In which Rob and I rescue someone from being harassed on the train.

photo by thirdrail

photo by thirdrail

Rob and I were coming back from a date night, taking the Blue Line home on one of the bitterly cold nights last week. There was a couple two seats in front of us with luggage, who looked as if they were coming back from O’Hare. They were sitting at that place on the train where two benches face forward, and two sit at right angles to face across the aisle. The woman was in the seat facing forward and the man she was traveling with was sitting at the perpendicular bench.

Across from him, was a very, very drunk older man.

He was chatty. Really, chatty. They were both trying to be polite and non-confrontational, but also clearly did not want to encourage conversation. Rob and I watched this with that mixed feeling of, “So glad it’s not me” and “Should I step in?” At the same time, he was being chatty but not really doing anything besides that and rolling a cigarette. I made eye contact with the young man a time or two and we shared that “Well, this is awkward” look.

And then it changed.

The drunk man said, “I’m really intoxicated. REALLY intoxicated.” He turned to the woman and pointed at her. “And that’s your fault. Your fault.”

Both of them sort of froze. You could see the young man shift, knowing that he needed to do something but not how to deal with it without an escalation in an enclosed space on a train. So I leaned forward, caught his eye and with a giant ass smile said, “Hey! Oh my god! I didn’t even see you guys there. It’s so good to see you, are you just coming back?”

The woman turned so fast she almost poltergeisted, and met my smile with her own. “Wow! What a happy coincidence that we’re on the same train! So good to see you, too! SO good.”

I patted the chair nearest us. “Come back and we can catch up.”

Rob smiled at them, too. “Yes. We haven’t seen you in too long.”

They were both on their feet, grabbing luggage. The young man said, “Oh! Maybe the seat behind you. There’s more space to put our luggage.”

To the drunk old man,  I said, “Sorry. I just haven’t seen them in ages. You don’t mind if I steal them from you. Old friends. You know.” He looked befuddled and returned to rolling his cigarette.

In moments, they were behind us, settling in with “Thank you. Oh my god. Thank you.”

Rob and I turned to them, presenting a wall of our backs to the drunk old man.

The couple was returning from a trip to New Orleans and had been stranded by weather for thirty hours coming home. They were exhausted and neither of them had the brain space to try to deal with their harasser. We had a pleasant conversation for a couple of stops and then Rob and I got off the train.  I noted the car number and stopped at the ticket booth on my way out to tell them that they had a heavily intoxicated passenger who was harassing women.

Why didn’t I mention that he was harassing the man, too? Because of the moment when he turned to the woman and said “I’m intoxicated and it’s your fault.” That moment, right there, was when it became clear that all of his chat was because she was pretty and close to him, and the man she was traveling with was just an obstacle.

And the thing is, if I had been in their situation, even not exhausted from travel, I don’t know how I would have extricated myself. The fear of escalation is so strong, particularly when dealing with someone whose judgement is clearly impaired. I’m fairly outspoken, but had I been the target I probably would have been afraid to shut him down bluntly. What if he had stepped up the harassment? What if no one intervened? It’s the enclosed space of the train and the fact that there’s a period of time when you can’t get away, that really tipped it over into “WTF do I do?”

The reason I’m telling you this, is that I only know how to use the pretending to be old friends trick because I’d seen a friend of mine use it to extricate someone else. It would be far better if the harassment didn’t happen to begin with, but until then, here’s an extraction strategy for you.

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29 Responses

  1. Samantha Henderson

    Oof, that takes me back to a business trip to Las Vegas, and a guy hitting on me and just not knowing what to do. A male coworker stepped in very smoothly and said something like “hey, honey, have you checked in with the kids yet,” which worked perfectly. I still don’t know why I was so paralyzed.

  2. GeekMelange

    Wow. This happens a lot on the CTA (red line at night, yay), and this isn’t a bad strategy at all for helping to extricate others in similar situations.

