The following is a piece I wrote as a final project for a class back in May:
Being a woman on public transit essentially means your mind works fast. Really fast.
It is being pulled in dozens of different directions, and you have to attempt to sift through everything to find the absolute best option for you and your safety in this moment. Later, you may think about it and be impressed with yourself, even proud of how natural it all was. You may congratulate yourself on being so speedy and commend yourself on a demonstration of mental capabilities straight out of Sherlock Holmes.
Well, that, or you’ll write a feminist essay about it, like I did. But we may be getting ahead of ourselves here.
The inciting incident
In March I had the opportunity to go to one of my favorite places: Los Angeles. My best friend lives there, and I was planning on moving there after graduation (still am) so I’d already been there a few times. I was not a complete rookie, but I remained in the minor leagues.
I bought new clothes worthy of a trip to sunny LA, made plans to go to the Abbey in West Hollywood, and reactivated my Uber account. Everything was planned, every bit mapped out – except one.
How the hell was I going to navigate the six miles from LAX to my best friend’s house?
He didn’t have a car, and because of laws I don’t like or understand, I was not old enough to rent one. That left me two options: Uber or public transportation.
I wanted to take an Uber. My mom voted for the bus.
She’d heard horror stories about Uber drivers kidnapping young woman. She told me repeatedly about the bus being her only source of transportation when she was my age.
Above all, my safety was most important. Looking back now, this was the first instance of my sex and gender identity controlling my LA adventures.
I have a hard time believing that those six miles would have been as big of an issue if I were a man.
We eventually decided on the bus. I figured that it would save me money – always a good thing for a college student – and that I’d make my mom happy. Not to mention, I’d get the warm, happy feeling that comes with figuring out your own way in a new city.
Right off the plane and post-baggage claim, I made my way to the shuttle stop, following signs and my own intuition. The shuttle driver pointed me in the direction of the city bus station.
I was determined, a little intimidated, but mostly excited to be in the city I love so much.
I found the station and quickly discovered that the bus I needed – the titular Big Blue Bus to Santa Monica – would be arriving in a few minutes.
When it arrived, I paid my $1 fare and sat down on one of the sideways seats toward the front, so as to be able to ask the bus driver questions if need be.
Welcome aboard, unwanted attention
After a couple stops, a man boarded. He fed the machine his fare and turned around. We made eye contact. He sat down on the bench opposite mine and smiled at me. Having been taught to be a polite and courteous lady, I smiled back.
I had no intention or desire to interact with him further, so I looked down, hunched over, crossed my legs, fiddled with my pamphlet full of bus schedules and routes, and looked at my phone.
I was heading in what I could only pray was the right direction, because nothing looked familiar, and I was wondering if maybe I should take another look at this pamphlet because I didn’t know if I was on a regular bus or a rapid bus, or what the difference between those even was, when suddenly –
“Where you from?”
I looked up to see that he was, in fact, speaking to me, and that he had clearly spotted the colorful luggage resting beside me.
Oh, shit. Don’t give me that knowing smile. I’m not some rube looking to meet a guy on a bus in the big city. I’m just trying to get to my friend, man! I thought I was doing a pretty good job of expressing that nonverbally, what with the looking down at my pamphlet thing, hunching over and avoiding direct eye contact –
“Here, actually,” I responded. “I have a place in Venice.”
What? Where did that come from?
I could feel my protective, self-preservation instincts begin to kick in immediately. It was as if I could actually feel my hackles raise. This is when my mind went into high gear.
Of course I can’t say where I’m actually from; what if he tries to track me down? I need to say I’m from here, so he doesn’t think I’m some needy out-of-towner looking for help on her way to a strange location. I need to be from here. He needs to think he can’t lead me astray.
Stop looking at the pamphlet. You look like a tourist. You’re from here, remember? Act like it.
He followed up with a “Oh, where were you, then?”
“Philadelphia. That’s where I’m from, originally.”
