Tag Archives: subway

Street Harassment: The Close Proximity Whisper

13 May

Okay, ladies, I’m sure you’ve all experienced this:

You’re walking down the street doing what you always do which is minding your own goddamn business and going about your day when you see a man walking towards you.  You notice him looking but he says nothing, doesn’t exactly ogle but his eyes linger on you a little too long for optimal comfort.  As he gets closer you brace yourself for the upcoming comment, the kissy noises, that terrible clicking sound.  Nothing.  You think you’re home free but then, just as he passes you he leans in and whispers ever so quietly,

“God bless.”

You can feel his breath on your face and the hair stands up on the back of your neck.  You turn around, angry, but he is already halfway down the block making his way to where ever he is headed.  No one around noticed a thing.  He’s in the clear.

If I had to rate types of non-physical assault style street harassment from one to ten, ten being my least favorite, I think that approach would get the crown.  It is worse than the passing car, the obvious stare, the invitations to go out, the whistles from rooftops.  For me, the close proximity whisper is one of the most invasive forms of harassment.  In the United States, we have such an engrained idea of personal space that when someone invades it there is no ignoring it.  That person made the choice to enter into my space, he knew it would make me uncomfortable and he didn’t care.  The feeling of his breath on my skin only adds insult to injury.  It is one step away from him putting a hand on me.  It is infuriating, disempowering, and disgusting.

The close proximity whisper is something that has been driving me crazy for a long time.  I almost forget that it even happens until one day some dude whispers “smile baby” in my ear and I go through the fucking roof.  But he didn’t touch me and there is no opportunity for a strong worded retort, really. It always takes too long for me to register what has happened and by the time I do my only option is to scream like a banshee at some asshole’s receding back.  The reason I thought of this now is that the other night this happened to me only it was on a crowded train and it was terrible.

So I was with a friend of mine and we were heading to Crown Heights to visit his friend at the bar she works in.  When we got onto the train it was relatively empty but we opted to stand.  I have been standing a lot lately.  It’s a thing.  Anyway, we were standing in the little door alcove on the wrong side of the train (AKA the side the doors open on) so every time we stopped somewhere we would split up; he would stand to one side of the doors and me to the other.  We’d reconvene in the middle once everyone got aboard.  When we stopped at Atlantic Avenue the train got swamped.  We couldn’t meet in the middle again so he stayed to his side and I stayed to mine. Right next to me was a really tall (this is all relative considering I am pushing 5’4″) man somewhere in his late forties if I had to guess.  The second the doors closed he leaned over and, right in my ear whispered,

“Are you a mommy?”

It took me a second to understand what he had said.  It was Mother’s Day after all.  I gave him a small smile and said no and then resumed staring blankly in front of me, my left arm grasping the subway poll, my right hand resting on my left shoulder, as much of a protective stance as I could muster considering I had no room to move.  He leaned forward again,

“You look too young to be a mommy.”

I glanced over at him, raised my eyebrows and did a very slight head nod in an attempt to acknowledge he had said something to me without inviting him to say anything else.  A moment later his hand “slipped” off whatever he was holding and hit me in the chest, landing hard on my breastbone.  I instinctively checked to make sure my necklace didn’t vanish — it hadn’t but it wouldn’t be surprising to me if it had because people just love to steal shit from me — and felt thankful I had the foresight to cover my boobs with my arm.  I glanced over at my friend who had been looking at me protectively, not sure exactly what to do and, I imagined, taking cues from my behavior.  The man apologized.  I shot my eyes up to him without turning my body in his direction.  Then, seconds later, as we approached a stop he put his hand on my shoulder, leaned in much to close and whispered,

“Have a wonderful day.”

He was all up in my space.  He was touching my arm.  I thought maybe he was getting off at that stop and felt a momentary rush of relief but the train doors opened and he made no move to exit.  At that moment my friend called over the heads of the half dozen people in between us and asked if I wanted to get off and walk.

