The pitfalls of confronting bigots in the wild

Warning: Strong language below.

I think that it would be a fair assessment to say that most people do not enjoy confrontation. There will always be those bold souls that thrive on conflict, while the rest of us just sort of hang back and hope we don’t get caught in a crossfire.

When I’m out in public, my preference is to fade into the background. Put my headphones on, sometimes music, sometimes not-it doesn’t matter. An imaginary barrier between me and the world. I might roll my eyes at something that annoys me, like someone wearing a huge backpack on a crowded train, but I wont speak up. Those annoyances are temporary, and you can block them out.

I tried to do that today, but it didn’t work.

I had just gotten on a bus that I take, almost daily, and began my ritual of queuing enough songs to fill my commute. As I was deciding, I heard grumbling directly behind me.

“Aw, Jesus, one person? We’re wasting time for one person? Come on.”

Ok, I thought, my face still glued to my phone. Pretty soon, the grumblings got louder, more agitated.

“Another fucking person. Why aren’t we MOVING. Come on, wasting my time for this shit.”

The driver seemed nonplussed. I tried to glance over my shoulder, but the man was sitting at a higher level, and I couldn’t see his face without making it abundantly obvious that I was trying to see his face.

By now, I decided I had better leave my headphones off in case this escalated. A combination of late afternoon Chicago traffic and various unmanned(yet still cordoned off) street construction sites meant that this trip was going to take twice as long as usual. Great.

Then the personal attacks began. I saw a young man of maybe 25 in an Air Force uniform waiting patiently at a stop. As the young man was paying his fare, the man behind me, let’s call him Bob, expressed anger that we had stopped yet again to pick up a single person. “Why are we stopping? He should fucking walk. He can fucking walk back to Iraq for all I care.”

I felt my face growing hot. I silently hoped he would stop before the new passenger could hear. But Bob wasn’t interested in toning it down, he insulted the lieutenant(maybe?) even louder now. He’s crazy, I thought. But I kept my mouth shut.

His next targets were two women, one of which took a moment to hoist her bike to the rack on the front of the bus (adding an entire 15 seconds to our commute). Bob was not pleased.

“Jesus Christ, look at her fucking arms,” he said of the woman with cropped, pink hair and wrist cuffs. “A pig like that should walk. Lose some fucking weight and quit wasting my time. Disgusting.”

I felt bad for the woman and, once again, hoped he would stop before she could hear him. He did not stop. My hands were shaking. I was so angry I felt dizzy, but I wasn’t about to engage with this man if I could avoid it. The woman with the pink hair looked down at her phone. I couldn’t tell if she had heard him.

“Lose some fucking weight and quit wasting my time. Disgusting.”

Looking around, I saw that most people had neutral expressions. No one seemed to be acknowledging the outbursts, and I wondered if this didn’t make him feel more empowered. Or did he feel emboldened by our current political climate?

We pulled up to a crowded stop. A number of people got off, twice as many waited to get on.

The previously half-empty rows started to fill up. A woman with a stroller and at least five other children, ranging from about 5 to 13 years old got on. They spread out without discussion. It was clear they were used to not sitting together on public transportation. I prayed that he would leave them alone.

The mother had not even paid her fare before Bob started going in on her. “Disgusting. Just disgusting. All those fucking kids. All those fucking kids. You shouldn’t even be here. Get out, there’s no room for you here. No room for you and all those goddamn kids.” You shouldn’t be here was ringing in my ears. I cringed but said nothing.

The mother sat with her stroller at the very front of the bus. Two of the pre-teen girls sat in the row in front of me. And a girl of about 7 stared at the empty seat next to me before her sister told her to sit down.

Bob’s anger had reached a boiling point. He continued to rail on the mother, her alleged promiscuity and the general injustices of other people living in his country.

“There’s no room for you here. No room for you and all those goddamn kids.”

The oldest girl had begun to notice.

Her hair was slicked and pulled back into a high bun. She wore metallic purple glasses that were a little too big for her face. Her head tilted in confusion before she turned around to find the origin of the insults.

