Here’s a crime story you likely didn’t hear about. It happened in the New York City subway. But it is not the hate-filled crime that matters as much as the response to it by a group of total strangers who happened to file into a particular subway car on a wintry-cold Saturday night.
As the subway doors whooshed shut and riders settled into their seats one after another spotted the vile graffiti splayed throughout the car. A silent shock set in. A black marker had been used to deface the Plexiglas-framed subway maps displayed throughout the car. The ugly scrawls appeared on windows and doors as well.
“Jews belong in the oven,” read one ugly message. Another proclaimed, “Destroy Israel, Heil Hitler.” And swastikas – that instantly recognized symbol of pure evil – punctuated the entire space.
The crime was not reported to police, there were no TV cameras around to capture what happened next. Only the Facebook posts by two of the passengers memorialized the citizen’s brigade that instantly formed to erase the indignity,
Gregory Locke, 27, a young lawyer with a New York City law firm and Jared Nied, 36, a sous chef at a trendy downtown French Bistro snapped a few quick photos with their cell phones and then got to work.
“The train was silent as everyone stared at each other, uncomfortable and unsure what to do,” Locke wrote later on his Facebook page. “One guy got up and said, ‘Hand sanitizer gets rid of Sharpie. We need alcohol.’”
That man was Jared Nied who told me that at his restaurant, “We usually use the first aid wipes or vodka” to erase Sharpie ink, “but I realized hand sanitizer would work just as well.”
Immediately this train full of strangers — male and female, young and older, black, white, Hispanic and Asian — came together to make things right. This being cold and flu season the solution was close at hand. Bottles of Purell appeared from purses and pockets along with mounds of tissues.
The photos captured both the horrid scribbles as well as the Good Samaritans who smeared sanitizer onto the offensive spots and scrubbed until they disappeared. Chef Nied, who posted a close-up of the “Destroy Israel” graffiti, said there were about 40 people inside that subway car.
“Pretty much everybody helped in some way or another,” he said, “If not actually scrubbing, then offering tissues or Purell or pointing out graffiti that we had missed.” He told me they got the entire car cleaned in “less than five minutes.”
Lawyer Locke took a picture of Nied, still bundled up in his winter parka, studiously rubbing out the phrase, “…belong in an oven.” Other photos showed other riders pitching in too.
Later, still flush from the event Nied wrote me, “Never in a million years did I think anybody would record my moment … I’m honestly not sure what to say other than that I was just doing the right thing, the thing that needed to be done.”
Locke’s Facebook post that night included some of the sparse conversation from inside the subway car.
“’I guess this is Trump’s America,’ said one passenger. No sir, it’s not,” Locke wrote. “Not tonight and not ever. Not as long as stubborn New Yorkers have anything to say about it.”
Note that even though anti-Semitism has been around for centuries and our 45th president has grandchildren being raised in the Jewish faith so many of us automatically resort to the political blame game at every affront. This isn’t any one person’s America! It belongs to all of us and it is what we – collectively – make of it.
Oh, how I wish a sky full of sanitizer could drench us all and erase the ugliness of our times, saturate away all those pithy, partisan barbs so many toss at those who hold differing viewpoints. These misplaced snipes do no common good. They only sow more discontent and anger. It is such a destructive cycle.
I’m betting that the young African American woman captured in a photo wearing white mittens and rubbing hate off the subway window that night had little idea about the political leanings of anyone in that subway car. Politics didn’t matter at that moment. The riders found a common enemy in the bigot who had been there before them and instinctively attacked it – together.
It is odd to me that in a country birthed upon the ideals of equality, freedom of thought and expression we have become so divisive, so intolerant of each other. These days we are less “the United States of America” and more “the United States of Squabble.” By all means, protest an issue but make sure it is something concrete and not just a perceived problem.
The lesson we could take away from what happened inside that speeding subway train on a wintry-cold February night is profound. Working together Americans can do just about anything.