Fuck yes.

We got off the train.  I didn’t look back to see the man’s reaction when he realized that I was traveling with someone and that someone happened to be years younger and much more solid than him.  My friend and I talked about it for a minute, him not knowing the man had touched me because he was unable to see through all the people.  From his vantage point all he could see was some guy whispering in my ear and to him, that was enough to want to get me out of the situation. I put it out of my head for the remainder of the night but now I am thinking about it.  And here is what I am thinking.

It is bad enough to have someone whisper in your ear and keep moving but to have that person violate your personal space and continue to stand there is totally fucked.  It put me in an incredibly uncomfortable situation, one that I could not extricate myself from.  It’s like, there I was, stuck with all these people around me and then this guy who was just toeing the line, seeing how far he could push it.  I was bound, in a way, by the manners we as women have been taught.  I didn’t want to sharply tell him to stop, as I normally would if I could walk away, and then be stuck standing next to him, with the eyes of all the other passengers on me.  I didn’t know what their reactions would be, whether they would support me or think I was a loon.  I mean, all he was doing, really, was talking.  And the first touch could easily have been excused as an accident.  I started feeling like the best course of action was to keep my eyes down and my mouth shut, to not draw attention and maybe it would just stop on its own.  (In my personal experience, this reaction never really has the desired effect.)    I didn’t want to have to defend my reaction to a bunch of people who might not support me and then remain there, shamed.  I thought if I just stood there, more or less unmoving, as nonreactive as possible, he would back off but he didn’t.  He just kept toeing the line, kept inviting me into this seemingly innocent, but incredibly invasive, private conversation that I had absolutely no interest in participating in.

It’s a weird thing, to step out of your own tendencies.  I am pretty outspoken about this sort of thing, normally.  Especially when I am in New York.  That might sound like a weird thing but this is my home, I have lived here for a long time and I know when I should say something and when I shouldn’t.  Before I react strongly to a comment, I note the time of day, where I am, whether or not there are people around. At 4am I keep my mouth shut, but in the afternoon, in a parking lot stuffed with cars, I will say my piece.  I take the shock and awe approach.  I am especially good with words when I am angry and I think that the mouth I have takes casual harassers by surprise.  It gives me the chance to tell them about themselves and march off before they regroup and think long enough to come up with something better than “bitch!” But being stuck in a subway car, pinned in place by the sheer quantity of people, can really make you revert back to socialized habits.

Anyway, a lot of times I think back on things and figure out how I could have handled it differently, better.  There’s always something.  But in this particular case, even with the luxury of space and a few days time, I cannot for the life of me figure out how I could have behaved differently.  I didn’t feel unsafe, really.  What I did feel was the society in which I was raised, one that teaches girls to keep quiet.  I thought about all the times people have told me that it is unsafe for me to speak my mind, that it isn’t worth it.  But I can’t stop thinking about how this guy won. How by not telling him what he was doing, I was complicit in it, I was saying it was okay.  Sure, I got off early, sure, it was clear that I didn’t want to be near him, but I don’t know.  It is very possible that me telling him to back the fuck off, as much as he could considering the circumstances, would have set him off, or would have fallen on deaf ears, but I also could have been the first person to say it and maybe, hopefully, the last person he did it to.

Being a woman is hard.

A Letter to the New President of the MTA

8 Oct

Dear Carmen Bianco,

Hello, sir, how are you? As the newly appointed president of the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority, I must say I have a few bones to pick with you.  I understand that your appointment is, officially at least, very new, occurring only on the 18th of September of this year.  However, after doing a small bit of research I found that you have actually been the acting president since this past April and, perhaps even more damning, you served as the Senior Vice President of the Department of Subways, overseeing the entire subway system since 2010.  My gripes, therefore, land squarely in your backyard.

