I was heading home, stone cold sober, from my waitressing job in the West Village around three AM. Even now, I have trouble justifying a cab when I’m not exhausted; when I was a brand new broke actress in the city, I took the subway exclusively. I was reading Gregory Maguire’s Son of a Witch, a poorly written attempt to cash in on the commercial success of its predecessor, Wicked, when I smelled a terrible smell. It was a piercing combination of sour body odor and musty mildew; fear and death locked in battle.
Accompanying the smell was a whisper, “I know what you’re thinking. I can read your thoughts. What do I do? What do I do?” It was unnerving, but I felt certain that if I kept reading my book, and ignored them, the voice and smell would turn to another target.
But the voice did not like to be ignored and its owner moved closer to me until his face was right next to mine. When that didn’t work, he stood directly in front of me, moving his right hand repetitively making either the sign of the cross or conducting in four-four time. The face of the owner was as unclean as the odor foretold, his eyes glittered with lunacy, and his split bottom lip was dwarfed by an abscess growing out of its middle.
I thought about getting off the train and trying to get a cab, but was afraid he would follow. I was frozen with terror, convinced that I was powerless to keep this lunatic from tracking me to my apartment and possibly chopping me into little pieces. As panic set in, I heard another voice from across the car, “Miss, would you like to come sit over here?” I looked up to see two of the tallest, non-professional basketball players I have ever seen, rising from their seats and splitting so that I could go sit behind them, which I did as I squeaked out “Yes!”
Then they kicked that guy off the train, and went back to their conversation. I have always depended on the kindness of strangers, but I am especially grateful to those two guys for sticking up for me. As for the crazy guy, he stood at the center of the subway doors as they slowly slid closed, still conducting in slow common time and never taking his eyes off of me.
I learned a lot of lessons that night. I should have stood up to that guy; he was crazy, but powerless. I know now not to freeze at the power of my own imagination. And mostly, I learned to stop reading Gregory Maguire. That guy has really lost his touch.