There was a series of Twitter posts today that recounted the story of a person, having boarded a train, sat down and started to read from her phone. Another passenger comes up, “Hey, baby…”. She doesn’t engage, just gets up and moves. Unfortunately, the asshole follows. “No thanks,” she tells him, “I’m married.”
It’s terrible to think that as a woman, very often our first response to this sort of attention is to say “thanks”, but it’s deflection and I’ve used it myself and I know that most of the female folk that I know have used those same words at some point in their lives, sometimes over, and over again. When you’re getting this sort of attention, you want to defuse it, appease the unwanted attention-giver. Unfortunately, this tactic only works on half-decent people, who get the cue that they’re intruding and/or scaring you and feel, sometimes, slightly embarrassed and so back off.
Unfortunately for Delilah, (“… 39. Dressed in loose clothing. Minimal makeup. Wedding ring. Minding my biz. Reading a book on my phone. Was terrified for my life”), retreating was like declaring open season. Her attempt to defuse/appease only triggered the hate that, tragically, is so close to the surface of so many people. “Bitch, you don’t tell me no.”
Those words! I had them spat in my face nearly thirty years ago, both times on a train on two separate occasions, while living in London. As I said, I don’t know Delilah apart from coming across her social media feed (she’s a writer), but I wanted to reach out – make the gesture that people do when they want to say, “I can’t do anything about it but I’m sorry that this happened to you”.
And, I felt a need to share those two instances when I found myself, at the time a young woman in my twenties, faced with similar horrible and extremely dangerous situations.
Back in the late eighties and early nineties, I lived in London and worked as a marketing assistant for an Australian tourism office. We were located on The Strand, skipping distance from Covent Garden. I was a very serious young career woman in those days. Before leaving Australia in 1988, I’d travelled extensively on my own. I was a black-belt in my style of martial art, Ju Jitsu, I’m about 175cm (roughly 5’9″), and very strong for a woman. The reason I mention this is only to indicate that I’m by no means insubstantial in size and I’m confident being on my own.
At the time of the first encounter with someone I would class as a dangerous harasser (as opposed to the annoying and therefore everyday ones), I lived in the docklands in East London. Because it was late, I found myself in a carriage with an older man in a business suit, who, like me, was clearly at the end of a long day. He had his newspaper to his face from the moment he sat down throughout the entire episode that followed.
Moments before the doors shut, another man got onboard our carriage. He waited for the doors to close, (effectively trapping myself and the only other occupant), before he began to rant and yell and swear the most terrible obscenities at us. Oh, he was having a right old time of it. Working himself up into a frenzy, he raged around kicking the doors, punching the air and getting closer, and closer.
I remember thinking, “ignore him, don’t engage, he just wants attention”, but I was so very tired in my mind and I was sick of being subordinate, frankly. I had been up since before 6.00 that morning, I’d been at work by 7.30am. It was, by now, well after 8.00pm. I was dressed in my business suit, court shoes, and long coat (I even had a brief case in those days). The dick who was giving his audience-of-two a piece of his mind about how he hated people who had jobs and that he was going to “fuck us over like we do him”, was building up to a violent confrontation before the train drew into the next station. I knew it. The poor, terrified guy with his newspaper glued to his face knew it (I glanced over to see that his hands were shaking).
So, I stared at our aggressor. I gave him the benefit of a full on glare. I don’t think I’ve ever been so mad in my life. This man who had cornered two complete strangers on this late night carriage was angry and sick. Clearly an accumulation of horrible things had happened to him, but I also knew that he wanted to hurt us and I couldn’t let that happen. Also, as I said, I was tired and pissed off.
And he said, “Fuck you bitch, you don’t get to look at me like that.”
He HATED that I sneered at him (yes. I did). He loathed me and he wanted to beat the shit out of me. I readied myself for his charge — and he did — charge. I remember his eyes and the way his mouth was open. I remember that he had his fists clenched.
There were two seats. The one that I had taken and the one directly opposite. The height of those seats is roughly knee height on an average sized person. I waited for him. In order to reach me he had to step up slightly. I would have been trapped except that he didn’t expect me to respond. When he stepped up and had the seat behind him, I simply overbalanced him. Plonk!! It would have been comical, only he came down very hard, with my knee in his groin and my forearm across his throat. And I pushed, really, really hard. Over the top of my arm, I shouted at him but I can’t remember what I said because I was incoherent with rage.
I am ashamed to say that I lost it. That ‘red curtain’ that writers so often use to describe the desire to kill someone. Well, it’s a true thing. I did see red. I was nose-to-nose with this sad, stupid, dangerous, shit of a human being and I really did want to hurt him. I wanted to hurt him because I was tired and I struggled constantly every day to gain recognition and respect for a pittance that could never cover my cost of living; barely above my rent, a bit of food and my work clothes. I was angry and I hated him and suddenly, I was him.
What stopped me in that moment from putting more pressure on his throat was that when I looked into his eyes, I realised that he was having the time of his life. Someone had noticed him. Someone had finally given him the sort of attention that he craved. He LIKED that I was hurting him. He liked that my knee was crushing his testicles, that he was having trouble breathing, that I’d crashed into him and was treating him like the human being that he believed himself to be. He liked that I hurt him, and he wanted more.
