Did I look like easy prey as I was rushing to work? I must have. He targeted me the moment I sat down. Unaware of him at first, I sat down and took out my iPod to listen to music on the way uptown.
As the express five train left the hustle of Manhattan on a beautiful summer day and moved above ground heading into the South Bronx where I supervised a team treating at-risk children and families, I noticed how empty the train was. Thinking how strange this was for an 8 AM morning commute, I counted just three people, including me, in my subway car.
Everything seemed quieter than usual. A tall man with a white shirt and black shorts who was sitting across from me stood up, preparing to get off as we approached the next stop. I watched his clean white sneakers move towards the exit. But at that moment, they didn’t seem to be walking closer to the door. He had veered off in an almost imperceptible way. His white sneakers now pointed at me and at that moment I knew. I just knew he was going to do something to me.
In the millisecond between realizing this and his body lunging at me, I tightened my grip on my bag and leaned over, my shoulders and body hunched forward in a self-protective position. He charged at me, grabbing the bag and attempted to rip it off of my lap. I fought back, my hands clamped down on the purse straps with iron clad fists, refusing to relinquish it as his large hands continued to yank at my bag. In that moment, as we engaged in this bitter fight, everything just stood still. The subway seemed to freeze, the lights, the noise, the song that was still playing on my iPod, the bright sunshine outside, all of it was just frozen.
Seconds later, I was abruptly jilted back to reality. The tall angry mystery man and I were still fighting and with my heart racing and fists still clenched, a voice in my head kept saying “just hold on.” Then the lights, sunshine and subway noise came back, the conductor calling out the next stop in that garbled, you-can-never-really-understand-what-they-are-saying kind of way. The wheels were coming to a slow stop as we approached the next station. This guy had to decide how long he will struggle with me. Will he escalate and hit me? Will he run away?
He must have determined, with a new subway stop so close, that it was too risky to keep fighting with me since more people would board at any second. The only other person in the subway car looked up and finally saw what was happening and began screaming. The train stopped, the doors swung open, and he flew out like a speeding bullet.
“Asshole!” I screamed as he sped away. He disappeared into the subway platform, crowded with dozens of people, faster than I could even process what had just happened. The next wave of people got on, filling up the subway car as the humid air drifted on to the train.
I sat, frozen, for the rest of the ride to work, almost missing my stop, with my body still hunched forward over my bag. The moment replayed over and over in my mind, as I sat in disbelief.
And I wondered, what would I do if the subway ever stood still like that again?
When I told my best friend what happened, she was alarmed. “What if he had a gun or if he punched you?” she asked. “Maybe you should have just let him have your bag.”
Yes, all of that could have happened. But in that adrenaline filled, fight-or-flight moment, when someone lunged at me, my first reaction was to fight back. It probably shouldn’t have been — most experts agree that if someone grabs your purse, you’re better off letting it go rather than risk your life for something easily replaceable — but I’m less interested in how I acted than why.
It was my instincts (those fleeting feelings that all of us, myself included, have at some point dismissed as “I am just being paranoid”) that seemed to whisper to me in that split second when I saw his shoes turned slightly in my direction, tipping me off that something about this man was amiss. It happened so fast, that in an instant I went from disinterested observer to defensive protagonist.
When it comes to listening to our momentary instincts, we are habitually skeptical of quick insight because we have been taught that it is more effective to deliberate and collect information in order to make sound decisions and react appropriately to our surroundings. The conditioned belief that things are invalid or unreliable when they appear in an inexplicable spur of the moment is why we often dismiss our intuition. Things that we can’t explain convincingly with logic, science or facts often end up being disregarded as erroneous.
There is no factual explanation as to why a random man’s white sneakers, turning ever so slightly in my direction as he exited the train, tipped me off to his intentions, but they just did. It was as if those shoes were revealing to me that something was about to happen.
In many facets of our lives, a weighted analysis does lead us to the right conclusion, but in matters of safety or possible danger, these quick electric signals are exactly what we need to listen to. The very nature of the fact that they tend to be quick and while seemingly coming out of nowhere should lend them more credence, not less.
Trusting these instincts in times of distress forces us to acknowledge a terrifying reality: Danger may be imminent and our reflexive response is often to discredit or downplay that feeling. As much as we see crime on the news and know that violence is prevalent in our culture, we often try to reassure ourselves that it is less likely that these things will ever happen to us, we feel an unspoken sense of trust in the universe that we will somehow stay safe, and when we are confronted with something that shatters that illusion, we may inadvertently undermine it.
I’m not talking about the sort of instincts that come from judging others based on the color of their skin or the way they dress. I’m talking about the indeterminate tingle in your gut. The part of your brain the buzzes when you realize you’re being watched.
Had I second guessed myself that day or stopped to contemplate my feelings, this incident may have played out far worse. By trusting in them, I was able to respond and fight back, shocking my attacker who thought he had blindsided me.
In many ways, our split-second instincts appear in different scenarios as our own personal emergency broadcast system, and we should trust ourselves enough to pause and listen.
I’ll never ignore those short-lived “whispers” again, especially in those moments when I least expect something to happen. Not even on a beautiful, sunny, summer day on the uptown train.