    And thank you for pointing out why this was an instance of a *woman* being harassed even though the drunk man was talking to her and her male travel partner.

  3. Julie

    Great idea! Once in college, I was out with a friend at night and a female student up ahead of us was being harassed. My friend suddenly yelled out, “Katie! Hey, are you going out with us tonight?” and ran up and linked arms with the girl like they were BFFs and walked her away from the harasser. I was so impressed and the girl was very thankful. (And her name was Kathy so it was funny that my friend picked a random name that was so close…)

  4. LJ Cohen

    That’s an awesome script to use in a touchy situation. I think having these kind of scripts ready will help the brain freeze I get when I’ m presented with shit like this.

    And well done, both of you.

  5. Tina Smith

    So disgusting. You did the right thing. Somewhere out there is a relieved couple who will now very likely do the same for someone else later down the road.

    I had someone save me once from a similar situation and now I’m more confident when I jump in to save others.

  6. Ellen Cameron

    Major props to both of you for doing a very creative (and desperately needed) rescue job, getting the pair of them out of a sticky situation without escalating it. Your halos are in the mail.

  7. Meagen Voss

    Way to go Mary! Such a creative way to help someone out.

    Another good one I’ve heard off is the Loser Dance. There’s a sorority on campus here that uses it. The basic premise is that if a sister has some skeevy guy harassing her on the dance floor, she forms an L with both hands and starts doing the Loser Dance. Every sister at the party is then obligated to drop what they’re doing to join their sister in the Loser Dance, forming a barrier between her and the guy who’s bugging her.

  8. Ell

    I couple of times in the subway I was being hit on and struck up a conversation with a random person nearby; fortunately, it worked.

    Another time, in a different city, a conversation began near me that sounded like the youngish man and woman knew each other. Gradually, I realized they didn’t. The guy eventually left after asking if she thought it was all right for people to exchange a little kiss and she said NO. Everyone around started talking to the woman about what we were planning to do if he didn’t go away (I was going to follow if he followed her off the train). I wish I’d realized earlier she didn’t know him, but about four of us were debating how to step in.

    Then there’s the time I climbed up in a tourist lighthouse and the guy volunteering at the top asked for a kiss; I turned him down. I still wish I’d said something to the volunteers at the bottom. It was pretty clear his goal was to upset me; mission accomplished.

    When I was working in an office on a weekend and a painter hit on me, I didn’t know how to handle it (I was young for that one). Fortunately, he backed off (after hugging me). I reported it on the Monday and got all *kinds* of stories from women coworkers about things that had happened to them.

    It’s really every damn where.

    1. Christopher

      I love this. I hate the fact that such strategies are necessary, but there have been more than a few times on the CTA when I wish I’d thought of something like this. I’ll certainly remember it next time.

  9. Amanda

    That’s a really good trick. I see stuff like that happen occasionally, but I would never know what to do. I’ll be saving that…

  10. Mark Phillips

    Nicely done, Mary. I’ve had similar situations on the bus and train where I’ve stepped in as an old friend. Asking a weird question also will throw off the assailant “Have you seen my ham sandwich? Did it get off at the last stop?” LOL really makes them think and kinda scares them a little that someone on the train may be crazier than them. Stay safe

  11. Branson

    Kudos to you both for taking action where you saw the need. We need more people to step in and speak up to help those who find themselves in these awkward situations. Many of us find ourselves in similar circumstances but don’t know how we can proceed with tact. Thanks for giving us a tool.

  12. Jenn

    I’m a long time rescuer. It requires being alert and aware of your environment, something that is not common.

    Assess the situation and make sure there really is a threat and not just a communication problem. Follow your instinct, don’t question your gut … You owe no explanation for your feelings or actions.

    Don’t wait to be rescued … Get up and walk away or over to other people. Get off the train, if necessary (a bit of a pain, yes, but better than the alternative).