I suppose I would like to start by disputing your predecessor Thomas F. Pendergast’s recent statement that you are an “advocate for the customer.”  How many times in my life have I heard different permutations of the idea that those in power should lead through action?  Too many to count, I suppose.  And yet your words, at least in my years of experience of utilizing the New York City public transportation system, the largest mass transit system in North America, have not been sufficiently proven through the actions of the MTA.  I don’t feel that, on a regular basis, you are much of an advocate for the customer at all.

Let’s talk about the monthly pass, shall we?  When I first moved here to New York City in June of 2005, the monthly pass cost $76, an increase of $6 from the price that had been most recently set in 2003.  I remember that, making barista wages, I balked at the price, and considered the option of walking everywhere.  But then my friend said to me that the investment was worth it.  That deciding not to purchase the card might make me less likely to try and experience all the things the city had to offer.  I took her advice and and never looked back.  As time has gone on, however, I have seen the price of the monthly pass rise again and again, to $81 in 2008, $103 in 2009, finally landing at the $112 that we New Yorkers pay today.  With a single ride costing $2.50, straphangers have to swipe their cards 45 times in 30 days to make it worthwhile.  For me, the cost just is not worth it.  But that isn’t even what I am here to write about.  What I am here to write about is that while the price of a ride has increased, the service we New Yorkers are provided seems to have gone downhill.  Let me give you a recent example.

I work on the weekends.  I understand that, percentage wise, more people work on weekdays than on the weekends and so if you are going to schedule your work during daylight hours, the weekends are simply a better option.  But sometimes I feel as though there is an MTA-wide campaign against getting me to work in a reasonable amount of time.  About a week ago, the F train that I waited 10 minutes for stopped at the Carroll stop due to a switch malfunction.  I sat in the train car for 10 minutes before I decided to give up and hoof it to work.  This past Sunday, I walked to my F/G stop to find, after I had already swiped my not unlimited card through the machine, that neither the F nor the G were stopping at my stop, and that I would have to take the train one stop in the other direction, transfer to a Manhattan/Queens bound train and get to work that way.  I bounded up the stairs to find the doors of the G train slamming shut in my face.  Normally I would have begrudgingly taken the R train but, wouldn’t you know it, the R was running express from Dekalb Avenue to lower Manhattan, effectively bypassing the stop I required to get to work on time.  I was already running behind, angry and sweating.  I called a cab.  Which, when added to the unused $2.50 swipe and the tip for the driver, ended up costing me $12.50.  I feel as though the MTA should be required to reimburse me that amount since you made it impossible for me to get to work in a timely fashion.  This is not the first time this has happened and I fear it is not even close to being the last.

Oh, and while I am at it, I have a few more gripes.  About a month ago I went to my subway stop, again en route to work, and put $10 on my card.  The machine did not give me a receipt.  When I then proceeded to swipe my card at the turnstile is said I had insufficient funds.  Due to the financial cutbacks of recent years, there is no subway attendant at that entrance.  I was forced to cross 4th Avenue to find the remaining attendant at the other entrance, and attempt to explain to him how the MTA machine had just stolen $10 from me.  He swiped my card and told me I had insufficient funds and asked for my receipt.  I told him the machine I used had refused to give me one.  He told me my card has insufficient funds.  This conversation went around in circles for about 5 minutes before he finally relented and allowed me to pass through the turnstile without paying.  It sort of added insult to injury because for years I have kind of felt as though the MTA has been stealing money from me, and then on that particular day it actually stole money from me.

Just to be clear, I want my $10 back and I also want more subway attendants at the entrances.  As a women who often rides the subway home alone at night, the presence of cameras at the subway stops does not make me feel safe.  Few if any of the remaining platform telephones work, leaving someone very few options if something bad is to befall her.

I get it, things cost money.  And I understand that you are trying to expand the subway system.  But why are you expanding the system when you can’t even seem to stay on top of the lines that are already in existence?  Some of the train cars, specifically the ones that stop in lower income areas, could use replacement before you go making some fancy-pants 2nd Avenue line.  And while I am at it, what took so damn long with the Smith and 9th Street station?

