(New York Jewish Week) — You definitely don’t want to have what she was having at that moment.
It was December, on a Friday. I was in the tunnel that leads to the subway that runs beneath the American Museum of Natural History on West 81st St. Walking just ahead of me were two women, chatting with each other. I didn’t know them, but I watched as a man, disheveled and bearded, wearing a black knit cap with a sparkly “NYC” on it, came from the other direction. He veered a little too close to the taller of the two. Suddenly, he shifted and grabbed her from behind.
I often wondered what I would do in this situation. Standing only steps away, I no longer had to wonder. After a moment’s hesitation, I sprang into action, grabbing the man and pulling him off her. Then the woman, her friend and I hightailed it through the turnstiles. All in a New York minute.
The woman said she was OK, just worried her attacker would hurt other women. I called 911 but the operator could only speak in subway platforms, not quite grasping it occurred under the museum. How could a visitor be expected to explain the location? And why was there no attendant or police patrol in one of New York’s most visited neighborhoods? I happen to be getting a PhD in tourism studies at Purdue University, but it’s a no-brainer how bad that is for visitors and locals alike.
The 20th Precinct and Transit District 1 responding officers were polite but seemed focused on whether the attack was sexual. Later, the woman would tell me she sensed they thought nothing actually happened, despite a clear crime. “I don’t know,” she said, “one moment I’m walking in the subway and the next someone grabs me from behind. But I wind up OK, so there’s no problem?”
They nabbed the guy, holding him against the tiled wall in the very place the attack occurred. One officer said something like, “He has no ID, no nothing. He’s babbling to himself and doesn’t seem to know where he is.” A sense of pity rose in all of us. The woman did not want to press charges. Even the police were sympathetic, expressing how helping the mentally ill is beyond their capacity. The consensus seemed to be that they would take him somewhere for mental help.
As we waited for the train — mine to Washington Heights, the women’s to Queens — we realized we all had just come from the New-York Historical Society’s “I’ll Have What She’s Having” exhibit on Jewish delis, named for the iconic Katz’s Delicatessen scene in the 1989 film “When Harry Met Sally.” We laughed about what struck us as an ironic way to spend a Friday Shabbat evening days before Hanukkah.
Still perhaps cautious of our surroundings, we shared thoughts about the exhibit. For instance, the surprising amount of Los Angeles material and the signage explaining terms someone Jewish or from New York might take for granted — like mohel or mikvah — and Yiddish words that have long entered the local vernacular, no matter your religion.
The woman who was attacked didn’t want to be identified here, saying “I don’t want people to Google me and this is the first thing they see” — something I understand, having myself been a crime victim in 2014. Later, she texted to say she arrived home safely, adding that, despite the attack, she was “grateful to live in New York, because you restore my faith that people are there for each other.” I don’t think of myself as a mensch or hero. I just did what had to be done. And, like I said, I had a moment’s hesitation.
The situation called for dinner plans. A Jewish deli, of course, considering the circumstances. And it had to be Katz’s.
I arrived at the deli, laden down with a few free Chabad menorahs I picked up along the way after coming from the Union Square Holiday Market. I almost rushed past her standing outside the restaurant, worried about being late. We encountered a chaotic, noisy scene inside, and I realized I had not been there since before the pandemic. A man behind us in the haphazard line, there for the first time, nervously wanted advice. Have what we’re having, I suggested: pastrami on rye with mustard. No cheese, a kosher nod in this place long without such restrictions.
If fate’s bad luck brought us together, serendipity now ruled. Our sandwich maker looked familiar, and I realized he appeared in a video at the deli exhibit. As Esteban pushed our sandwiches over the glass divider, the famous table from the fake orgasm scene in “When Harry Met Sally” suddenly emptied, a family bundling up to leave. I ran to grab it, even mid-sentence talking with Esteban about the exhibit.
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Yes, it was touristy! But considering what we had encountered only days before, it was a relief to feel like a tourist in a crowd of tourists. There were locals too, of course, like a diminutive old couple, smiling and saying hello to select tables. We asked a gorgeous Greek tourist we at first thought was an influencer — her dress a one-of-a-kind, hair in flowing, pop queen curls — to snap our picture.
We talked for hours about jobs, travel, family, the men in our lives and how there is no city like New York, with its museums and culture and its ethnic and religious diversity. The ultimate way to say “to life,” l’chaim.
Crime impacts everyone differently, especially when it happens to you. Yet I also know the city is vastly safer than when I was young. At 54, I remember the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, when murders peaked at something like six a day.
If I learned anything from the subway experience, it is that our time on earth is a gift more precious than anything we might unwrap on Hanukkah or Christmas. And if anyone saw us sitting at that famous Katz’s table wondering why we laughed so much, they should ask to have what we were having: a profound appreciation that, like the sandwiches in front of us, life is delicious and should be enjoyed in big portions, despite what fate throws at us.
Michael Luongo is a freelance travel writer and photographer, online writing instructor for UCLA, and a PhD student at Purdue University researching how conflict zones rebuild their tourism sectors. His bylines include the New York Times, CNN, The Forward, Bloomberg News, Gay City News and many other publications.