Public Bullying

Last week on the subway I witnessed a deeply disturbing scene.

It was about 9pm, I was on my way home from a class and surprised by the number of people in the train car. I had to stand in the aisle because all of the seats were taken. Well, almost all. There was about a half a seat empty in between two people, owing to the size of one of them. My spot was just in front of this larger person. A stop or maybe two after I got on, a woman entered and pushed her way into this small space. As she approached the bench she huffed and said something like, “Excuse me but I want to sit here”. Her tone was harsh and aggressive, and her words were directed at the larger person, a woman. She knew that by sitting down she would make this woman (and likely the other person and possibly even herself) uncomfortable. Her voice acknowledged that reality and asserted her right to take the seat anyway. The way she went about claiming the spot was obnoxious and rude, but the moment would have been forgettable if she didn’t also say, “This is… oversize”. 

My jaw dropped. I might have reddened. Through the whole dramatic scene, the large woman sat in silence; it took all of my self-control not to turn my head and see if there were any changes in her facial expression or posture. Thoughts and emotions flooded through me and I spent the rest of my ride wrestling with all of them. I took notes on my phone.

The rude woman was skinny, petite, white and looked to be in her early to mid 60s. She was wearing black tights with white stars on them, a black bomber jacket and pleather fingerless gloves. Her hair was a mix of grey and dull brown, wild and wispy about her face, which was shiny with sweat. Perhaps she had come from a vigorous work out, but she was wearing (ugly, incongruous) platform shoes which throws that idea into question.

The assaulted woman was black, in her late 20s or early 30s, wearing jeans and a white blouse, with lovely clear skin. Her natural hair was styled with two corn rows framing her face, the rest pulled back into a bun or pony tail. She wasn’t wearing headphones, so she definitely heard the comments made by the rude woman, and through the entire ordeal, as far as I could tell, her face and body continued to look as they did when I boarded the car – calm, and at rest.

I understood the rude woman wanting to sit down. When she first started speaking, my offence at her attitude was tempered by this understanding, and also the signs of her physical stress. After she made the comment about the woman being “oversize”, I was shocked. Scandalised might be a better word. I was angry too, on behalf of the other woman, and felt that she would be well within her rights to respond to the skinny woman’s rudeness. The anger quickly gave way to sympathy. I wanted to reach out to the assaulted woman somehow and let her know that I knew she was wronged, that she didn’t deserve to be treated that way. I was too embarrassed to meet her eyes though. I was afraid  that acknowledging my status as a witness might make any negative feelings she had worse. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Overcome with all these emotions, I also felt a little like crying. How cruel! How stupid! How senseless! And there I was just standing. Who was I, anyway, to be reacting so intensely to something that didn’t even happen to me? Would the assaulted woman resent me if she knew what I was thinking and feeling? I wonder now  as I’m writing this why I didn’t say anything. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference. It might have made an uncomfortable situation much worse. But maybe I should have.

Regardless of the woman’s desire to sit down, there was no need for her to shove her way into the space, and to publicly belittle the larger woman as she did so. As I said, the train car was full. She made no attempts to modulate her voice so that the exchange, such as it was, was private. Her huffing and puffing, the way she commented that the other woman was oversize, conveyed total disgust and censure. Moreover, she didn’t even say “you” are oversize. She said “this”, as though the woman were a non-human object. She basically broadcast to everyone else in the car not only that she thought the woman was lazy and gluttonous, but that her very being was transgressive, because she was too big for one seat.

Now, in spite of that fact, there was no love or grace or ‘common politeness’, as my mother or grandmother might say, in the skinny woman’s approach to the bench. Surely she could have extended some humanity to the other woman, and either refrained from sitting down – she didn’t ride the train for very long, if she had this actually would have helped explain her entitled behaviour – or spoken in a gentler manner. She was small enough to make the seating arrangements feasible, if a little tight, so there was no need for her to fling her body and her opinions about that way.

This brings me to another point, race. Can you imagine the same scene with the races of the women reversed? Only with extreme difficulty, and only with the skinny black woman appearing to reinforce the angry, ill-bred, chip-on-her-shoulder black woman stereotype. The white woman was confident and secure in her skin enough to humiliate a black woman without hesitation. This is an example of the way her skin gives her privilege to speak and behave as she’d like to, without fear of her words and actions being attributed to something beyond her own personality or having consequences beyond herself.

