The Girl on the Bus

I’ve read so many comment pieces about passengers who sit idly by as other people get abused on public transport. These are more commonly about women or non-Caucasian members of society. These pieces shock me. Who could not react to this abhorrent behaviour? I have always thought that given the opportunity to speak up, I would do so. I am brave. I am a feminist. I believe that a bit of support goes a long way. Turns out, I don’t understand myself at all in this regard.

I caught the bus home today, same route as usual. The thing about Sydney buses is that they usually bring a variety of different people, regardless of whether you take the same route at the same time. I was on the 5:35pm bus from Wynyard, which should have been the 5:05, but as Sydney buses generally are, it was delayed. I got a seat, which I was utterly grateful for. I settled in, opening my Pokemon Go app (because yes I still play, and no I don’t care what you think about me). I was ready to tune out from the world, and live in my alternate reality of Clefairies and Pikachus with Santa hats until I got home.

Three stops in, a man hopped onto the train. He was loud. Making comments. I turned down the music on my phone to listen to what he was saying. I’m nervy: I live in a major capital city and I was opposite the Lindt Café in Martin Place when the siege happened. I like to know what’s happening in my surroundings. This man seemed jovial and didn’t look overly disabled or old. But he made his presence clear when he stood over two women in the seats dedicated for people in need. Now, if any of you have ever caught a train in peak hour in Sydney (or any capital city), you’ll know that these seats are used. In most cases, if it’s obvious that someone in need would be better off in these seats, the person sitting will give up the seat.

This man didn’t look elderly. He didn’t look disabled. I looked at him from my (safe) vantage point of a “regular” seat and decided that despite him being overly chatty, it didn’t look like there was anything that made him deserve the special seat. But he stood over two women who were sitting in the seat and mocked them. Both women looked like they were in their 20s: one Caucasian, the other who looked like she was from a middle Eastern background. He leaned over them, into their personal space, to read out loud the sign about vacating seats for those in need. One of the women then asked if he’d like the seat. He responded yes, and then said, “In my day, people could read. People had manners. People wouldn’t occupy seats meant for others.”

Now, I’m not saying the man was racist. But the woman who looked like she was from a middle-Eastern background, who was trying to live her own life and listen to whatever she was listening to through her earphones, bore the brunt of his continual commentary. “Can’t you read?” “Weren’t you taught to read?” “Can’t you hear me? In my day, earphones weren’t a thing.” The comments he was making made me feel uncomfortable. I sat watching, looking at the woman who just turned away and internalized the comments rather than reacting.

The thing with judging people is that you never really know what’s going on. Someone could be 20 who looks 40. Someone could be 7 months pregnant and look skinny (shout out to my cousin who had ridiculous morning sickness throughout her pregnancy and looked like a supermodel, only looking physically pregnant in the very latter stages of her pregnancy). Someone could just be a horribly rude person. Or they could suffer from a mental illness. And you could have to deal with the consequences of getting in their way.

The entire experience on the bus took all of 12 minutes. But it stayed with me. Should I have done more? Should I have stood up for the woman? Would I have risked aggravating the man and making the situation worse? But what if she’d had the most horrible day and he was her last straw? It’s easy to sit back and read a newspaper article and say you’d act in a certain way. But when you’re there, and considering the complexities of your actions, life becomes a lot more complicated. I’d like to think if the situation had been more drastic, if there’d been physical violence or obvious anger, I’d be able to stand up for whoever needed it. But who knows? Maybe I’d be just as nervous to act. Maybe I’d be just like anyone of those bystanders I’ve judged so easily.

Life is complicated. Judgment is easy. I’m sorry I didn’t act in the way I would have wanted to. My lukewarm smiles to the woman, trying to portray support, weren’t good enough. Next time, I hope I’m braver.