Commuting while female
I’m riding a streetcar on a muggy Tuesday evening. Late summer in Toronto is sticky, and I’ve pulled open the window to coax a breeze into the stifling car. I’m recovering from a back injury, and am happy to have grabbed a seat during the rush hour commute. I pull open my book and begin to read.
The hairs on the back of my neck prickle and I realize that someone’s wet, hot breath is on my neck, dripping down my spine. A man begins to speak, his voice gravelly, but soft.
“Of all the animals in the world,” he mutters, “Human women are the worst.”
His breath tickles my ear. I catch a whiff of sweat and tobacco.
I don’t know what this man looks like, but I know better than to turn around. I hunch my shoulders to put as much distance between us as possible without getting up, and I assess how quickly I can get off the car.
Frozen in a moment of indecision, I stare back down at my book. I lean forward to keep my weight on my toes. Is he more likely to get violent if I stay, or if I try to go? Is he more likely to hurt me if I acknowledge him, or if I ignore him? (For a lot of us, these are calculations that we have to make every. single. day.)
“Look at you, so fucking full of yourself, reading a book.”
He’s speaking softly so that only I can hear him. If I were a few inches further away, I wouldn’t be able to make out the words.
“Get off the streetcar. Everyone on here knows that you’re just a conceited bitch. Everyone knows.”
I still don’t know what his face looks like, but I imagine the words are delivered with a snarl.
For a moment I uselessly wonder what I did to incite his ire. I’m fairly certain he hasn’t even seen my face, just my shoulders, neck, and hair. Does he just hate my bob haircut and sleeveless button-up? Does he have a vendetta against pale girls with dirty blonde hair? Did somebody hurt him? Is he just having a bad day? Or wait, maybe he just really hates girls who read books? A lot of men on public transit seem to really hate books.
And then I remember that, of course, he doesn’t hate me, he just hates women. Or rather, he hates that women are allowed to take up space in public, and have agency over our lives and our bodies. He hates that we can turn down his sexual advances, ignore him, read a book that he knows nothing about, feel things that he doesn’t want us to feel, say things he doesn’t want us to say.
In his entitled little head we’re not on public transit, I’m riding on his streetcar, and if he doesn’t like the back of my head, well then, by God, he’s entitled to spew verbal abuse at me until I GTFO.
(…do I need to tell you that he’s a deluded piece of shit?)
A couple of weeks ago a man sat at the front of the streetcar catcalling every woman who got on. I remember the strained smile on the face of the blonde girl as she fumbled through her purse for fare, trying not to look appalled as the man told her about his big dick. I remember the driver telling him to shut up and his scream: “Fuck you, I have a right to free speech. You’re an abuser.” The blonde scuttled to the back of the streetcar, and the man stayed at the front yelling “You’re an abuser” over and over again for the next three blocks. (The irony was not lost on me.)
A few years ago on the subway a stranger grabbed my copy of This Side of Paradise out of my hands, and told me that he wouldn’t give it back until I explained the plot. When I told him that I would like it back, he told me that it was true, I probably did like it in the back. (Har har.) When I told him to go fuck himself and walked away he ran after me with the book and apologized. Or rather, he told me that it was just a joke. I shouldn’t overreact.
Fuck you, I think. Public transit belongs to me as much as it does to you.
I resolve not to move until I reach my stop.
But then the man bangs a window shut behind me and I scramble to my feet, suddenly remembering that he could kill me if he so chose. My stubbornness and self-righteous anger cannot protect me from physical violence, although I dearly wish they could. Pain radiates up my spine from the impact of my sudden movement. I walk swiftly to the doors.
He calls after me: “Nobody wants you here, you stupid, conceited bitch.”
A few people glance at me and look away. I sneak a look at his scruffy face and red eyes, get off the streetcar, and duck swiftly into a store. I look out the window anxiously to be sure he doesn’t get out after me, not exhaling until the streetcar has made its way past me down the block.
I buy a bottle of wine and walk the rest of the way home.