Threatened on the train
I don’t think I’ve ever written about this experience before. But I was suddenly reminded of it when reading a brilliant piece by Daisy Buchanan on the Guardian called I’m tired of being nice to creepy men to stay safe. This piece couldn’t have resonated more with me, because I too, have been polite and quiet to men who have accosted me on the street, on public transport, in corner shops, walking home; because we’ve been told so many times to “lay low” and “stay quiet” and essentially just “play nice” until we wait for the aggressive person to get bored and hopefully sidle off.
“Make them feel like you want to be friends” someone once said to me when I asked what to do if you feel like you’re being followed. I thought this was strange advice: why do you have to pretend to be nice to someone you don’t want near you? For me it’s always been a fingers-crossed-moment of “please just go away”. But you are suddenly, scarily totally out of control. You can’t make them go away.
A few months ago, I was sitting on a train that waiting in Liverpool Street station to depart on it’s way to Hackney. I was sat in a nearly empty carriage, around 7pm, playing with my iPhone, reading tweets and just burying myself into my phone in the way I always do on trains. It’s a way of just shutting out the world and I’m never totally aware of my surroundings when I’m engrossed in reading someone’s blog post on my phone. Maybe that’s not the cleverest thing to do. But if you look busy on your phone I was always think it’s a universal sign of “don’t talk to me”.
I’d get this train most days, so it was just another day. Just another train journey. A man, rough around the edges with dirty fleece sat in front of me. But I made no judgements, smiled quickly, and carrying on tapping away on my phone. However I suddenly noticed crumpled cans in his fleece pocket.
“I like your shoes”. He said.
I looked up, and said thank you, politely. Even from that random “compliment” I was just hoping that’s all Fleece Man would say to me for the rest of the journey. Mainly because I longed for the peace and quiet. I had podcasts waiting to be listened to.
“So what job do you do?”
I noticed two other passengers enter the train door and take their seats just behind me, a bit further down into the carriage. I started growing hot in my cheeks, embarrassed that this man was asking me a personal question about my life, and for everyone else to overhear. I know people like to make conversation but I just wanted to go home. I just felt awkward and I didn’t want to talk. I carried on being polite.
I took a breath to answer but I got interrupted –
“I said, what job do you do?”
“I’m…a journalist,” I reluctantly replied, still polite, still agreeable.
“Why are you trying to ignore me on that stupid phone?”
His voice got louder.
He’d switched his tone.
“I said why are you fucking ignoring me?”
He went to snatch my phone, and before I knew it, a tall man with a bald head and over-sized shirt came over. He picked up Fleece Man by the scruff of his fleece and literally, like a cartoon, threw him off the train. The train was still stationary in the station, with the underneath cogs beginning to whirr and purr beneath us. Fleece Man was in a crumpled heap by the station wall, looking totally confused, like an episode of Tom and Jerry when Jerry has been hit in the head with a pair of cymbals. Bald Man marched back on the train, rubbing his hands together, like he’d just won something at a fairground game. His heavy work shoes stomped down the carriage. He didn’t even look at me, he just sat down in his seat again, and picked up the newspaper and carried on reading from where he’d put it down.
I felt ridiculous. I’d just been verbally abused by a man in front of me, but I’d heavily relied on the man behind me to “protect” me. That’s exactly what he did. He totally saved the situation because it was *just* on the brink of getting nasty and he swooped in like some Bald Superhero. He’d marched on over, like an angry teacher, or partner or Dad, and got rid of the nuisance, like a spider I didn’t want near me. I couldn’t have got rid of this nuisance in such a way, I wouldn’t have known the best way to get rid of it, or avoid the situation. I couldn’t have picked up Fleece Man and threw him away from me. I had to do the “polite thing”. The fact of the matter was: Bald Man was bigger than him. The “solution” that he’d come up with could not have been a solution if I was on my own.
I’m not saying that Bald Man did the right thing, after all Fleece Man probably had a hard time getting up after slamming into the wall, and I’m not going to sit here and condone physical violence. But, a part of me was totally relieved that I didn’t have to deal with it for the rest of the train journey especially as I could tell this guy was on a time-ticker, about to either steal by phone or start physically attacking me. And when a train is moving there’s no where to really go. I could see it in his eyes he was about to lose it. Maybe my “politeness” wound him up even more.
I didn’t thank Bald Man, although I tried to attract his eye on exiting the platform just to give a nod of “thanks, I think”. I don’t know what to make of this story. Of course the solution isn’t relying on someone to “step in”. Maybe all I’m trying to say is that women being harassed on public transport is still a problem and there’s no clear cut guide-book on “how to act in [insert uncomfortable situation]”. I often wonder how it would have panned out if Bald Man didn’t step in. Would I have continued being polite? Would I have stood up to him? Would I have run away?
How would you have reacted, without getting into further trouble?
How I Grew Up Online
“In love with Emma Gannon’s Ctrl Alt Delete. So funny & smart, and reminding me of some of my own cringe teen Internet exploits!”– Anna James, former literary editor of ELLE
"Funny, honest, and nostalgic!"– The Debrief
“Emma Gannon is a bright spark of light in the world. I seriously dig everything she makes”– Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Big Magic