“What are you looking at? Turn the fuck around before I slap the shit out of you with those stupid glasses. And your stupid bun, turn around.” She shrank down in her seat.

He was still berating her when I stood up.

Stop it. They’re kids, what is wrong with you?” I struggled to articulate my anger. The seven year old ran to the front of the bus, likely scared by my outburst.

Bob’s eyes bore into me, and he was quiet for the briefest of moments. “I’m not talking to you,” he said angrily. “I’m on the phone with my wife.”

There was no phone in his hand.

I didn’t know what to say, so I repeated myself. “Don’t talk to kids like that. You have no right.”

“My wife is the chief of police. I want you to know that.” He turned his face away from me and raised a hand to his ear, pantomiming a phone call. “…I’m on the bus. I’ll be home soon.”

I slunk down in my seat, reeling from anger and confusion over the imaginary phone call. Bob is likely in his 60's. He has thinning whitish-gray hair, trimmed very closely. He was wearing a white t-shirt and light jacket. His eyes looked black and unfocused, and his face was gaunt. He was not physically imposing.

“You know what, you ruined it.” Bob wasn’t swearing. Interesting.

What I had ruined, I wasn’t sure. But my anger was slowly becoming more intense, and I wasn’t about to console Bob. “Alright then.”

“Women shouldn’t even talk to men like that. You were created from us. Read the bible. Why do you think you only have 11 ribs and we have 12?”

My mind couldn’t formulate an argument to something so ridiculous. I’m pretty sure that half of our ‘argument’ was just me staring at him incredulously.

His next critique was “You’re probably not even good at your job.”

Women shouldn’t even talk to men like that. You were created from us.

I responded “I am very good at my job.” A debatable point, had he known me. I had only started in my new role six short months ago. Good would probably be a stretch.

Bob continued to tell me that women were inferior to men in a multitude of ways, and I would respond, curtly, that his opinions were wrong. As we were nearing my stop, I started to worry, what if he has a gun? What if he follows me? These are the kinds of thoughts are usually what keep me from getting involved in the first place. But it was too late now.

After a few minutes of this, a large man at the front of the bus got up and moved quickly to where we were sitting. “Hey! Do not talk to a woman like that. You came from a woman.” I pieced together that this was the girls’ father. “You want to talk down to someone? I’m right here.”

Bob backtracked, insisting that we interrupted a conversation with his wife. But the father wasn’t having it. “You wanna talk shit, talk shit to me. I’m right here. Go ahead.” This sizable man was now inches away from Bob, practically daring him to move. He was seething. I wasn’t sure if he had heard Bob threaten his daughter.

The bus driver finally yelled over his shoulder and told the men to cut it out, or he’d have to stop and call the police.

Bob hesitated. He knew he was beat. He fell silent and after a few tense moments, the large man went back to his wife. I moved a few rows away to feel safer.

Bob tried to regain some of his pride as the family exited a few minutes later, hurling the same insults, but in lower tones. The girls’ father issued one last, pointed threat.

We had real silence after that. For the rest of the ride, I wondered what Bob was thinking about. Which meds he should have been on. Who he’s really mad at.

But he’s not the important one here. I hope that his hatred doesn’t end up being a formative moment in those girls’ lives. I hope their parent’s tell them that the man on the bus needs help-that we as a country don’t do enough to support the mentally ill. That we’re failing at providing our most at-risk citizens access to adequate, affordable healthcare.

I hope that those girls know they haven’t done anything wrong. That they deserve to be here. And that they’re not inferior to men.

More than likely, Bob, unmedicated, is going to be on another bus again tomorrow, insulting a new slew of unsuspecting passengers. Did I make things worse by confronting him? Was I too brash? Quite possibly. Maybe it’s ok to not have all the answers. And maybe it’s ok to speak up when other people can’t.

“All the hardest, coldest people you meet were once as soft as water. And that’s the tragedy of living. ”
- Iain Thomas, from I Wrote This For You

— This is my first Medium story-go easy on me, please ❤