Personal Space

Coming home last night at 10pm, I met my favourite neighbors in the lobby on their way out to walk their dog. As I always do when coming home alone after dark (which is now 5pm, thank you Daylight Savings Time), I had my trusty pepper spray in my hand in the “ready” position: flap against the palm of my right hand, thumb on the button, fingers curled around with my key looped on my middle finger. I expected my neighbors to be surprised, but rather, I was when they were not.

“All these gropings you hear about…” I sheepishly muttered, to excuse my evident paranoia.

“Oh yeah! Like the guy who lives on the 145th street platform!” They told me about a homeless man three stops away from my house, who touches himself on the platform when a train is coming into the station, then unzips his pants and rubs his erect penis against the female passengers once he gets on the train, getting off (no pun intended) one station later.

Needless to say, I was appalled. Hearing about this crazy and horrible man made me want to talk about something that happened to me on a train last weekend…

Sunday night, after work, I boarded an insanely crowded train at 59th Street. Crowded trains are a reality of New York City. It’s just part of public transit. And until you’ve been on one, you have no idea: people’s arms in your face, people stand on your heels, it’s literally back to back to keep standing up. If you’re tall enough, you can press your hand into the ceiling of the train to keep your balance, if not, you just lean against fellow passengers to stay upright. It’s pretty much sardines in a can.

Somewhere along the express route from 59th to 125th, I became aware that the man behind me, whom I’d only caught a glimpse of as I pushed my way into the center of the train, was pressing his arm into my backside. Through my corduroy work pants, I could distinctly feel the back of his hand cupping my ass, his wrist in between my cheeks.

Understandably uncomfortable, I inched my feet forward and leaned my hips into the tiny amount of empty space, arching my pelvis forward, attempting to give him more space. I assumed, on the crowded train, he was unaware of his hand position and as a courtesy, I tried to give him more space. Instead, his hand found me again, and he began grinding his arm back and forth into my rear. I repeated my desperate shuffle forward, as every second turned into a lifetime. I watched the train zoom past the local stops. I muttered under my breath a prayer that he would back away, he would finish with me, that the train would HURRY UP.

125th Street arrived, and though a few passengers got off, even more got on. My new friend and I were trapped together. I tried to make eye contact with someone, ANYONE on the train to see if I was alone in this, but indeed I was. 125th…135th…145th street! Suddenly the train emptied out. I bolted across the train to an available standing space. My assailant looked around, then left the train.

The rest of the ride home I tried to convince myself that nothing had happened: it was a crowded train. Mentally I flashed on this sign I had seen often on previous subway rides:


I had listened to Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos. I had seen my fair share of lifetime movies. I am a feminist! Part of me thought to myself: “How could you be so stupid? Why didn’t you turn around, look him in the face? Yell ‘Excuse me!’ and push out of the way? Scream for help?”

Another part of me thought: “Maybe it was an accident. He didn’t grab and squeeze, he didn’t put his penis on you or in you, he didn’t start humping you on the train! Thank goodness you weren’t wearing a skirt! Next time, try to be more careful.”

For days I have been replaying the incident in my mind, with commentary provided by one or the other of the above “characters”. But hearing about the crazy assaults perpetrated by the man at 145th Street made me realize something:

Being touched by a stranger in a way that makes you uncomfortable is NOT okay. A crowded train IS NOT an excuse. Being a woman in New York doesn’t mean you give up your right to personal space, and it isn’t an invitation to be touched in any way, by a penis or a weapon or even the back of a hand.

And just for the record, I’m still carrying my pepper spray.

3 thoughts on “Personal Space

  1. That was in no way, shape, or form an acceptable thing for that man to do. You are right to be outraged, to feel violated, and if it ever happens again, I hope you yell or use your pepper spray.

  2. Oh man, NO.

    I am sorry that this happened to you, but thank you for speaking out and reminding us that if something feels wrong, it probably is. I was on a late train one night, the only lady in the car with the only other person, a man, sitting across from me. I was too drunk to trust my own judgement on his behavior, but his moaning & shifting around made me super uncomfortable and I was able to switch

    I try to keep a simple "excuse me" with direct eye contact in my arsenal for the (unfortunately inevitable) time that this may (will) happen, but I wonder if I'll use it. Funny how we've been conditioned to accept undiluted bullshit.

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