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New York City stories

Illustration for article titled New York City stories

So, this happened today: http://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/Sta…

A deranged woman attacks a complete stranger on the subway and stabs her and tries to stab other people, utterly out of the blue. Terrible story. But scroll down past the headline, and you get this:

Charles Williams, who was on his coffee break and ran into the station when he heard cries for help, was among the bystanders who held the woman until police arrived."I just acted and tried to save some people's lives. It could've been my sister or my niece, could've been somebody in my family or your family," Williams said of the woman who was stabbed.

"Somebody gotta step up and try to prevent things from happening. I just did what I had to do."


Yes, a perfect stranger on his coffee break heard screams coming from the subway, ran towards them, and helped disarm a knife-wielding maniac and hold her until the cops arrive. And every time something like this happens, there are stories like this. Man leaps onto the subway tracks to pull stranger who's had a seizure to safety; strangers chase down gunman in midtown until they can alert the cops; bystanders rush to lift burning car off trapped bicyclist; and, when interviewed, the script is always the same, "I'm no hero, I just did what anyone would have done."

Jeff Kluger said it well in a Time article about the Boston Marathon bombings:

But it’s equally true that the people who commit all of these crimes are, in many ways, the free radicals of our social organism—the atoms that go bouncing about, unbonded to anything, doing damage to whatever they touch. The bonds they lack are the ones the rest of us share—the ones that make us pull away the snow fences and kneel in the blood pools. “Morality,” says psychologist and ethicist Jonathan Haidt, “is a team sport.” It’s far better to be part of that team than to be apart from it.


I'm not from here, originally. I'm from Hawaii, famous for its aloha spirit and friendly and warm people. New Yorkers don't present that way, for very good reasons. We're usually in a hurry and harried and wary of strangers in the public sphere because of the daily incessant assaults of scam artists of every stripe ("Seriously, the NUNS with the wooden bowls in Grand Central were all part of a con job??). But when the shit really hits the fan, I'd be just as happy to be in midtown as in Honolulu. Kitty Genovese was a terrible story, striking for its awfulness, but that was a half-century ago and not the town I've come to know.

A personal anecdote: a few months back, the missus and I were on our way to meet some theater-geek friends for Sunday brunch. As we get on the subway, we see a man laying on the floor of the car, straining to move, making an odd swimming motion, trying to roll to his right. I can smell the booze on him from ten feet away, and the commuters around us are a bit snappish about some drunk guy interrupting their commute.


He's maybe fiftyish and has dropped what looks like a Korean-language newspaper on the floor when he fell. So yeah, the missus goes into neurologist take-charge mode, asks anyone near when he fell ("just like thirty seconds ago") and kneeling down next to him doing neurologisty things. She's grabbing his right hand, saying "SIR, SIR, CAN YOU SQUEEZE MY HAND?" and I'm just standing back, giving her room, when she looks at me and says "This guy's having a stroke."

All I can do is nod. I mean, she's been working on the stroke unit, she knows one when she sees one. Soon the conductor appears, tells everyone the cops will be meeting us in two more stations. Good news. Then we're there, and four burly NYPD officers appear, pick the guy up like a sack of potatoes and sit him on the bench on the subway platform, and look to just leave him there. And then it gets good.


Missus chritter, to the cop who looks to be in charge: "Officer, you have to call EMS. This man is having a stroke."

Large burly NYPD cop: "And who are you?"

Missus chritter: "I'm Dr. [missus chritter] and I'm a neurologist. You have to call EMS. This man is having a stroke."


Large burly NYPD cop: "Ma'am, this man is drunk."

Missus chritter: "Officer, I'm aware of that. But DRUNK PEOPLE HAVE STROKES, TOO."


Large burly NYPD cop, rather sheepishly: "All right, ma'am, we'll do that."

And so they did. And the EMS arrived within five minutes, and they wheeled the guy off, and he'll probably never know how lucky he was to have a stroke on the same train car as a brunch-loving neurologist. Or maybe not, I don't know. And we were an hour late for brunch, but came with a good story. And yes, I'm going to remember my rather diminutive wife in her sparkly embroidered Sunday-brunch watch cap wield utter moral authority over four large armed men in bulletproof vests for a good long time. Not that I blame them, I'd have assumed the same thing too, as a layman. But still.


And no, that's nothing even close to wrestling the knife from a maniac, but it's a little slice of its own testament to caring. And just another routine New York City story, the kind that probably happens several dozen times a day here. Go you Charles Williams, I hope someone's buying you a drink tonight, somewhere in this hot, hot town. And you folks who also helped and whose names didn't make the paper, you too.

Especially you.

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