The Bloody Stranger

by

01/27/2019

Neighborhood: Midtown, Subway

I moved to this city from Akron, Ohio in August 1971, and by the Summer of 1972, I was starting to wonder if I could actually make it here. I wasn’t earning enough to have my own apartment and still found the pace of the city overwhelming. I was certainly not going to head back home, but it felt as though I would never reach the success I was looking for. I was thinking about all this one day as I stood on the B train. The train had stopped somewhere in midtown. The doors opened and some passengers disembarked and then new passengers got on. The doors stayed open and we sat there. No announcement.

New York in the 1970’s was not a pleasant place to live and, in particular, the subways were a mess. There was oftentimes the pungent smell of urine and vomit that hit you when you stepped onto the platform and the subway cars had no air conditioning. 

All of a sudden a man rushed into the train, stopping behind me and to my left. He was breathing hard and I could just barely see him with my peripheral vision. I thought at first he was homeless, but I couldn’t detect any body odor. There was murmuring behind me, and several people scurried off the train. Others walked swiftly to the other end of the car. To my right, I could see some men looking up at him with concern. One of the men offered him his seat. When have you ever seen that? A man offering another man a seat?  The man who had rushed on to the train walked over cautiously and sat down in the seat. That’s when I noticed two things about him. The first was that he was very, very good looking. Montgomery Clift handsome. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, think of the movie “From Here to Eternity.” Gorgeous! The second thing I noticed is that he was splattered with blood. Drops of blood all over his face. More blood congealing around the neck of his T-shirt. And blood sliding down his arms. He was holding on tightly to his right hand, which was completely covered in blood. This was not a common sight in the middle of the day on a New York City subway. Even I knew that.

“Did you get in a fight?” one of the men asked. The Bloody Stranger nodded briskly. “Well, I hope the other guy looks worse than you.” This comment elicited a few nervous chuckles. Another man offered him his handkerchief, which he took. But he also kept looking anxiously out the window. This behavior made some passengers uncomfortable, and it’s easy to understand why. Perhaps the guy he got into the fight with was going to run into the car and finish him off. So, more passengers left the car, but not me, Dear Reader. You see, when I was a child, my parents would sometimes catch me eavesdropping on their conversation and my mother would scold me, telling me I didn’t need to know everything that was going on in the world. She was wrong. I absolutely do need to know everything and, although I was just a young woman in my 20s, I stood there, keeping my eye on the Bloody Stranger and thinking, what’s the story here?

The answer to my question came from two police officers who rushed into the subway car. They spotted the Bloody Stranger. “Where is it?” they both shouted. One of the cops went over and grabbed his bloody hand that was balled up into a fist. I almost shouted at them, “Be careful, he’s been injured.” The cop pried the Bloody Stranger’s fingers apart, and there, sitting in the middle of his palm, was a large diamond ring sitting on top of a woman’s finger. A very plump finger. Had she resisted and he made the awful decision to slice the finger off?  Or was she struggling to remove the ring and he lost his patience? Whatever the case, there it was. The officer took the finger and handed it to his partner. “Rush this over to Bellevue, they may be able to reattach it …. Come on buddy, you’re going with me,” he said. The Bloody Stranger stood up nonchalantly, as though he’d been arrested before, and was handcuffed. They left the train and the doors closed. Still no announcement. We were stunned for a minute, but then New York City kicked in.

One guy in a camouflage jacket yelled out “I once gave my finger to a cop!” as he shoved his middle finger in the air. The passengers roared. “Shit, I gave that bastard my handkerchief!,” a second man chimed in.  “Call a cop!” another said. The bystanders laughed again. All I could think about was why would such a good-looking man resort to carving off someone’s finger in order to steal her ring? This guy could have walked into any modeling agency and been signed on the spot. What we had just witnessed was horrific, but here were New Yorkers making jokes. Why?  This made no sense to me. As more passengers embarked, they were informed of what they had missed and some folks thought the poor woman had lost her finger on the train, but when informed she had been assaulted on the street and the Bloody Stranger had brought the finger onto the train, someone yelled out “All you need is a token to get on the train. You don’t need no fucking finger!” Screams of laughter.

By the time I got to my stop at 81st and Central Park West, I finally figured out what was going on with those passengers, and their reactions helped me to understand how I could make it in New York. Dear Reader, their laughter was a coping device. You see there’s a lot of crazy shit that happens in this city on a regular basis and you can’t allow it to get to you. Laughing is a way to regain your power over things you can’t control. Shrug it off. Go on about your business. Look the Devil in the eye and spit on him. That’s how you survive the madness that’s often on display in The Big Apple.

As I climbed the steps onto the street, I couldn’t help but think to myself about the city to which I had moved. New York, New York. So nice, they had to name it twice.

***

Donna Bailey was a professional actor for 25 years, in addition to telling true stories in the oral tradition on stage. You can listen to more stories of her wacky life at donna-bailey.com.

image by JR Libby via Wikimedia Commons
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