Damn it, McKenna! Philadelphia? You’ve never even been there! What if he’s from there? What if he asks you what neighborhood you’re from or what school you went to? Quick! Think of Lexi. She’s from there, right? Well, there-ish. She’s from Jersey, but she loves Philly. Channel Lexi – now! Go!
“Is that right?” He gave me another unsettling smirk and looked at me with palpable intensity. “So how is your day going?”
It’d be better if I could look down at this god forsaken pamphlet so I can know if I’m even going in the right direction.
“Good,” was what came out.
Quick! Add something in there about how you have plans with many people and cannot be taken away by some strange man on a bus!
“I’m actually headed to meet my friend, so that should be fun,” I quickly added.
Just any old, unspecified friend? Drop the gender bomb, Ken! Your friend is a big strong man, remember? Nothing is going to shut this guy down more than thinking you’re already attached to another man.
“He’s meeting me at the bus stop.” (Emphasis on the “he”)
The mad nodded and looked down solemnly. My plan was working.
I was proud, but I couldn’t help but feel like a shitty feminist. How is it that the only thing I could think to do to shut this stranger down was to imply that I in some way already belonged to another man? Ugh. Gross.
But what else could I have done? My brain was being pulled in a hundred directions and I was simply trying to figure out the best course of action for me, while at the same time trying to be the polite young lady I was raised to be and not get lost in a very large, very intimidating city.
And it’s not like the “I have a boyfriend” line hasn’t been recommended to me a dozen times. We’re basically taught as women to have that as our go-to because, much of the time, it seems that men respect other men more than they respect a woman making choices for herself.
The man across from me seemed as though he was going to give up, and I was grateful. He got off a couple stops later. I’m pretty sure that the fact that he looked down and saw my more-than-prickly legs that I had forgotten to shave didn’t hurt.
But that’s another feminist issue for a different time.
I relaxed, and finally looked down at my trusty pamphlet to see that I was, in fact, going to the right place. I began to notice things I recognized. I smiled, proud that I had made it this far and happy to not have anyone talking to me.
The second man was worse.
My poor, overworked brain
Sadly, the man who stepped onto the bus just a few minutes after the first man stepped off, turned out to be much more persistent. And it seemed that for every question, my mind once again was pulled a hundred different ways.
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your plan for today now that you’re back?”
“How old are you?”
That’s the question that really got to me. My age. It seemed to be doing so many things at once. It’s a personal question, one that feels more intimate to me than plans for the day or a recent flight.
It hit a defensive button, and before I could even think of stopping myself, I heard my voice turning it back on him.
“How old are you?” I asked, with a fair amount of sass on “you.”
“I’ll be turning 38 on my next birthday,” he said. It was hesitant, and the wording seemed strange to me. It felt like he wasn’t sure about it. He even followed it up by awkwardly telling me in which month that would be, and asking me for my birth month.
I said September. It’s February.
Eventually I ended up having to text my mother an S.O.S. Here’s proof:
In retrospect, my wording may have been a bit mean-spirited, but it did the job. My mom called me about 30 seconds later, and talked to me until I got off the bus and left the man behind.
A truly terrible rite of passage
Together, my mom and I laughed at my situation. She told me that “we’ve all been there,” and “that’s what happens.” She even put on a motherly voice and joked “Aw, your first creepy bus experience. My baby’s all grown up.”
After, when I had settled in at my friend’s place, I got to telling him about the whole thing. It was then that I went over the whole scenario again in my head. From Denver to LAX to his home in Venice.
I thought about what my mom had said. I thought about other similar stories I’d heard from my fellow women.
I would argue that our culture has created a new subgenre of story: “the creepy bus guy” story. And we’ve created it out of necessity.
Tales belonging to this genre can be found everywhere. When reading Amy Poehler’s autobiography, Yes Please, I was surprised to see a pretty casual mention of harassment on public transit and in everyday life:
“By a show of hands, how many of you have seen a strange penis on the street? On the subway? … I have locked eyes with various subway masturbators. … And I count myself very lucky [to have not experienced worse]. That is what ‘very lucky’ feels like. Oof,” (234-235).