And in summation, I know that I am not an economics savant but an average of 7.5 million people ride the subway, bus, paratransit* and Staten Island Railway every day.  At $2.50 a swipe that’s a lot of coin. I understand that the MTA has some budgetary problems, that it is a huge system, that I don’t understand all the ins and outs.  And to be honest, although I would love it if the fares didn’t keep going up, I don’t really know enough about the specific financial situation to make a clear cut and well-argued point.  But what I would really appreciate is that if I am forced to continually pay more and more, that I pay more and more for the same or preferably better service.  It should not take me the better part of an hour to get from my house to work, a distance of less than 3 miles.

Thank you for reading and also, for saving those kittens.


Rebekah, Frankly.

*Just for the record, our transit system is not terribly kind to the disabled.  I am an able-bodied person and I find a lot of the stairways rather treacherous.  Just saying.

Why Do People Cut Their Nails in Public?

28 Jun

So today I was reminded of one of my biggest pet peeves:  people cutting their nails in public places, most notably on the subway.  This afternoon I dragged my exhausted self into the city for an appointment with an extra large, extra caffeinated iced coffee in hand, while reading an article on Alzheimer’s research (for those of you wondering, any sort of progress towards a cure seems sort of hopeless at the moment).  I was really excited that the R train came right away and that, even though the N had passed on the express track while I was two stops away from Atlantic Avenue, when I arrived I found it waiting there with open doors, inviting me to enter. I hustled across the platform next to an equally excited woman who was eating pork rinds.  I settled into my seat, drinking my coffee, reading my magazine, generally feeling happy about my insane train luck and then I heard it.  Click, click, click.  I have this like, really keen sense of hearing when it comes to people clipping their nails.  I started looking around the car to find the culprit and there he was, a young man, probably in his 20s.  He was sitting next to his girlfriend, hunched over, shedding his nails all over the train floor.  Yuck.

Before I get a little more into this, let me just say that if my boyfriend were to start cutting his nails in public I would break up with him then and there.  That, to me, is a sign of a complete inability to discern that which is disgusting from that which is not disgusting and I do not want to date someone who thinks that doing something disgusting in public is normal.  To me, nails should only be cut when you are alone, in the bathroom, with your hand or foot dangling over the garbage can to try and catch as many errant nails as possible.  It is then important to sweep.  There is nothing worse than walking around the house, feeling a prick on the bottom of your foot and then discovering that someone elses nail is stuck into your skin.  A guy I used to date used to cut his nails on the coffee table while he watched TV, collect them into a neat pile and then deposit them into the ashtray.  I had to leave the room.

Anyway, sometimes I think that people who cut their nails in public literally follow me around.  I encounter one such person in the subway at least once a month.  When I was on my way to New Orleans in late February, the woman in front of me on the plane was cutting her nails.  One time I saw a cab driver cutting his toe nails (thankfully I was not in the cab at the time).  I have seen them on the bus, on the train platform, I have seen nail clippers dangling from key chains.  These people are everywhere.  They are everywhere and they are always cutting their nails.  Do their nails grow faster than other people’s?  Are there just thousands of people who find cutting their nails in public appropriate?  What is the thought process behind this?  Do these people simply not notice that their nails are long when they are in the privacy of their own homes?  Are their lives that busy that they have no choice but to cut in public?  And why in the world do they have nail clippers with them on the go anyway?  Of all the things I might think to throw in my bag, nail clippers are nowhere on the list.  And then you have to wonder, do public nail clippers do other yucky things in public as well? Do they floss out in the open?  Do they pick gunk out of their belly buttons while sitting at a red light? Do they pop zits at the dinner table?  These are all things that I wonder whenever I encounter a nail clipper out in the wild.  These are all the questions I silently asked myself as I suffered through the click, click, click of a public nail clipping event just this afternoon.

