This morning, like most mornings, I took the M subway train from my neighborhood in Brooklyn to the office.
At my subway stop, a man came and sat down next to me on the bench. I thought nothing of it, since the benches often fill up with people waiting for the train. However, the man started tapping his foot uncontrollably. I was about to ask him to chill out when I got a look at him: he was glassy-eyed and twitching all over. This wasn’t just some annoying dude, I thought to myself, this guy is a junkie or in withdrawal or something, and I’d rather just go stand on the other end of the platform than engage with him. As I stood, he rubbed his leg against mine in a slow, deliberate way. When the train came, I grabbed an available seat. The man sat down on the floor of the subway, directly across from me. (Side note: if you’ve never taken the New York City subway before, let me just say that the floors are gross. If I dropped food on it, I wouldn’t even attempt the five second rule. I’d give that shit up as lost.) As the train went over the Williamsburg Bridge, the man stared at me, spread his legs, and began swirling them around in a slow, deliberate fashion while pointing exaggeratedly at his crotch. Pinned in by people on all sides, I couldn’t move. As much as I tried to concentrate on my book, I could feel his eyes on me like a sunburn. Finally, at the next stop, I was able to take advantage of the people spilling off the train and move down to the other end of the car. Undaunted, the man followed me, and continued his actions, again on the floor of the train.
I looked around, hoping to make eye contact with a sympathetic fellow passenger. People seemed oblivious to what was happening, or perhaps grateful that his target wasn’t them. They buried their eyes behind newspapers and sunglasses. Finally, my station came up and I dashed off the train. The man didn’t follow me – or, if he did, he got swallowed into the throng. I went up to the woman at the station office and told her I wanted to make a complaint. Though she chided me a bit for not speaking to the train conductor (I would have, but his car was far from mine and all I could think about was getting the hell off the subway) or writing down the number of the train, she had me write down my name and contact information on a sheet of paper. A few minutes later, I got a phone call from an NYPD officer who had me recount my story and give him a physical description of the man.
While I’m glad that I said something, I also felt guilty. If I’d spoken to the train conductor, he might have been able to call the cops and have them pick the guy up. Now that I don’t know where he went or what happened to him, I’m terrified that he might have done the same thing to another woman who wasn’t able to sneak away from him. And because he boarded the train at the same station as me, I’m worried that he might live near me and see me again sometime. I also wish I’d taken a cell phone picture so that I could give it to the cop – or even post it online as a warning.
I’ve lived in New York for over six years now, and this is the only time I’ve ever been harassed on the subway. My mom, who lives in North Carolina and still thinks that New York is like a giant episode of Law & Order, lives in costant worry about me getting mugged or worse. Perhaps it’s luck or perhaps it’s good street sense, but I’ve – knock on wood – been OK so far. This might have to do with New York getting safer in recent years and nothing to do with me at all. Either way, I don’t want this story to be a story about how awful urban living is for women. The fact that both the subway employee and police officer I spoke to were nice and sympathetic indicates otherwise. And as for the fellow train-takers who did nothing when they saw the man’s inappropriate behavior? It’s unfortunate, but it’s also a symptom of the way that large places breed anonymity. As a woman, I’ve definitely seen incidents of potential harassment but been too scared to say anything for fear that I might become a target. I’d venture a guess that some of the other people on the train this morning felt the same way.
What happened this morning made me feel scared and uncomfortable. However, tonight when I get on the very same subway to head home from the office, I’m going to try to focus on the thousands of uneventful rides I’ve had instead of the solitary bad one. Because, otherwise, I’ll never get home.