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First person: A brother’s brazen inner Boy Scout

Subway train

Subway train

We were both young, 20-something jazz musicians, on our way to plunder New York. In the 1970s the city was a graffiti-plagued, crime-ridden hole: chaotic and crumbling. We hopped on the train in Queens on our way to “town,” as my brother Jim liked to call it.

Our subway ride started simply enough, with the two of us holding the overhead handles, balancing and rocking ourselves, making musical small talk. The train screeched and rumbled to a halt and three young gents ambled aboard. They looked to be about our age. We barely looked up.

The car clanged and clattered, slugging its way up to speed again. The crowd around us buried their faces in newspapers or lost themselves in idle staring.

One of our three new traveling companions lit a cigarette.

This challenged my brother’s inner Boy Scout and he instantly and eagerly rose to defend the common good. “Hey, there’s no smoking in here. Put your butt out. We don’t want to breathe that crap.”

Our fellow citizens froze. Backs stiffened, noses buried deeper into newspapers, idlers stared even further into the great beyond. At the same time the corner of each eye was riveted to the unfolding drama.

Our new acquaintance spoke. “Screw you, man, I can smoke here if I want. What are you going to do about it?”

I stared hard at my brother, with a mixture of the pleading vulnerability of a little brother, the mortified fear of my mother and the startled shock of my father. He ignored me. The passengers behind us stiffened even more and began to look as though they were furtively plotting their escape.

Finally the train pulled into a station and sank to a halt. I looked up at my brother hopefully. He stepped out of the car, bracing the door open with his outstretched hand, shouting up the platform: “Hey conductor, there is a guy smoking back here.”

Our friend the inhaler, his face a rage, blew out a last drag and hurriedly ground the butt into the floor, all the while letting loose a torrent of curses and threats. His two henchmen looked at us menacingly, shifted their weight and leaned imperceptibly forward. The crowd behind us stared nervously as the doors closed and we ramped up to speed again. Jim glared at the gang of three and they glared back. I thought, “Oh my god, we are going to die on the E train.”

We were suddenly offered a prompt parley — Friday night, 78th St. park, Corona. We could bring whoever we liked and any tools we felt we needed.

My brother stood, tight-jawed, and ignored them. I trembled and glanced at the crowd of wide-eyed onlookers, wondering if it was too late to join them. The subway walls raced by, for what seemed like an eternity.

Then the train ground to a halt and the doors mercifully seized open. It was our stop — Seventh Avenue.

I tried not to bolt for the door. “Walk calmly,” I thought. I had learned that much growing up as a city kid. My sigh of relief was audible as the doors closed behind us. I looked back and saw we weren’t being followed.

We heard a train rumble overhead. Hearts pounding, we tore up the stairs to catch it.

I am still amazed at how casually we replayed this scene in conversation at the time, one story among many. It rattled us for a moment but did not stop us. We even laughed about it. Somehow we thought the music, and being 20, and knowing the ropes would protect us.

And for that one day, it did.

Nick Kachulis lives in Florence and blogs at EyeofZeus.com.

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