“City Life” by Harry Kuhn

Fiction based on a true event. Era 1985, approximately.   

Tom looked around the subway car in confusion.  He was unable to understand why none of the dozen men and women sitting about the car appeared to be  paying attention to the scene playing out at the far door, much less intervening.  The four people standing there had captured his attention with their loud talk and wild gestures and his mind raced as he tried to make sense of the situation.  Three male teens taunted a woman who had her back to him.  In a very animated show of contempt they pointed in the woman’s face and laughed with exaggerated abandon.

Tom was new to the city and was on his way to his job in the downtown area.  Everything he saw, from the tall office towers to the ethnic neighbourhoods with their varieties of sounds and smells, was interesting to him in a curious way, but this event was like nothing he had seen before. The other passengers on the train seemed unconcerned by what was happening, and he struggled within himself about what the people around him appeared to take as normal and his own feelings that he should act on the woman’s behalf.  He wondered if this was one of those situations he had read of when in big cities bad things happen while people who don’t want to get involved just stand by.

Slowly he stood up and carefully observed the three young men.   This could be bad, he told himself, but he had to take some action.  A couple of tentative steps at a time he eased toward the animated group, pausing to steady himself as the subway car rocked side to side.  As he got closer two of the teens noticed him and looked up, their faces now serious as they glared at him.  Following their gaze the woman turned toward him as well.

Neither the overdone make-up nor the blonde wig, denim skirt, and jacket disguised the fact that the woman was actually a man.  Tom froze, stunned.  He had been certain he was going to the aid of a woman in distress and now found himself facing three angry young men and a cross-dresser.  Where a moment before he had been grimly determined to risk injury to try to help he now hesitated, surprised by the victim.  What was happening was wrong, but he understood the situation now.  Daring not to conform to their expectations, the lone man had drawn the wrath of the teenagers.

The young men began to laugh at the expression on Tom’s face as he stood frozen in the aisle of the subway car with one hand on a pole to steady himself as the train pulled into a station.  The man in the woman’s clothing took the pause in activity to quickly exit the car as the doors slid open.  Tom backed away from the teens and returned to his seat.

Whereas the teens’ taunting of the man in drag had gone without any undue interest from the other passengers, amused looks were directed toward him.  His actions, not the teenagers’, seemed to have been out of the ordinary.  He felt uneasy with the attention.

The overused line from The Wizard of Oz came to him suddenly, perfectly describing his sense  of the unreal.  Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.  He was more unsettled by the boldness of the three young men who were totally unconcerned with the presence of so many witnesses as they taunted the lone man, and that they, correctly it seemed, knew no one would speak or act in his defense than by the fact the man was a cross-dresser.  Had the man been dressed more typically male he felt sure he would still have risen to the victim’s aide, either by physically intervening or pressing the emergency strip to call help.

Tom decided that he had better get used to feeling this sense of being different as he did not intend to change.  He would, however, remember this encounter and what to expect from people in the city.

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