If you’ve ridden a subway enough, in just about any city, you know there is always a chance that something is going to pop off. Because besides being a major travel convenience, the subway also seems to be a breeding ground for moments.
One night in Chicago on the Green Line, a man and I were the only two in the car. He was standing at the doors, I was seated. He stared at me, then casually opened his trench and started masturbating. I stared back. I truly was intrigued by the bizarro-ness of such a thing. Who does that? And then I was like, “Whoa, I’m alone. Danger, Will Robinson,” and I got off the train lickety- split.
In Prague one late night, I was on the metro with my friend Amanda. She noticed this man and woman duo aiming to steal a woman’s dangling purse; the woman was drunk (and passed the fuck out). And sure enough, at the next stop, those assholes grabbed the purse and started running, practically dragging the unconscious woman along with them. Amanda and I screamed like banshees and they ran off the metro, mission foiled.
There’s always something popping off.
The other night, I took the Red Line home to North Hollywood. It was about 8:30 pm, not too late. When the train arrived at Hollywood and Vine, I did quick recon of a nearly empty car. Finding no evidence for weirdoness (except for a harmless sleeping man), I sat. I only had three stops to go, 20 minutes max and I’d be home. The doors closed, the train embarked on its underground journey and suddenly it lurched to a stop, started and then lurched to a stop again. Ugh.
These days, when I get on the train, I think about my fate. So many things can happen, you know? So after that second lurch, I was ready to jump out and catch an Uber because I didn’t need more evidence from the Universe that this particular ride at this time was not for me.
As it turned out, maybe it was.
The doors didn’t open. My fate was sealed. I tried not to get anxious; I’ve been having mini panic attacks when I feel trapped, like when a subway stops between stops. I used some grounding breathing techniques my therapist taught me and prayed the train would keep going. It did (some idiot was pulling the emergency break, they told us) and when we got to the next stop, I’d mustered enough courage to stick it out. Breathe. Only two more stops to go.
I was breathing and meditating when a few rows behind me, a man bellowed, “I WANT A TAMALE!”
I shook my head. I knew immediately who it was; it was that guy I’d peeped and avoided during my recon, he was sprawled out on the seats like he was hanging in the park on a Sunday afternoon.
My mom used to boil frozen tamales for us when we were little. She loves tamales and by extension, I still love tamales to this day. Here’s a tamale story for you: In my first apartment in Downtown LA, everyone in the building spoke Spanish except for me. Families would sit in the narrow hallways and have dinner together. One day I was home and a knock at my door was followed with, “Tamales! Tamales!” I opened the door and a man greeted me with “Hola! Tamales!“. He was selling them from a little cooler. How convenient and strange, I’d thought. Intrigued, I bought one, ’cause, you know door-to-door service and I love tamales.
In spite of my love, I don’t know that I would ever yell out, “I want a tamale” on the train! It was random and funny and equally so to come from someone who didn’t have an accent of a person who culturally may eat (or sell) more tamales than he or I did.
The Tamale Tantrum caused a fellow passenger and I to exchange glances, hunch shoulders and giggle. As long as that was all he wanted, I was all good.
We arrived at North Hollywood, the train’s final destination and end of the line. I waited and gave crazy Tamale Man space; I wanted him in front of me so I could watch him. I’m still jumpy after that night in Prague I told you about where I was walking home alone on the bridge and that guy ran up behind me, put his hand on my mouth and tried to steal my purse, so I literally watch my back all the time now.
The coast was fairly clear and that’s when I heard it. And I wasn’t alone. My giggle passenger guy and I looked at each other. Sounded like a slap. And it was.
Suddenly a young woman sort of stumbled in front of me. Her face was stricken. Anguished. She was holding her cheek, “He slapped me,” she said. Her glasses were crooked and her face was red.
Something had popped off.
She was a stranger but I got so ragingly angry that someone had taken advantage of her safety, that I instinctively went to her, “Do you know who it was? Where is he?” I demanded.
This was going to be taken care of, right now!
She pointed. I looked at a tall scraggly Kid Rock sort of guy. He was pacing near the stairs like a bull.
“He’s my boyfriend. I’m homeless,” she said, eyes really wide, now crying. “He has all my stuff.”
Fudge! Bigger fucking problem than I imagined. Still:
I whipped my head back to him and he looked straight at me; I had her and he wanted her back. I blocked his view of her and I stared in his fucking face and he pulled his hoodie up and quickly tucked his long brown hair in it. He was a coward, hiding in plain sight and ready to run.
Thank GOD there were security guards around. One went to him and one came to us.
Truthfully, I was scared. That kid scared me. Men who hurt women really scare me. I was comforted by the security guy in his bright yellow vest. He was on it, ready to alert the police; all she needed to do was say she wanted to file a report.
I looked back at the guy; he was going down! But he had vanished. Fudge!
She was shaking, “I’m scared,” she kept saying this over and over again, crying and looking around behind her like someone hunted.
“I can’t do anything if you don’t file a report,” the guard kept saying.
She just kept shaking her head, “He’ll hurt me.”