Another privilege at play of course is her body size. Her small figure did more than allow her to slide into the half seat, it gave her the upper hand in the exchange because she embodies the more highly valued physique in our society. With this physique comes respect and prestige from the larger community.*

The city itself played a role in making the exchange possible. The anonymity it affords gave another kind of power to the woman: it freed her to act as she pleased since she was interacting with and observed by strangers who she was practically guaranteed never to see again. New York makes it easier for those of us living here to behave callously toward one another – our liberating anonymity is also a shield.

Something else I turned over in my head was how one woman could be so mean and insensitive to another. With all of the social and media pressure to conform to particular standards of beauty, with all of the glass ceilings, locked doors and biased or restrictive legal matters that obstruct our every day lives, it’s unconscionable to me that the skinny woman could have no qualms about sucking joy or contentment out of the large woman’s life. Whether we agree with one another’s choices or not, the very least we can do is afford each other the respect we do not get from the wider world.

The scene was ugly, and all of the power and privilege dynamics at play reveal the dark side of human nature. I wasn’t thinking about those so much when I left the train though, I just felt sad. I couldn’t believe the older woman’s meanness and indignation; it filled the air and made the whole car feel hostile. I wondered how the rest of the assaulted woman’s night went, whether she’s experienced that kind of aggression before and how she manages it. The whole thing brought me very low. Reflecting on it now still brings me low. I want there to be a record that it happened, that I was a witness, that we need to do better.

 

*Economic class surely had a role to play in this exchange as well, but without knowing the women personally it’s difficult to speculate how exactly.

I Couldn’t Make This Up If I Tried

The man sitting next to me on the subway this afternoon was watching porn on his phone.

Did you catch that? He was watching porn. On his phone. Right next to me in the train car.

I met him already seated on that particular bench. The only other spots available were cut in half by male passengers’ man-spread, so I took the one between him and a woman. He glanced in the direction of my arm several times after I sat down, and I thought that perhaps it was because he felt I’d brushed his arm with my own. I hadn’t actually brushed any part of him at all and was a bit irritated that he kept looking at me. After several of these glances I looked down at our arms and saw his phone in his lap. As my brain pieced together the images on the screen, I was horrified, completely disgusted, and in shock. I wondered whether this was perhaps a viral video of old (two girls one cup?) that he stumbled upon, not knowing its graphic content. But no, I saw enough in those brief seconds to learn that it could not have been that infamous film; it was some other generic one he had elected to watch as though he were in his home.

Describing New York as diverse, or a melting pot, is trite, and hardly does the demographics and atmosphere of the city justice. There are all kinds of people here, and with most of us taking public transportation we’re bound to run into concepts and behaviours that are, at the very least, foreign to us. This was how I initially explained the actions of this man, who could have been my father – or young grandfather! – to myself. I chalked it up to his lifestyle and values being different than my own. As such, I could move to another seat on the train, and “to each his own, but that is seriously inappropriate” was as far as I could go in terms of judgement.

However, and much to my surprise, I soon started to feel sorry for this stranger. What kind of life must he have, how bad must his addiction to pornography be, that he could not take a subway ride without accessing some erotic [1] content on his phone? I cannot imagine being so entrapped. Or, could it really be that he does what he pleases without regard to social norms? That explanation doesn’t seem quite right though, because he stopped watching soon after I noticed what he was doing. He must have realised that I finally understood the reason for all his nervous glances in my direction. Either way, his decision to watch on the train in the first place is bewildering – is there anything you can’t see in NY? – and incredibly sad or incredibly brazen.

After the woman sitting on the other end of our bench disembarked, another man came and sat beside me. Soon, I found his sleeping head falling onto my shoulder, then his whole body leaning into my own, his weight pushing me into the man on my right. (Prompting still more glances.) Public transportation has an uncanny ability to make our private moments public. Whether people choose to carry out otherwise intimate activities in full view of strangers, like the man on my right, or cannot help themselves as they fall into them, like the man on my left, we give and receive glimpses into one another’s lives that many of the people we interact with regularly never see.

But really though. Porn??

 

[1] Does porn even count as erotic? For me that word has genuine sensual and emotional connotations which I don’t associate with the creation of pornography at all.

 

On Hold

At this very moment, I’m listening to a thin, tinny version of Minuet in G. It’s just the first 16 bars, playing over and over on a mind-numbing loop. My brain keeps jumping to the next section, recalling fuller, more interesting performances of the piece. Couldn’t they at least have found a real piano version to use, rather than these awful computer-generated tones? Alternatively, they could play the whole piece, or include other works entirely. Waiting is bad enough, why is it that so often the soundtrack turns a tedious experience into one that’s unbearable?

