Grand central Station, NYC. I haven’t included the photo prompt here, as I don’t want to associate this location with my story in any way. The only association is an indirect stream of consciousness type link made in my mind.
Commuting, exploring, touring, travelling – rail travel. Currently, my closest railway station is almost a thirty minute drive away. As a result, I almost never catch trains as part of my day to day life. I do drive to the station to pick up and drop off visitors – kids coming home for occasional weekends or family events and my mother in law making her annual visit amongst others. Train travel for me now is a feature of holidays, used to explore foreign cities and exotic countries. I have caught trains on three continents other than my own, from the New York Subway, London Tube and Paris Metro to Japanese bullet trains to much slower overnight trains in Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam over a couple of decades, leading to plenty of adventures and making some amazing memories. However, as I started to write, my mind wandered and the writing appeared to have a mind of its own as it so often does, resulting in this piece taking a much different, darker turn. I considered moving back to a travel story, but decided this story really needed to be told.
For many years, I caught the train daily, first a half hour train ride to high school, was always busy with carriages crowded with school students. Towards the end of high school, I got a holiday job in the city, a 50 minute train ride from home.
Following high school, I attended university full time for four years and again caught the train, about a one hour trip, often coming home late at night either from work or uni. This made for some interesting experiences, and sadly, I don’t mean that in a good way. I experienced things no one should have to, yet many girls and women have, with men exposing themselves and worse on several occasions. I was physically untouched, but emotionally affected. I don’t even remember if I talked about the incidents with adults and I certainly didn’t report them. I didn’t have the confidence to make a scene and shame the culprits, as I heard others had. I did laugh about them with friends, as we compared notes, confirming this was an all too common experience.
By far my most frightening experience though was after a late Thursday night shift in the city. I noticed a man who appeared to be watching me from a distance on the platform as I waited for my train after work. He got onto the same carriage as me, but so did many others, so I discounted it to some extent. However, he kept watching me, so I made sure I stayed alert as to his movements. I was only eighteen and very innocent, but I wasn’t stupid. As my family lived in the outer suburbs, I watched the train slowly empty, stop by stop. He was still watching me, so I decided to change trains just to check what he would do. I got out, waited on the platform and got on the next train. He did the same, keeping at a distance, but still, I believed, watching me. I was afraid, but determined not to show it. I could see no-one I felt I could report my fears to. He remained at a distance, but continued to make me feel uneasy.
I was often the only one in my carriage by the time I got to my station and didn’t want to risk being alone with this menacing man. Not sure what to do, being pre-mobile phone days, with no option to call for help, I got off the train at the station where my fiancée lived. I sprinted from the unmanned station to his flat, just five minutes away, too afraid to stop and use the phone box at the station to call him, hoping and praying my stalker had remained on the train. It would appear he did. Thankfully, my fiancée, now my husband, was home. I was in tears and explained to him what had happened, how I had felt threatened and unsafe and was very afraid what might have happened if I was alone on the train with the suspected predator. I called my parents to explain the situation, then got a lift home. The whole experience was very frightening and from then on, my father collected me from the nearest major station, where there were always plenty of people around, rather than allowing me to travel all the way to our deserted station alone after dark. This was an inconvenience for him but something he felt was necessary for my safety. The reason for this was that the very next morning, it was reported on the radio news a girl had been raped on a train, very close to my home station on the previous night. Although I can’t be sure, I’ve always believed it was the same train I had been on and the same predatory man I had seen, who my instincts had screamed at me to get away from. My mother rang the police and reported my experience in case it could help their investigations. I felt a huge sense of relief, but also a sense of guilt for the girl who became his victim. If I had reported to a guard, could he have been stopped? Who knows. The reality is, I should never have been put into this situation. I should not have had to deal with the real fear of what could have happened followed by a mild case of survivor guilt. It is not OK that a young woman can’t feel safe travelling to and from work. It is not OK that men feel it is acceptable to expose and pleasure themselves in front of schoolgirls and women. It is not OK that predatory men choose to rape vulnerable women.
I don’t share this to frighten women and girls, but rather to warn them to be aware of their surroundings, to trust their instincts and to report inappropriate behaviour directed towards them. I share this to warn men to treat women with respect and to watch out for potential predators in their midst. Be alert and report any suspicious or off behaviour. My experiences were over twenty years ago now, but I believe they are still relevant now, whether you catch a train or not.
Some of the issues I experienced can be avoided now, with mobile phones, panic buttons and various other aps available to assist with personal safety. Women still experience this treatment and so much worse. The underlying issue of men exerting power over women and using them as sex objects has not changed. It still needs to be addressed. Awareness is just the first step. The recent Me Too movement has attempted to do this, but sadly there’s still a long way to go.