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.