sum of this was that I started to look back and then stopped, looked forward again, and gave some sincere thought to throwing him down the stairs. Normally I wouldn’t be confident enough in my own physical strength to consider such a thing, but rage can fill in for a lot of deficiencies, and I suspect that’s why it’s so popular. I’m pretty sure that if I’d started on him, I would have thrown him down the stairs. It’s good that I didn’t. Remember that pink ooze in Ghostbusters 2 that looked like the liquid soap you see in gas station bathrooms, that was turning New Yorkers into rage-crazed maniacs ready to tear each other to pieces? Shit’s real. It’s in our glands.
When I stopped by Andy’s place to say my farewells on my way out of California, he gifted us a knife. It’s a fold-up kind so you can conceal it, but it’s bright orange so people can see it a mile away. “The longer you’re in New York,” Andy said, “the more you’re gonna want to use this.” He spoke from experience but also from his own perspective as a defender of righteous violence. I chuckled but also knew I’d only be using the knife for our upcoming camping trips in Utah and Arizona. I intended to resolve any human conflicts peacefully, through abstract metaphor and Groucho humor. “But don’t use it to escalate,” Andy added. “Only use it to deescalate.” I couldn’t picture whatever scenario he had in his head.
I’ve long viewed New York as a gritty utopia, where people of all walks of life, from all corners of the earth, congregate to eat bagels and bitch about the weather (gray and bad). I knew from the outset of this move that that view was likely to evolve over time, but of course you can never anticipate how, otherwise you’d just do the evolving then and there. A month in and we still haven’t used the knife except to open the occasional marshmallow pouch and once to hack a cancerous shoelace down to size. But I will admit that I’ve taken to keeping the knife in my pants pocket and clutching it anytime I’m out and about. My thinking is that if someone tries to mug me, I can quickly pull it out along with the wallet in a single handful, and when they take the wallet from me the folded-up knife will be there in my palm underneath, its textured grip looking like the orange bottom of a sneaker, and the mugger will be hypnotized for a split-second by the unexpected and indistinguishable object in my hand–hadn’t he just taken the contents of my hand?–and during that brief moment I would unfold the knife in a single hand motion I’ve been practicing (they intentionally make them hard to open quickly) and finally stick the unfurled blade in the mugger’s ear or something. Of course I don’t think I’d try anything if the mugger had a gun; you just don’t mess with guns. I like to think that if the mugger and I both had knives, the littlest fencing match would ensue, us taking turns parrying and riposting with our little three-inch blades. But then I always imagine knocking the knife right out of the mugger’s hand and it flying through the air into the cheek of some random New Yorker, who then, in the grip of The Ooze, takes us both out. In the end I always conclude that I probably shouldn’t mess with knives. So I keep it in my pocket like a rosary or omamori, a little amulet to stroke to keep The Ooze down—to deescalate.