Seriously, one of these days when I am on the train and this happens, I am going to politely approach the offending individual and ask him or her why.  Either that or I am going to siddle up next to the person, snatch the clippers out of his or hand, and throw them violently across the train, taking care to not hit anyone in the head with them because that would hurt.  I will let you know how this goes.

As a final point, I would like to quote from my friend Mandy’s response to my Facebook posting about this very incident:

“The cutting of one’s nails in a public place should be condemned openly and publicly. It is revolting and I don’t understand why people don’t know this.”

Mandy, I could not agree more.

Imagination Games Gone Sour

4 Dec

Disclaimer:  The blog to follow is in no way intended to belittle the tragedy that spawned the authoring of this particular post.  It is based on an actual fear that I have, however unlikely it is to come to fruition.  I choose to approach it semi-humorously because, in my experience, that’s usually a good way to approach things that are uncomfortable to talk about.  Also, I know that even though this fear sometimes comes true for some people and that is totally tragic and awful, it will likely not come true to me.  That, however, doesn’t mean that I (a) can’t still be worried about it and (b) can’t be sad for the people it actually happens to.  Disclaimer over.  Actual blog beginning.

Throughout this blog I have mentioned the imagination games that I play to pass the time.  I play them while I am running.  I play them when I think about winning the 550 million dollar Power Ball.  I play them pretty much all the time.  As I have gotten older, though, I have noticed that my imagination games have become slightly scarier, slightly more sinister.  They have become, as one of my old co-workers used to say, more akin to ill-fantasies than fun goals and aspirations.  Here’s an example.

When I used to play imagination games back in the day they always went like this.  I wrote this thing, said this thing, or did this thing that people thought was super great.  Then I became famous and people were talking about me enough that Ellen took notice and invited me on her show.  Then I would imagine whether or not I would have to pick my own clothes or Ellen’s dressing room people would help me think of something to wear because nothing, and I mean nothing in my closet is good enough to wear for an interview with Ellen.  Also, I don’t really know how to use make-up other than eye liner and mascara so I would wonder whether or not Ellen’s make-up people would help me with the other things that I might need to look good on camera.  You know, because in my imagination game I really would not want to have a shiny forehead.  Even though, for the record, shiny forehead is something I actually never worry about in real life.  OR!  I would write this thing or say this thing or do this thing that people thought was super great.  Then I would become famous and people would be talking about me enough that Larry King would notice and invite me on his show.  Then I wouldn’t worry about outfits or make-up or shiny forehead but would instead only wonder how much trouble I would get in if I were to lean over Larry’s desk thing and snap his suspenders.  It has been my dream to snap Larry King’s suspenders far longer than it has been my dream to be interviewed by Ellen.  But things have changed.

Now I have ill-fantasies as opposed to funny and neat fantasies.  One of my most reoccurring ill-fantasies is being pushed into the subway tracks by a stranger.  I don’t know exactly when this ill-fantasy started but it has been repeating itself for a few years now.  I will be waiting for the R train, looking down the tracks expectantly, seeing the progress of the train and all of a sudden


A crazy person comes from behind me, shoves me on the back and I go tumbling onto the tracks.  In my ill-fantasy, that’s usually the end of the story although come to think of it sometimes I imagine the broken bones and the bleeding face but I always manage to scramble back out of the tracks before the train arrives.  In real life, as in the life that takes place outside of my mind, I look around the subway for crazies and slowly inch my way closer to the wall, safe from a random shove.

