An unpleasant encounter

I am lucky to have come across merely a few dangerously unstable people in my life. Here is one of them.

It was 1996, it was the end of the workday, and I was exiting the office of my Web 1.0 job. I was the managing editor of a webzine. We called them webzines, sadly. It was the kind of webzine that purposely misspelled words, and interviewed super-hip bands I had never heard of. I was 27, but I already felt too old to work there. One of my fellow editors was still in college. That seemed about right. During my first pitch meeting I mentioned this thing I heard about called “Burning Man.” It was new to me, but from the looks on everyone’s faces, I might as well have suggested we write about Jewel. The editor-in-chief rolled her eyes and I knew I would never recover from that faux pas, or any of the trillion others I would commit because I had no idea what was cool. I spent most of my days at the webzine trying to look like I understood what everyone was talking about, or cringing at all the ironic typos.

We were housed in a small, narrow office building just north of Houston Street (of course), the kind which is mostly occupied by business that employ leggy German models (as one does). Just standing in the elevator among all those cheekbones was enough to destroy any last shreds of self-confidence I had left by the end of the day. I was rushing out of the elevator on the day in question when I saw a woman just outside the door, studying the directory. She was a handsome lady—in her late forties or fifties, I’d say, blonde and immaculate, and let’s just all picture Martha Stewart, because I would swear that’s who it was. Although I’m sure it wasn’t. I’m 83% sure.

While she studied the directory, she was blocking the exit. I was sure she saw me, and anyway in order to leave I had to hit a red button that emitted a piercing beep when the door unlatched. You could not help but hear this when you were outside. It deafened anyone within a block radius. I assumed, therefore, that when I hit the button she would look up and move. I waved at her, but she kept gazing at the directory. The pride of Deutschland was lined up behind me. I hit the button, paused, and slowly opened the door. I opened it a few inches so I could say “excuse me,” but before I could say anything I saw that she was bending over, like she was examining something on the ground.

“Oh my God,” she gasped. “Oh God.” She was clutching her ankle. Which, it immediately became clear, I had hit with the door. Now, because I hadn’t opened the door so much as gently nudged it forward, I could only imagine that she had some sort of injury that I had aggravated, with my door-opening. Still, I felt terrible. My frantic need to get some distance from the building had caused me to injure an innocent bystander.

I began to apologize. A lot. What else could I do? I apologized and apologized. She wouldn’t acknowledge me. Her hands were trembling. I shuffled aside to let the assorted beautiful people out. They were unaffected by our non-leggy psychodrama and they glided down the sidewalk, leaving me alone, standing behind Martha Stewart. She was hissing some stuff. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know what she was hissing.

“I’m really sorry,” I repeated. “Can I get you something? Oh dear. I guess you didn’t hear the alarm go off, huh?”

This, it turned out, was the wrong thing to say. When you strike a person, accidentally or not, you do not imply that it was in fact their fault. Especially if, say, they’re looking for a reason to come unglued.

“You mhurrhurr,” she muttered, and I gingerly touched her shoulder to ask her if I should get her some ice. And then I was on the ground.

I did not expect this turn of events. Even today, I’m not clear on how I got down there. She must have knocked me down, but all I can recall is how confused I was. I was up there and now I am down here. Well.

What happened next occurred in a matter of seconds. Martha Stewart screamed “You little twit. Look at what you did. Look at what you did.” And every time she said “you did,” she thrust her foot toward me, only it was into me, so actually she was kicking me, right around the knee area.

I was trying to figure out if she was kicking me with the injured foot or putting all her weight on the injured foot in order to kick me--because after all, if you have an injury, you should really wait a few days before you use that body part as a weapon—when the people arrived. Almost immediately a crowd had gathered. This is the wonderful thing about New York City. People will not hesitate to step into the middle of any fight—at least, when the involved parties are unarmed, female, and one of them is wearing an expensive pantsuit.

“She assaulted me,” Martha Stewart screeched. She really seemed to mean it. I assaulted her! Could it be true? Was I carrying so much pent-up rage throughout my day that I had to unleash it on someone’s ankle?

But before anyone could even turn to me to get my side of the story, my victim headed off (without a limp) down the street, shrugging people off of her, screaming expletives until she could no longer be seen.

And what did I do? I ran the hell away (in the other direction). People were looking to me for clarification, but more than anything, I wanted to escape. I got on the subway and tried to make sense of it, but it was like trying to decipher the angry rantings of a paranoiac. I hit a lady and she yelled and then I was on the ground and kick run what? I told the story to Scott, and maybe a friend or two, and then stopped. It was not a fun story to tell. It exhausted and confused me. Then there was the secret conviction that it was actually my fault. Why hadn’t I waited a second longer before opening the door? Why had I mentioned the alarm?

I probably shouldn’t add that I spent weeks unable to sleep because I was frantically recreating the incident so that I said the right thing and she didn’t call me names. Fortunately I was in therapy at the time. Not enough therapy, I suspect. At any rate, I am happy to report that I no longer believe I was the responsible party. Mostly. I’ve made some real progress!

I’m not even sure why I’m telling you this story now, 14 years later. I guess because I still think about it. I wonder about that lady. What did she think actually occurred? Did she tell her friends over cocktails about the young woman wearing crushed velvet and platform shoes who brutalized her foot? Or did she slow down after a few blocks, realize she wasn’t limping, and think, “Dear me, I seem to have overreacted again”? Maybe I can get on her show someday, and ask her.