Oof is right. What kind of world are we living in when Poehler considers herself lucky that she has only experienced what she has, and not something society would deem worse?
Jerica Lowman, a reporter at the Spartan Daily, discussed the treatment of women on public transit, including her own: “I have been stared at, catcalled, followed, called a bitch for ignoring someone and the worst was when a man on the bus tried to touch my thigh. I have also seen all of these things happen to other women.”
Even more oof? This is not a new phenomenon. Harassment on public transit has been around for decades, and, as a result, extreme ideas like gender-segregated subway cars and buses have become popular. According to Guardian reporter and author of Yes Means Yes and Full Frontal Feminism Jessica Valenti, “there are women-only train cars in Japan, India, Mexico, Brazil and more. Even the British have discussed the possibility of launching women-only train cars in the UK.”
Valenti comments that the idea is initially “seductive” – “Finally, a respite from the never-ending groping, flashing, stares and inappropriate comments” – but there is something inherently problematic in telling women that they need their own space. Why should we have to limit ourselves to one section of the world because other people cannot stop themselves from being creepy, invasive, or even abusive?
Toward the end of her piece, Lowman goes on to say something else really important – vital even: “In these situations, it is the harasser’s responsibility not to harass you.”
That’s what it’s all about, folks
Feeling uncomfortable as a woman on public transit is becoming a given. It’s becoming something we simply must deal with. It’s becoming how it is.
And that’s majorly fucked up.
I shouldn’t have to worry about men talking to me when I have made it clear I don’t want to speak to them. Poehler shouldn’t have to worry about seeing a man masturbate on the subway. Lowman shouldn’t have to worry about being called a bitch on her way to work.
We should have the luxury of worrying about what everyone else is worrying about:
Shit, am I going the right way? Do I have enough for bus fare? Is it better to take this bus, or wait for the next? Should I get off at this stop or at the one after? Either one would work, really.
Instead, we have to worry about all of those things PLUS a list all our own:
How do I make him go away without sounding rude? I knew I shouldn’t have worn this skirt; it’s too short and men are staring. Why did I do this alone? I should have waited and gone with my friends. Make yourself look busy so nobody will talk to you. Put in your headphones and stare at your phone. Look confident and competent. I swear, if this man tries to touch me…
Our brains are going into overload. We are thinking about every possible scenario and everything we could say or do to get ourselves out of unwanted situations while (most) men are able to relax, listen to music, look out the window, and think about what they’ll do when they get where they’re going.
For me and for all women, getting on a bus alone is a form of rebellion. For men, it’s what it should be – a lackluster experience in which you sit and wait to get from Point A to Point B.
I am sick and tired of it. I say, NO MORE.
No more trying to hit on/ flirt with/ chat with a woman on the bus who has expressed – verbally or nonverbally – that she does not wish to be talking to you.
No more inappropriate and/or sexual touching. Not of yourself or anyone else.
No more name calling.
No more harassment.
How about we all just sit in peace and treat each other like people who deserve respect, body autonomy, and silence?
And, before you bring it up, yes #NotAllMen. I am by no means stating that all men harass and/or bother women on public transit. Of course not. Most men are awesome.
I’ll end with a metaphor my friend Ellie gave me a when we were talking about this a few days ago:
Picture a big bowl of M&M’s. If you’re looking at this bowl, thinking of approaching, and then someone tells you that 10% of the M&M’s are poisonous, you’re not going to continue with your plan to dig in. You’re going to back the hell away from the bowl, and look at it with suspicion and hesitancy, before getting away from the bowl pretty damn quick.
Men, you are the M&M’s here. The vast majority of you are leaving us alone on the bus, or engaging in polite conversation only when we express an interest in it. Thank you for that.
But enough of you are not awesome that women are still made to feel pretty uncomfortable most of the goddamn time. We still feel a natural urge to back the hell away from the bowl, and look at it with suspicion and hesitancy, before getting away from the bowl pretty damn quick.
Leave us be. Let our brains relax and recharge. Let us begin to trust the M&M’s again.