I was a hero once, years ago, a genuine stereotypical male hero. And it made no sense that I care to think of.
It was a cold day, chill as only a wintry day near Chicago’s lake front can be. So I was layered in a patched and stained down coat over a down vest, topped by an exhausted felt hat that even Phil Harding would have disdained, never mind Indiana Jones. There I was: bulky, shaggy and shabby, all trapped gas and feathers.
It had been a day of errands and by mid-afternoon I was drained and waiting in the Harrison Street subway station for the northbound train for home. The station platform was relatively warm. It was populated, albeit sparsely. I relaxed into something of a stupor.
Screaming. I heard screaming. It was really irritating. So I turned and saw two figures on the ground, struggling on the other side of the platform. The smaller was on top, wearing a hoodie, hood up. A woman below was screaming.
Without thinking anything, I walked over and grabbed the hoodie between the shoulders. I pulled and the cheap seams began to pop and tear. I eased up and the hooded figure began to stand. I yanked back and to my surprise a young lad stumbled, off-balance, back across the platform to fetch up against a pillar.
I turned to face him, impassive, resigned to having my ass kicked, thinking, “At least my health insurance is paid up.” While not a pacifist, I am incompetent at violence.
Instead, the lad hit me with a question. In a wonderful southside Chicago accent, he asked, “Why you do dat fo’?” He was earnest.
It would have been the perfect moment for a sucker punch; I was paralyzed with confusion. Why…? Did he expect me to have helped him instead? Was he concocting an alibi: No, I’m not the mugger, Joe Samaritan here is the one? Why did I tear his hoodie? What did he want to know and why?
Was any of this reflected by my expression? Who knows, but after a moment he asked again, “Why you do dat fo’?” He wanted to know.
Still confused, I had no answer for him. After a moment or two of silence, he looked disgusted, pulled himself from the pillar and walked away.
The college-age woman who had been his victim came up to me then. Thank you thank you thank you was her message. The gratitude didn’t mean much to me; I was still preoccupied by the question. Except I was grateful that she had stuck around. A lot of people in her situation would have made a quick dash for the station exit. I was doubly appreciative when another person finally arrived, a somewhat older 30-something woman who then demanded that I explain what was going on. She clearly thought I was in on whatever it was.
It turned out the lad had been making a violent play for the young woman’s iPod. The older woman was dubious but mollified, mostly by the testimony of the victim. After a few minutes of awkward conversation, the northbound train arrived, at last, without any additional help having come to investigate. We all boarded, but I noticed the older woman steered the younger to a different door.
So: Why you do dat fo’? Should you read this, lad, I dunno. Still. Maybe it was just all the unpleasant noise you two were making. Maybe I don’t like subway assaults. Maybe whatever. But thank you for the question because it is really only the first of a cascade of questions around the semiotics of clothing and how our expectations are warped by perceptions of class and race and gender and the scripts we attach to those things. All of us are objects of these expectations and perceptions and all of us act on them. We can get beyond them — old dogs can learn new tricks — but like most labor-saving devices, they have a tendency to become habitual and invisible.
Lad, your question suggests you, as well as the older woman, perceived me as someone who should approve of what you were doing, at least enough to be indifferent to it. And how did you and the older woman reach that conclusion?
Here I am, Chicago, your walking broken window.