We all watch “Law & Order: SVU”. This never ends well. The girl goes back with the guy, and… I didn’t want that to happen to her. I wanted that guy gone. I wanted her to be safe. I wanted this to end because even though the incident was over with, I knew there was more to come. I felt it escalating. I channeled ‘Liv; I tried to calm this poor woman down, to persuade her in another way, “You know you don’t deserve to be treated like this, right? You deserve better. If you say something, they’ll take him away and he can’t hurt you.”
“He’s up there waiting for me. I have nowhere to go –”
It was obvious she wasn’t going to file a report. The security guard was helpless and the frustration lived on his face. If only she would, the police would come and he would be taken off and she could be safe, we all could be safe, honestly. And go home. Except her.
I didn’t know what to do. That’s when I realized another woman had stayed, I hadn’t noticed her at first.
So much happens so quickly in these moments. So many people swirling around knowing that something has happened, but not sure what. Some stop to look and then keep moving, having their curiosity satisfied. Some run, not wanting to be entangled in other people’s shit. Some are oblivious to anything going on around them for reasons too many to mention.
Had I not paused for Screaming Tamale Man, I too may have been one of those in the swarm of people trying to get home, to avoid yet another incident on the train. But I wasn’t. And neither was this woman.
She was shorter than I, with blue glasses and white Beats head phones. (Later she told me she’d had them on, and hadn’t even heard the slap that went ’round the subway; she just noticed something was very wrong.) Even though she was small in stature, I could tell she was a ride or die chick. She had chutzpah. She became my rock because those security guards were “adios-ing and out” as my mom likes to say.
We were left alone. But with the guy undoubtedly lurking somewhere, anywhere for us.
I yelled nervously after the guards to escort us upstairs and out of the train. Which they did. But once we got upstairs, we three were open targets out in the night. He could be anywhere, behind that parked car, behind that pillar, across the street staring. I wanted to panic, but instead I just tried to ground myself, in her.
“Do you have someone to call?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes; no one. He has my stuff. What am I going to do without my stuff?” she said, unable to concentrate and swirling around looking for him in the shadows.
We asked what the stuff was and then tried to convince her that stuff wasn’t worth her safety.
I’m not ‘Liv. I’m not a social worker. I was a junior crossing guard in grade school. That’s it. I just wasn’t equipped for this. It’s one thing to ask someone, “Are you alright?” knowing a “Yes” is coming and they’ll sort of dust themselves off and go home to get fixed up. It’s another to look in someone’s eyes and know that answer is a horrific, desperate “No”.
Luckily My Rock had a resource for her because crazily enough, she was coming from some sort of a meeting where they had JUST given out a resource for homeless people. My Rock got her the info, and that seemed to calm her down. She had an option.
For the sake of her privacy, I’ll tell you she was able to call someone and that someone was able to offer some temporary help. We figured out which bus would get her there, but it wasn’t coming for another forty minutes. This gave us some time to help her calm down a little.
I told my mom about this later and she said that sometimes in these situations, getting between the perpetrator and the victim and giving the victim time to think is what helps them more than anything. I told my dad about this and he said, “You can’t do that, ‘Roni. These days these fools go after the person helping, too!” They’re both right.
‘Cause sure enough while we were out there in the night air waiting for the next bus to take her somewhere, that fucker suddenly appeared like a fucking roach does when you least expect it. But worse. He was Halloween’s Jason. He leaned against a tree and just stood there.
She screamed, “There he is!”
I jumped and screamed too; this was NOT good for my nerves. My heart was pounding. I felt so vulnerable and I had a home to go to! He was after her, but I just knew he was coming after me too for getting in his way.
Even if we got her on the bus, I still had to walk home. There were people around, and the security guards were off in their booth, but that doesn’t always mean someone is going to help you if you scream. This woman had been slapped loud enough for everyone to hear in a busy train station; an entire car full of people saw her get slapped, and a full platform of at least thirty people walked right by her. And there were just two of us left to help.
My battery was dead. I quickly had My Rock Facebook messenger Matt to come and get me and to bring Molly! Then she immediately called her wife and told her to come ASAP and to bring their dog, too.
We stood out there, the three of us. The guy inching closer. I told the young woman to turn around and look the other way, to not give him the satisfaction of him seeing her scared. My Rock and I made small talk; I think she was scared, too.
Matt arrived with Molly and he went over nearish to the guy and sat on a bench with Molly, placing her closer to him and between all of us. Molly is a pit-mix; when we see people are afraid of her, we say she’s mixed with boxer and Australian shepherd (which she is). This was one time where I was happy to drop off the “mix” part.
The bus was still twenty minutes from arriving. I asked Matt to call an Uber for her rather than us continue to wait in impending danger. I would have called her one sooner, but … my phone … dead.
The Uber finally arrived. I marched her over to it, afraid the guy was going to intercede. As I got her in the Uber, we heard something. The guy slumped to the ground calling out her name, pleading for her to not leave him. “Don’t leave me!” he said. “Don’t leave me.” Vulnerable and alone, the hunter fell.
My Rock and I gave the young woman our numbers. She messaged me that night to say “Thank you and may God bless you”. I have messaged her. I have told her to be strong. I have told her I have clothes for her so that she doesn’t have to go back. She messaged me twice and then nothing.
I don’t consider myself to be very brave. In duress, I’m usually a flight, rather than a fight person. But when it is time to stand up for someone, somehow I end up on my feet shouting. It’s only after I get home that I break down. And cry.