I am not a fan of public transportation. In most places I have lived, it is an inefficient means of getting around. For instance, if I had to commute from my home to Mountain View (25 miles away), a one-way trip would take two and a half hours via light rail and bus. Public transportation also poses other challenges. One memory came up today.
One winter evening when I was 21 and my brother was 13, I took him to a play at a local theater. I lived downtown without a car. I probably cooked him dinner beforehand. After 5 p.m., the buses ran only once every hour; they lined up along a major intersection downtown. We boarded our bus and moved toward a seat in the back. I selected a seat that faced toward the front of the bus and sat by the window; my brother was next to me.
Behind me, perpendicular to my seat, sat a bunch of young men. Directly behind me, a man sat with his elbow jutting over the edge of my seat, preventing me from sitting back. I tried a nonverbal approach at first by simply pushing myself back, hoping he would get the hint and move his arm. He resisted; his arm didn’t budge. I pushed slightly again, and the elbow shoved back. The guys were talking among themselves. I turned around and politely said, “Would you move your arm, please, so I can sit?”
He replied, “NO. And if you ask me again, bitch, I’ll hit you.” I turned around, fuming. I could have decided to move us to a different seat. I decided instead to assert myself. What followed occurred so quickly.
I pushed back, and he didn’t move. I turned back and said, “Really, please –” BAM! He backhanded me in the face and my glasses flew off. I gasped and grabbed my glasses from my lap. I was stunned, and reality felt like slow-motion. I told my brother to get up and move. The other men taunted him, asking if he was going to protect his girlfriend. The buses were about to depart.
My heart pounded, my arms and legs shook. I strode to the front of the bus and told the driver what happened. Behind me, I heard murmurs of discontent and complaint. I was holding up the bus. The driver said, “I can’t do anything about that.” He called the dispatcher, who arrived a moment later and said, “I can call the police if you want. Nothing else to do.” I could feel the annoyance from other passengers on the bus. I declined to pursue that option.
T and I sat right behind the driver, perpendicular to him. I was very scared, shocked, and outraged. I felt helpless and alone. I fought tears, not wanting to weep in public. I was flooded with shame. I stared at nothing, shaking, my mind reeling. A couple blocks onward I glanced toward the back of the bus. The man who’d hit me saw, rose, and walked to the front. He stood in front of me and said, “You want to start something, bitch? Huh?” At this point I was frozen in terror. I stared straight ahead and didn’t respond. He turned around and went back to his seat. We got off at the next stop, several stops early, and trudged the rest of the way through snow and slush to the theater.
All this time, my brother hadn’t spoken. Neither had I. We arrived at the theater, I put on the happy big sister persona (or tried to) and said, “Let’s forget that and enjoy the play.” I spent the rest of the evening feeling removed from the experience. I have no memory of the play, or of how we got home.
Do demographics matter? It was 1984. I was an angry 20-something white woman who identified as lesbian. My attacker was an angry late teen/early 20s black man probably part of a gang. Of course he hit and threatened me. I was only a woman, an uppity white woman. I wasn’t even a woman; I was a bitch. I felt completely unsupported in the situation. Lonely. I had asserted myself, was attacked for it, and NOBODY helped me. I appealed to authority; they didn’t care. Not only did no one help, people complained about being delayed. I was responsible for my brother’s safety. I felt utterly powerless. I felt waves of shame, fear, anger, and sorrow.
For years after that, I never sat further back than the middle of the bus. I avoided eye contact with black men. And to this day, my brother and I have never discussed it.