I was so sickened that it drained every ounce of adrenaline. When the train pulled into the next station, I leaped off him. I grabbed my bag and flew out the door then stood on the platform, braced, waiting for him to follow me (believe me, I was quite prepared to push him under the train). But he didn’t follow, he didn’t even get up. He was just where I’d left him, looking at me through the carriage window. I expect he was feeling the pain from my knee in his groin. The businessman on the other side of the carriage, STILL had his face in his newspaper.
After the train pulled away, my legs collapsed under me and I dry heaved for what seemed like forever. There was no-one to see. I was alone on a dark platform. I got up. I brushed myself off and I walked home.
The second occasion was a couple of years later. I was in a different job by then and my commute was even longer. I worked in Fulham and lived in Barking — opposite ends of the London sprawl. On this particular occasion, I had been, yet again, working late. I had transferred to my last train, sat down with relief and after a while I fell asleep. I woke up just as the train pulled away from Barking station.
Dammit, I thought, that was really stupid, but I was too tired to feel much about anything. So, when the train pulled in at the next stop, I got out, walked over the bridge to the other side of the platform and prepared to wait for another train to come in the opposite direction, now heading back into town.
I was not alone on this platform. There was a weedy guy in football nylons making shit-talk to another young man who was listening with an air of caution and tolerance. The scrawny footy fan was freezing his butt off in his ridiculous clothes but trying not to show it by big-manning up to the other guy. When footy guy sees me, all alone, he couldn’t believe his luck. He leaves the other guy and zeroes in on me and within two seconds is giving me the same abuse that Delilah recounted.
I’m going to be quite clear here: I could have walloped this guy but he was making out to be crazy and it was the memory of my earlier encounter — the sudden recollection of my shock and disgust, not my ferocity — that overwhelmed me on this occasion.
When I look back on it, I admit that I could have really done with some ferocity right then, but it just wasn’t mine to be had for a second time. The benefit of hindsight tells me that I had another lesson to learn.
Anyway, this bantam rooster with his goosepimply skin and his knobbly knees, had white supremacist tatts and he was spoiling for some action to warm him up. I guess I looked nice and soft and toasty in my winter coat.
Actually, no doubt about it. I was exactly how I appeared, vulnerable and scared. Predator trigger!
Well, this particular footy-fan was excited that he had a pretty girl cornered. He was talking it up and ‘encouraging’ me to not get onto the train. Hey, he was ready for a good time and when I said, “No thanks”, I got the “Bitch, you don’t say no to me” line.
Then the train pulled up, opened its doors and I ran. I had no outrage in me, no fight. The only thing that rose in that moment was debilitating emotion. I was so blinded by tears that I could barely avoid the little shit’s grab for my sleeve.
I got onto the train but he followed.
I didn’t take any notice of the other passengers because I had my chin tucked to my chest. Stupidly, I took a seat. I hoped that he’d give up on his pursuit but my admirer didn’t care that others were watching and now he had it over me in terms of height. Why the hell did I sit down, I wondered to myself? He literally stood over me and began pouring verbal abuse on my head. It was revolting and I was trapped and I started to cry again. All I had to do was stand up, for goodness sakes, push the little shit outta my face. I must have had three or four inches on the guy but I was overcome and my legs were shaking and I couldn’t see anything through the tears of exhaustion and loathing.
What this little harasser didn’t realise until it was too late was that the carriage was absolutely full of young men and they all, as a matter of irony considering who and what he was, were black. Beautiful human beings. I have no idea who you are but I have carried the memory of you for all these years with love and gratitude.
My harasser, Mr. Shit for brains, and myself — well, we were the only white people in that carriage. That much I noticed, when I saw the train pulling up to Barking station and I jumped up to escape. I know that he tried to follow me because there was a bit of a scuffle behind me and something that sounded very much like a grunt. Someone gently took me by the elbow and guided me out the door. I turned around to see backs: a wall three or four people deep, a barrier between me and my aggressor. There they were, complete strangers, making a circle of protection to keep him away from me. The doors closed and the footy guy? I have spent many years hoping that he got the punishment he deserved.
So, if you’ve read this then you’re amoungst the very few people to whom I’ve related the entirety of these episodes. They happened a long time ago but it’s like yesterday when I think back on it. These are lessons that I learned: that you cannot predict how you will respond in a moment of stress and danger and sometimes, when you think you are most alone, there are people standing with their back to you because they’re facing the threat in order to keep it from you. To this day, I carry a deep and abiding love for a bunch of guys that I will never know because of what they did and what they represent to me.
To @DelilahSDawson, I am sorry that this terrible thing happened to you and I hope that through your writing and your friendships, you will find a channel to help others commit to standing up when they can, and finding understanding for those who cannot. To those silent, honourable strangers who stood in defence when someone needed you, thank you. I have to admit that there are some days, when the world seems overwhelmed by evil crazy shit, that I remember there really are heroes out there.