Riding the NYC subway is pretty traumatic for me, and I’m over feeling bad about that. As I accept more and more that yes, it’s a basic mode of transportation that bajillions of people take every day (actual scientific measurement), and I often feel foolish for being so negatively affected by it, I can work to resolve and better process my discomfort without blaming myself for feeling it in the first place. Turns out, it even works better that way; imagine that!
I’m highly sensitive to the smells and sights of the subway, and I want to personally help and feed every panhandler and homeless person I see, but feel paralyzed by the towering impossibility of that task. I don’t like being underground and being at the whim of the unpredictable train schedules. I despise being packed in like sardines, and I imagine the entire thing to be covered in germs. And I hate when people breakdance there.
I’m no special snowflake in disliking what many dislike with good reason, but the extent to which it fucks up my spirit is in extreme and direct oppositional proportion to me living my best life. While I work on relocating or trying to organize alternate transportation on a regular basis, I’m making whatever choices I can to make it better and/or shift my perspective.
The number one problem for me in taking the subway is the catcalling. I guess technically it would be street harassment, since it rarely stops at one comment or wolf whistle, but the subway is underground and you know I can be a bit pedantic at times. So maybe I’ll just call it subway harassment.
When it begins on the platform, there are places I can go, but it still ultimately turns into a cat-and-mouse game. I look over my shoulder, have to plan strategically to get into a different car when the train comes, and that’s a whole other feeling of being trapped.
I don’t experience delusions that multiple people are stalking me as soon as I descend the subway steps, nor that it’s specifically about me. On the contrary, part of harassment’s insidiousness is its utter ordinariness to those who enact it. We only consider their agenda out of necessity, to dismantle and directly address this thing that negatively impacts so many of us, but they’re not thinking about a patriarchal construct where men spontaneously offer evaluations of total strangers’ bodies in public because they are women. They’re not analyzing this imperative of toxic masculinity to exert power over most women, regardless of “looks;” they’re just doing what they do.
And I do what I can do to avoid it, which varies based on the day, and, I hate to say it, what I’m wearing.
I’m currently in rehearsals for an Off-Broadway play, which requires that I commute during rush hours via a bus and two subway lines, and I try to look nice for rehearsal. I try to get through these trips being thankful that A) This is the schedule for six weeks and then I can go back to blessedly taking the train at far less crowded times, and B) I’m headed to an awesome place that I want to go to.
On the morning in question, it had been an especially rough entry into the day. It was unseasonably cold for April, and although getting up at 5:30AM to work out before rehearsal has never been a delight for me, that’s the choice I made and it was an especially difficult battle getting to the gym in the dark, wind, and rain.
A workout, shower, and some inspirational music later, I felt like I was starting the day over again as I went into the subway. The weather had made a small but meaningful shift, the workout was done, and I felt renewed.
I brace myself for subway harassment, but I also can’t expect it, which takes more energy than just deciding to be miserable on the subway. We all know the truth of self-fulfilling prophecies, and I don’t want to live in the rage from past events so much that I start swinging on any man who says “Good morning” and end up on the news in a viral video.
The first train ride happened without incident. I got off to transfer, and the train doors where I was had happened to open in front of the stairs, creating a narrow pathway for everyone exiting. As we walked in a row, a deep voice from behind me said “Excuse me,” I figured it was someone who was in a bigger hurry than I was and was using the commonly accepted term for when you want someone to get out of your way, walking single-file as we were.
I kept walking but looked over my shoulder and got as far over to the side as I could, and the man behind me didn’t speed up, but only smiled and said “You’re so pretty, come talk to me.”
Because I’m still hardwired to assume first that I’m the problem when I have such a negative reaction to these situations, I mentally replied to my own anger by telling myself, well, Pia, he DID say “excuse me,” which IS an acceptable way to try and get someone’s attention-- it’s your fault you misinterpreted it, and “you’re so pretty” IS technically a compliment and not even close to some of the vulgar stuff that’s been shouted at you and he didn’t curse or anything, jeez what’s your problem don’t be so uptight…
That’s a lot of mental energy to expend on a stranger, and the reality is that I was upset. I want to walk from point A to point B, a few yards in this case, in peace. I didn’t want to talk to him, and if for some reason I did, I would. I didn’t need him to tell me to.