Now that I think back, I’m pretty sure it all started this one day when I was waiting for the R train and all of a sudden I saw this man in the darkness of the subway tracks.  He wasn’t on the tracks, he was to the side of the tracks, on the walkway set up for MTA employees.  He was thin, of average height, with a crazy head of blondish-brownish-grayish hair.  He came running down the side of the tracks, train horn blaring behind him as the conductor wondered whether the man would continue on the walkway or jump down onto the tracks without warning.  He ran and ran and then as he approached the divider between where straphangers wait and MTA employees walk he hurdled, like how Olympic athletes do, easily clearing the blockade and went running through the entire waiting area, with all the commuters taking a step back towards the wall to let him pass.  He then re-entered the walkway area on the other end of the subway station and continued on his way.  I’m pretty sure in those tense momenst as he made his way across the platform we were all thinking the same thing.  No one wanted to be shoved and if I were to imagine someone who was likely to shove someone randomly, it would be this man with the crazy hair and the vacant eyes that seemed as though they hadn’t seen the light of day in months.  Now on a weekly basis I have a moment of ill-fantasizing while waiting for the subway where I worry that I may or may not get shoved into the path of an oncoming train, or at least onto the empty tracks to be bruised, bloodied and bitten by rats.  Until yesterday I thought I was being crazy.  But then it happened to this guy.  And then!

I went online and I discovered that this is not the first time this has happened!  Last year I found out this other lady who is in the fashion industry in some capacity also got pushed onto the tracks!  Also by a stranger!  She broke some ribs and her lung got punctured and everything.  Not dead but I bet she doesn’t ride the subway anymore.  So, while I fully realize that the odds of me getting pushed down into the subway tracks are slightly better than me winning the 550 million dollar Power Ball, being interviewed by Ellen or snapping Larry King’s suspenders I am still nervous about it.

So for the foreseeable future, I will be the one hugging the wall of the subway station until the approaching train comes to a complete stop.

Riding the Subway, Living the Dream

8 Oct

Today I was sitting around thinking about my love/hate with the New York City public transportation system.  As any good New Yorker does, I have lots of complaints about the system’s shortcomings.  It runs slow basically all the time but especially when you’re in a rush.  Because of snow.  Because of rain.  Because it’s too hot.  Because someone didn’t drink enough water and passed out.  Because of train traffic ahead of us.  Because of a police investigation at 34th street.  Despite all the frustration some of my funniest, or at least most memorable, New York moments have happened on the subway. Let’s climb into the way-back machine and walk through my most favorite ever subway experience.

Thanksgiving weekend 2007. I was on the subway on my way to work the night shift at my bar.  It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving and I was weighed down with bags from spending a good 4-5 days at home in New Jersey.  I smelled something funny and looked over and saw a guy huddled in his seat eating what appeared to be heated up Thanksgiving leftovers.  Okay.  Not my most ideal venue for eating but whatever, that’s cool.  I went back to staring blankly through the window into the darkness of the subway tunnel.  All of a sudden I felt something small hit me.  Then again.  And again.  I looked down at the floor and saw, rolling around, a few green peas.  I turned around and saw that the man with the leftovers was sitting there, staring at me, holding a plastic spoon in his hand and methodically launching his overcooked peas at me across the near-empty train car.  I was stunned.  I looked around, trying to see if anyone else had (a) been the victim of assault by pea or (2) had seen what was happening and could give me some clue as to the best way to respond because this guy was clearly a little looney.  No one seemed to have noticed.  I got hit in the forehead with another pea.  I said, loudly, and to no one in particular

Hello?  Anyone?  Does anyone see what is happening here?

An older lady who I had previously thought was sleeping lifted her head ever so slowly, looked at me, looked at the man, looked back at me and said, calmly,

He’s flicking peas.

I threw my hands up in the air, sending a pea that had gone unnoticed on my shoulder tumbling to the floor.

Yes! Exactly!  He is flicking peas!

And then, at a loss of what to do I looked back at the window, catching the man’s reflection in the darkness and watching to see when he might launch his next attack. My stop couldn’t come soon enough.  I grabbed my bags, looked over my shoulder in utter disbelief, and hustled off to my job.  I arrived at work a few moments later, anxiously awaiting the opportunity to share my experience.  I greeted my co-worker, wished her a happen belated Thanksgiving.  She smiled for a second and then screwed up her mouth and said,

Um…what is in your hair?

Clearly, it was a pea, nestled safely into one of my braids.