I’ve been harassed more times than I can count on all of my fingers and toes in the 10-ish years I’ve been taking public transportation. I admit, I used to roll my eyes when my parents would tell me to be careful, not to take the bus at night, to have a male friend escort me at least to the bus stop, if not all the way home.
After a few unfortunate incidents I began to attend functions with the disclaimer that I was not going to be making an appearance unless I was getting a ride home/being escorted by someone much larger and scarier looking than I, just to feel safe.
It was hard to decide which stories to submit, but these are the ones that I seem to recall the clearest, and can’t seem to let go of.
At about age 19 I was taking the #9 Broadway, in the middle of the day. A man in his mid-twenties was standing in the aisle and I was sitting in the middle of the bus, close-ish to the door, in the aisle seat. He struck up a conversation that started pleasantly enough, but quickly took a turn for the worst when he asked if I had a boyfriend. I replied that I didn’t think it was any of his business (as politely as possible) and said something along the lines of, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to just listen to my music now.” At first it seemed like he was going to respect my request (which shocked me). Alas, I was disappointed when he grabbed the cord to my headphones, pulled the ear buds from my ear, and continued to pull until my Ipod was in his hands, then on the floor of the bus, then crushed under the heel of his Doc Martens. In shock, I could only stare, at which point he slapped me across the face, spit on me, and called me a “selfish, ungrateful, fucking bitch who couldn’t get fucked if I tried.” A barrage of derogatory name-calling followed. The passengers came to my aid. Those closest to the driver yelled for him to stop and when he did, my attacker was pushed out the doors, the police were called, one older lady stayed with me while I shook and sobbed and provided a statement. Yes, I pressed charges. No, nothing came of it, except for a slow burning terror that took root in my heart.
The next story happened when I was 27. I was headed downtown on the SFU bus that travels along Hastings, with my infant daughter in her stroller. Any time I take my children on transit I’m aware that I’m inviting comments, mostly positive, from fellow passengers. I don’t mind when people comment on my daughters’ cuteness or clothing or ask me questions about them. This particular day a man in his 40’s sat next to me. I was sitting at the front of the bus taking up too much space with my stroller (something I always feel guilty about) but try to leave the seat next to me open, or I don’t sit at all so that someone else can. Anyway, he sat next to me and the usual small talk commenced. How old was she? It looked like she has my eyes. Children are such a joy. Etc, etc, etc. And then, classic, “Are you married?”
“Yes, I’ve been married for x amount of years. My husband is a wonderful man.”
“That’s too bad. If you tell me where you live I can get rid of him for you. I’d love to live with a pretty little girl like yours. I bet you could have a lot more pretty little girls.” And then he attempted to touch my daughters face.
I don’t know that I have ever responded so instantly or aggressively to anything in my entire life.
I physically pushed him out of his seat, and stood between him and the stroller that my baby was sitting in. I informed him that if he tried to touch my daughter one more time I would rip his fucking hands off. He told me to “chill out” and seemed outraged that I had “overreacted”, but got off the bus at the next stop anyway, telling me as he left that he hoped he would get to see her “pretty little face” again soon.
One of the other passengers asked me if I was alright after he’d left and said that she would have done the same thing in my position, which I suppose made me feel validated, but I had to call my husband and have him talk me out of the blinding rage I felt. It was horrible, and I’ve taken my children on transit less than a handful of times since. We even went so far as to buy a second car for our family so that I DON’T have to take them on the bus.
My third story is as a bystander. I was taking my usual bus to UBC and a very young (maybe 15 year old) African girl was sitting across from me on a very crowded bus. A middle aged man sat next to her and started leaning in to her, telling her incredibly vulgar sexual acts he wanted to perform on her because she was “so fucking beautiful”. She was VISIBLY uncomfortable, and was trying to lean away, but was clearly boxed in on all sides and didn’t have much room to maneuver in. Everyone at the back of the bus could hear what he was saying and see how terrified this poor girl was. I feel a bit sorry for men in our society. I think that as women, we sometimes expect them to become heroes in situations like these. I made eye contact with the burly construction working sitting close to me and made a gesture like, “Well?!?” But he looked away and did nothing. In spite of my own worries that the harassers attentions would turn to me I reached out and touched the girls knee gently, saying loudly, “Do you need some help?” She nodded vigorously, tears welling in her eyes, while the man next to her said, just as loudly, “Fucking bitches need to mind their own fucking business! I’m just paying someone a compliment! Or don’t you know what that is?” I asked the large construction worker if he would mind switching seats with the girl, and he happily obliged (thankfully). Harassy Mcharasserson got off the bus shortly after, making sure I knew how horrible and ugly I was, and the girl thanked me over and over, as well as the buddy she swapped seats with.
The entire situation cemented the fact that sometimes change just needs a catalyst. Sometimes the big guy who can come to the rescue needs someone else to be his voice. Sometimes the uncomfortable girl needs someone to show her that she doesn’t have to put up with aggressive, sexual, unwanted behavior in ANY situation. Sometimes someone needs to say, “tell us you story”, and change will happen.