I decided I would ignore him. He kept going.
“Aw come on, you pretty, tall thang, you’re so tall…”
I walked faster and headed for the other end of the platform. I was transferring from an express train to a local, which really only entails crossing the platform, but now I was looking for the furthest spot at the far end.
He kept calling at my back, walking behind me, and I was distinctly aware of spending more mental energy defending his comments than honoring my reaction. He wasn’t using profanity, I told myself. I’ve endured worse. Comments about my height and my body are unwanted, but he wasn’t speeding up to actually chase me…
He also wasn’t stopping, though. The familiar escalation to oh you can’t talk to me…? was in full effect.
I quickened my pace and felt my shoulders rising above my ears and my throat tightening, and I made the decision to not be that person, not for one more second.
I spun around and walked right up to him. I said, “I haven’t been responding to you. Why are you still talking to me?”
It should be noted that I’m kind of prepared to be punched or thrown onto the subway tracks at any given moment to begin with, especially when confronting someone or when intervening as a bystander. On this morning, though, I had fought too hard for my joy to have it shattered because some strange man wouldn’t leave me alone.
He said, “I want to talk to you.”
And I said, angrily, “Well you got what you wanted, are you happy now? Does this feel good, that you’ve annoyed me to this point? Do you want to keep talking about my body and my height? Go on.”
He said, “Wait, I’m from the South, I was just giving you a compliment, I know New York women are different…”
I said, “If you know New York women are ‘different’, then why would you use the same approach?”
He had no answer.
I said, “I think you know that’s not how you give a compliment, and you don’t get to use the Southern Gentleman excuse if your first defense is that you know you’re not in the South. I know how tall I am, I didn’t ask for comments on my body, and if you wanted to say hello, there’s a convenient word for that: HELLO.”
At this point, he was quiet in a way I hadn’t expected. I’ve confronted street harassers before, with a wide spectrum of responses and results, and his was among the most thoughtful.
I said, “I want to thank you for hearing me out on this. I know you don’t have to, and I don’t take that for granted. This happens to women every day and I try to address it when I can because we can’t live life feeling under attack, especially when you think it’s a ‘compliment.’”
The whole tone of the exchange softened, but he still maintained his but I was saying nice things stance.
I said, “If you don’t get a positive response the first time, keep it moving. Aggressively continuing is harassment, which is not ‘nice.’ Trust me, you’re not going to miss out on the woman of your dreams because she didn’t respond to you harassing her. We’ve been sold the lie that that’s romance, but if you have to shout at me that many times, I. Don’t. Want. To. Talk. To. You.”
He found my delivery (appropriately) humorous, and so we were both smiling by this point. The local train came and we both got on it. We sat down and he told me he’s having trouble adjusting to New York, and I told him more about what women here often face and why we can seem “mean” when we’re just trying to survive.
Then he asked if I believe in God. He said that he felt like he learned something and he wanted to pray, and would I pray with him. I do, and we did, me repeating a few words after him call-and-response style.
He got off a stop before me, thanking me for the experience, and before he dashed off he said, “This wasn’t even the train I was supposed to take, but I don’t mind being late for what just happened.” And I was joyful.
An alternate reading of this event is that I further compromised my time and energy by giving it to someone I should’ve written off. I want to emphasize that this was my choice in that moment, and you don’t owe anyone anything, nor should you compromise your safety.
I found it interesting that a few people came closer when I first pivoted to talk to this guy, their eyes sparkling like they were about to see a fight. They dispersed when it became a conversation, because that’s not as interesting, is it?
With so much violence, stress, viral videos, and internet outrage, I’m choosing to create moments of quiet progress.
And of course he might have only entertained my conversation and participated, prayer and all, in hopes of still getting my number or trying to fuck me. I’ll never have an answer to that, but I’m going with what I know: my ears came down from around my shoulders and it felt to me like a meaningful interaction; a unique bit of contact that began as an everyday disgust.
I walked into rehearsal with a huge smile on my face. And I was joyful.