Spirit-rape And Subway-rider Fear

October 21, 1990|By Susan Trausch | Susan Trausch,Susan Trausch is a columnist for the Boston Globe, from which this is reprinted.

A man was harassing a teen-age girl on the subway, bu nobody did anything about it.

We didn't know what to do. We weren't sure he was bothering her at first.

We had been paying that subconscious attention commuters pay to others in crowded subway cars. A conversation was going on in a seat. A kind of scruffy guy was talking to a girl with long brown hair. Could have been her boyfriend.

What I noticed first were the faces of her friends -- three of them tightening up in a row in front of me.

"What's wrong with those girls?" I wondered, and then looked across the aisle to where they were looking. Their friend had turned away from a man seated next to her.

"I just want to talk to you," the man was saying, and his voice had an insistent edge. "I don't know why we can't talk."

I plugged in then with full consciousness, but kept glancing sideways at the scene so as not to appear to stare. Commuters are good at this. They pretend to read advertising billboards intently while they are getting scared.

He was a big man with light curly hair. Nice-looking. Probably in his late 20s. The girl must have been about 14.

"I've got business cards," he said, handing her one. She shrank down, let the hair fall over her face, and said, "No, thank you."

"Why can't you be friendly?" the man asked, leaning around to stare into her face. He was not smiling. "Huh? I said, 'Why not?' "

The friends were nudging each other but didn't know what to do either. We all hoped he would go away.

I thought about telling him to buzz off, but then thought better of it. What if he carried a gun or a knife? What if he stood up and started swinging?

The story of the Watkins family had just been in the papers. Sherwin and Karen and their sons Todd and Brian were in New York from Utah on their annual trip to see the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament. They were attacked in a subway station by a gang, and Brian was killed. He'd tried to fight back.

I continued glancing sideways, hating myself for being a coward. I hated the man too, the bully. He had no right to do what he was doing. It was spirit-rape, domination, forced entry into a person's space. The whole trainload of us should yell at him, force him out.

As if he read my thoughts, he left at the next stop. The girl looked up and started to laugh, slightly hysterically. Her friends laughed too, the same way. They kept asking, "Are you OK?"

Then there was a loud banging on the window and the laughter stopped. The man slammed his fist against the glass behind the girl. His mouth was curled in a snarl. He looked as if he wanted to break the glass. Bang, bang, bang.

I prayed for the doors to shut. How many people in how many subway trains have said that prayer? Time seems to freeze when something ugly happens. The doors stand open, the gears grind, and passengers clutch their poles tensely, almost in tableau.

As the train started moving, I could feel the people around me relax. Something let go inside the girl too, for she began to sob. Loudly, wrenchingly, big tears splashing down onto her dungaree skirt, she cried and cried.

One of her friends put an arm around her shoulder, but the tears didn't stop. It was as if she were crying for all the violence in the world, for the shadow that can fall so randomly across a youthful romp, and for the ineffectual strangers witnessing her pain.

"That was terrible," I blurted out stupidly to her friends.

"Yeah," they said. "Terrible."

And I wasn't sure if we talking about the man or ourselves.

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