The #MeToo posts the last couple of days are getting to me. Well, so they should. They should get to all of us.
But it’s prompting me to find something positive, so I noticed the hashtag Be That Guy. I wanted to share a story, because Being That Guy is not complicated and it’s not confusing.
So I was on the A train home, on the late end of rush hour. It was winter and dark, and everyone was in coats. I became aware that a man at my elbow had an odd posture and demeanor.
Going about in the world, especially in a city, where your bodies aren’t isolated from each other by cars, you develop a kind of situational awareness that’s not about people’s clothes or accessories or age or race. Most of the time it’s not even about looking at them directly. It’s about anticipating where they’re going to move, so you can surf a crowd without getting squashed. It’s about pattern recognition and paying attention to things that don’t fit. It’s about noticing bad intent, and covertness, and threats.
This man had bad intent. He was being covert. He was a threat. My subliminal awareness dinged, and I looked over at him.
And then I was confused. My brain couldn’t actually figure out what I was seeing. Was he missing a hand? What was that on the front of his pants? Then I snapped my eyes up to head level and looked away.
I spent a bit of time arguing with myself. Like you do. Because no way, no way did he have.it.out. on an A train full of people, for crying out loud. Ridiculous. Who does that? Nobody does that. And these were all nice neighborhoods, at a decent hour. I had to be imagining it.
The train was full enough that I’d felt perfectly safe getting on that car. But it was so crowded that nobody else had quite the same line of sight as me. And it was crowded enough that there was nowhere to go without throwing elbows and stomping toes. I looked around. Nobody else noticed.
There’s a lot of awkwardness and a lot of wierdos on a long commuter ride, and a symphony of glances. Most times – with the guy who barks at people, and the lady who sings long sad tuneless songs about all the not-very-compelling reasons why you should give her money to pay her student loans, and the person who wants to give you loud unsolicited advice about the health condition they’ve decided you have – the best thing to do is not encourage them, not engage, not escalate. But you know everyone sees. You give each other those glances of community. You know that the neighbors, the ordinary people are watching and will, however reluctantly, have your back if things turn from noise to danger.
But nobody saw this. Nobody but me.
And I wasn’t even 100% sure of what I saw. I’d be terrible on the witness stand (if that were even an option). I mean, I was sure. I knew. But I couldn’t swear to God I saw it unless I looked again to check.
No way was I looking again. I didn’t want to see that at all, much less twice. When half your brain is saying “this isn’t happening, this isn’t real,” and the other half is saying, “of course it’s real, you know what’s happening, what are we going to do about it,” you get into a feeback loop and can’t do anything. You just freeze up. You don’t feel scared. It’s like some kind of sci-fi robot shortout. “This does not compute.”
And I realized, at the corner of my eye, he was watching my face. He was staring me down. He was getting his payoff and there was no way for me to win that encounter.
If I look, he wins. If I keep pretending that I saw nothing, he wins. If I start hollering and/or trying to get away (even though he’s not touching me, what would I even be escaping from?) then I’m the crazy lady throwing elbows and by the time anybody looks, there’s nothing to see. And he wins because he gets a big reaction and gets away with it.
So finally we arrive at my stop, and I exit. And he exits. And I ride up the elevator with the union operator and a bunch of people. And he’s in the corner. Still watching me.
I know I lost him before I went into my building, but I honestly don’t remember how. Maybe I lingered in the crowd and got behind him, letting him get far enough ahead so he couldn’t see me turn in. Maybe I walked on down to the shops and doubled back. But I got to my door without him anywhere in sight, and got home unscathed. I was unsettled and disgusted, but not panicky. And I was relieved that nothing “really happened.” I thought it was over.
The next night, I was edgy. I couldn’t stop wondering whether this creep lived in my neighborhood or opportunistically decided to follow me off the train. I wasn’t on exactly the same time schedule, but there was really no way to take an alternate route. Not without going away from the well-lit streets full of commuting neighbors. Not without adding a dark tunnel and an unmanned elevator.
But there was no sign of him, and I was relieved. It was a one-off. Just one of those random things that nobody can control. It was icky but I was safe, and it was over.
There weren’t many people exiting at my stop, so I walked out the doors alone.
And out of the corner of my eye, I saw legs. Bare legs.
A man was standing in the shadows next to the stairs. I’d have to pass him to get to the street.
Now, please don’t ask me to swear in a court of law that it was the same guy. I couldn’t possibly. But he was as close as nothing to the same height, build, and coloring. And even though it was below 40F, he was standing perfectly still in the piss-corner of the stairs, facing out, and wearing gym shorts.
I turned right around and went back into the elevator. Thank God it was still at the top.
I said to the operator, “I’m so sorry to bother you, but there’s a man outside by the stairs. I don’t really know, but I think maybe he followed me yesterday. I don’t know, I don’t know if it’s anything, but could you maybe walk me to the street, can you do that?”
I was flustered. I was repeating myself. I felt like a complete idiot. I was so embarrassed. Because of course, of course this wasn’t real. It had to be a coincidence. That man outside was just some neighborhood athlete who didn’t mind the cold, waiting in the dark for his basketball partner instead of under the lights at the basketball court, because… It was nothing and I was just nervous and freaked out.
The elevator guy said, “Sure.”
He walked me out to the stairs, and the man in the gym shorts was gone. When we got up to the street, there was no sign of anybody.
“Now I really feel silly,” I said. “I’m sure it was nothing. I’m sorry to bother you. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.”
And the elevator guy looked up and down the street. He said, “You’re not silly.” He asked if I had far to go and said he’d watch me home from there.
Everything was fine. I never saw the creep again, not so I’d know him. Though in the months and years I lived there, I did see a neighbor around the shops and the bus stop who was the right age and height and coloring – but that could be a lot of people and I can’t possibly be sure.
But he’s not the point of the story. The point is the elevator guy. I was so thankful he was there, and in practical terms he didn’t do much. He walked fifty feet and waited three minutes, maybe less, on his downtime at work.
But the thing he did for my heart was tell me I wasn’t being silly. He believed me. He understood how real the situation was, even when my brain was still denying it right and left. Even though nothing “really happened,” and there was nobody there and nothing to see, he believed me.
You want to make a difference? Be like the elevator guy. You don’t even have to be a guy. Everybody can #BeThatGuy.