    Pull out your phone and snap a photo or video. You might want to say something unexpected, like “oh, your outfit is great, my niece will love it”. (Unless you think robbery is the goal, in which case use the emergency alarm on board the vehicle, if one exists)

    Best to stay pleasant and smiling and polite … Don’t show fear or let them know what they are doing (trying to make you uncomfortable/scare you) is working. But remove yourself quickly.

    You might also just try telling them they are making you uncomfortable and you’d rather just ride quietly, buy again, this is a judgment call. Often people don’t ask others to stop, but just stay being uncomfortable; speak up for yourself, nicely.

  13. Kat

    This reminds me of the time I worked for a Major coffee shop chain. We use to get some customers who felt it was okay to hit on the baristas. A few times the behaviour would get very uncomfortable or aggressive. When I was the shift supervisor qnd I saw this kind of behaviour from a customer, I would ask my staff member if they had finished stalking something (anything) in the back room just to give them an out.

  14. Leslie

    There’s a man in London around Liverpool Station who obviously spends most of his days and nights drunk. He’s probably damaged, maybe suffering from PTSD. Most evenings he mills about waiting for a bus. Harmless, barely cognizant of his surroundings. The only thing he seems capable of is getting a bus to go wherever he’s going. People usually look the other way because that’s how it is in London.

    One day there were two older women on the bus home. An elderly black woman and an even older Asian woman. Both were sitting down, one behind the other. He kept swinging towards, talking to them with slurred words and a smile that didn’t exactly seem kind. Both women looked scared and the Asian woman seemed to not understand much English. I watched him, at one point squeezing a little deeper into the crowd of people standing up. I’m small and a woman, so I know better than to let him focus his attention on me.

    Our driver was horrible. Most drivers will notice someone horribly drunk, stop the bus and force them off before he continues driving. Some drivers will break as if there are people standing up in a moving vehicle. Some drivers were not this driver. He pressed hard on the breaks suddenly and the drunkard, still holding onto a bar, swung into the lap of the already terrified ancient Asian woman.

    I’d had enough and walked up to him. I tried to drag him off the poor woman. Once he was standing again, I couldn’t budge him much with our size difference, but I loudly and firmly repeated myself over and over again, “You have to get off” while pulling at his sleeve. He smiled at me, a mouse trying to move a lumbering dog. Eventually, a young man walked quietly up the aisle and spoke to the bus driver. He came back and stood just behind the drunken man. As we came to our next stop, he pretended to be getting off, forcing the drunk man to move towards the exit. With the silent agreement of another stranger, the maneuvered the man to step off to make way for their exit. The men then stood there as the door shut in front of his face. None of us made eye contact and two stops later, I got off and crossed the street to my flat.

    I’m grateful in particular to the two men, who in one accord, came to my assistance without confronting the man. But I feel that if I hadn’t been willing to stand up to him, perhaps everyone would have let him carry on. I think my method may be the less clever way to handle things, but when I see something like that, I can’t help but intercede in a very forthright manner.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      1. You are amazing.
      2. The interesting thing about people is that when someone like you stands up for someone else, it reminds people that they don’t have to be bystanders. That they can take a step and help, too.

      1. Leslie

        I just grew up reading authors who hated bullies with characters that stood up to the bullies. And no matter how big my bullies were, I just couldn’t back down. Even someone as small as I am, if I stand up for someone else, the bullies usually go away because they know I’m serious.

        But it’s true, one person’s all it takes to remind us about what we can do.

        Also, Mary Robinette Kowal said I’m amazing. squeeeeee.

    2. Sylvia

      The difference in your story and the OP is that in a crowded bus, there’s no way for the trapped women to escape.

      And how cruddy is it that, on public transportation, a person might have to think in terms of ‘trapped’ and ‘escape’?

  15. Kelvin Kao

    A little improv is one of those skills that actually can have real life applications in unexpected circumstances. It was good to hear this little routine, since I am not sure if I could come up with it on the spot if I were in that situation.

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