People immediately intervened. He stopped, but then started again. At one point (it felt like a long elevator ride!) four of us had him backed against the wall, and yet he was still shouting at the woman. I could smell alcohol on his breath. He barely seemed to notice that he was surrounded; he still wanted a fight.
The boys, thankfully, could not see what was happening because they were on the other side of the car. I could hear them shrieking, "I'm scared!" When we finally got to street level one said, "Let's get out of here!" and they took off. I was relieved; you never know which way fear will go, and it was better that they were out of the way than frozen in place. I later learned that someone told them to stick together. They did.
As the car emptied, five of us stayed to make sure the woman was able to get off safely. The drunk was still ready to charge at her. It took a minute or so for us to get off the car, then a couple of minutes to get out of the station vestibule. When we finally got outside, the drunk was still trying to continue the fight. At that point the woman took a picture of him with her phone; he whacked the phone out of her hand. I called 911. A young man took off his backpack and offered to fight the man if he wanted a fight. The assaulted woman urged him not to. He listened to her.
The police arrived, and the good people of my neighborhood, the ones who immediately stood up for the woman, who stayed to keep her safe, also stayed to talk to the police. It's not enough to just place the call; if the police arrive and no one is there to act as a witness, there's not much they can do.
* * * *
At some point in our lives, most of us accept that we can't control everything. There are people who do bad things and make bad choices, and the best we can do is choose to do the right thing in response. I was very, very glad to live in my neighborhood on Tuesday night. People chose to do the right thing. The woman will have to live with this crazy memory, but she'll also have the memory of people helping her, protecting her, sticking by her.
Little Guy is nine, and he doesn't have that kind of perspective. It was a scary situation, and he was terrified. "I was scared the man was going to hit you, Mommy!" he told me later. Well, yes. That was a possibility. The guy, in fact, did take a swing at me (though my son didn't see it).
I told Little Guy this was the first time I've ever seen something like this in my 25 years in New York. That didn't provide much comfort to him.
Little Guy said, dozens of times, "I'm scared!" I eventually said, "You sound like a CD that's gotten stuck!" He laughed. I suggested amending the thought, as in, "I'm scared... and I'm okay" or "I'm scared... and everyone did the right thing." It was a good idea, and for a less-anxious kid it might have worked.
I talked him through all the good things that had happened: that people made good choices, that they helped the woman, that they came forth as witnesses, that no one was seriously hurt, that he and his buddies made a good decision to get out of there, that the police were helpful. I asked him to think of the things he could be thankful for. That took the edge off his fear... momentarily.
I had him do his deep breathing. We identified the thinking traps he was in ("it will always be like this" and "expecting bad things to happen"). We prayed for the people involved, including the drunk man. Finally, he went to sleep.
* * * *
I was talking to my PTSD kid's home therapist (someone comes to our house on the days we don't visit the regular therapist), who noted that if you have three babies in a room and a book falls on the floor, one may wail, one may startle, and one may barely notice the sound. We each have an innate sensitivity to things that cause distress. With babies, adults tend to respond to this sensitivity as a need, picking up the wailing infant, perhaps patting the one who startled, and merely smiling in the direction of the low-maintenance child. With kids, we tend to view it as a character flaw, or at least as an annoyance. As children get older, we somehow expect things to equalize. They don't, necessarily. At least not without help.
People also differ in how long it takes them to "return to baseline". If three babies respond with equal distress to a stimulus, one may recover in a few moments, another in a few minutes, and still another after ten minutes. It helps to know that this is innate as well, because it frames the problem of a slow-returner differently, perhaps lowering the likelihood of parental exasperation. We tend to expect that by a certain age all kids will get over an upset within some remotely reasonable timeframe. Not all do, or can, without tools to help them.
Note that none of this is a matter of the child being "not normal" -- their responses to fear are entirely normal for them. The issue to focus on is how to help the child become more functional. A baby needs mom to soothe her; a child needs mom to help her learn how to soothe herself. Kids who have a naturally slow return to baseline need techniques to help them re-frame situations and calm themselves a bit faster.
Fear happens. So does recovery from it. Eventually.