Possibly Too Personal

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I live next to a park. I can see trees and sky from my windows. As winter gave way to spring, I watched new life emerge from the earth and heard it transform the air. Where before the ground was rocky, barren and still, now there are plants pushing their way to the surface, trees returning to life and animals scampering across the rock face. Where there was relative silence, punctuated by traffic noises, now there are birds ever-chirping. I love my bedroom. I love this park. On weekends, when I can waken slowly and luxuriate in its sights and sounds, I am filled with a sense of wonder and peace, and the possibility of the new day shines brighter, seems greater.

I will be leaving this park soon. Much sooner than I would like or am prepared for. This is a city of transience, where people rarely come to put down roots. I heard this sentiment just Sunday, in church. I don’t exactly want to put down roots here either, but I do want to stay a while longer than I’ve been here so far.

I’ve struggled a lot in the past year with frustration at this world I’ve been born into, with its political systems and antiquated ways of conceiving of and policing the individual based on more or less arbitrary boundaries and bastions of power. It’s hard to focus my frustration on such abstract notions, as real and oppressive as they may be, so I’ve also struggled with resenting people around me who have greater freedoms than I, and thereby greater access than I. It’s a feeling I try not to dwell on, and move to snuff out when it arises – especially because I know have benefited so much from any number of privileges – but it’s a struggle all the same.

Another reality I’ve had to come to grips with is my dispensability. Many times in the past year people have been unwilling to fight for me because they know I’m replaceable. I say “know” because it’s a fact. I am. Sure I have a unique blend of skills, personality traits and experience, but at the end of the day another person could do my job or provide romantic or platonic relational fulfillment. The same is true of all of us; it’s how the world keeps turning. Again, I know that on some level we each touch lives and contribute to the world in individual ways. But sometimes, when business sense or the law or emotions dictate otherwise, we are passed over or cast aside in favour of another person or non-human solution.

So here I am, preparing to move away from my park, to a destination yet unknown. Working to find my footing and direction in spite of realities that oppose my freedom and confidence. Moving ever-forward, pushing past frustration and setbacks.

Bodily Fluids and Vaccinations

Everyone in NY should be vaccinated against Hepatitis B.

That’s one of the first things I thought when I realised that I had somehow gotten a stranger’s vomit on my jacket and backpack while standing on a subway platform. Thank goodness it’s early spring and I needed layers! Imagine if I had bare sleeves and was wearing shorts?! Oh man I was disgusted. And then I had to get onto a train, sit in the smeared off vomit and wait the 20-odd minutes it took to get to my stop, dreaming of the cleaning products I was going to use to disinfect my belongings. Once I made it into my apartment I discovered that the vomit was wider spread than the glimpses of sleeve and strap I saw on the platform. The horror! I didn’t want to take off either bag or jacket, for fear of where else I’d spread the offending substance, and once I had I didn’t know where to put them. I didn’t even want to drop them on the floor.

“I can truly say I’ve lived in New York now” – another thought I had after seeing the vomit. Of course I’ve heard and read stories about how gross the subway is, but until this past weekend, the worst I’d encountered were splatters of saliva – which don’t get me wrong, are seriously gross enough.

It’s unlike me though, to jump to “Hepatitis B [or any] vaccine” as a necessary and fail proof precaution against the perils of the city. I’d never given the virus any thought at all until two days prior to the vomit incident. I had to go to a clinic to follow up on my physical exam. The physician’s assistant strongly urged me to get the vaccine, and not knowing anything about the disease, I asked her why it was necessary. She said health professionals recommend everyone working with children be vaccinated. That was enough of a reason for me so I agreed. After I got the first shot (it’s given in a series), I received informational material, and learned that among at-risk populations for Hep B are “people with jobs that expose them to human blood or other bodily fluids”.

Well, as a preschool teacher that describes me to a T, and I was happy I had agreed to get the shot. But then Saturday rolled around with its unwelcome gift and I realised how all of us here are at-risk for exposure to human blood or other bodily fluids. I mean, I have noticed a lot of saliva splatters recently, and people hawk and spit around me all the time. Then there was the Friday before my vomit incident, when I had to walk around a huge pile of human faeces. I actually felt a weird sort of satisfaction for that, as another “I’ve lived in NY” token I could point to, like the vomit. This city is gross! And filled with all sorts of people. Maybe if everyone had the Hep B vaccine we could relax a little about all the foreign, intimate bodily substances we regularly run into.

Tortuga

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Last weekend I went exploring parts of Chelsea, and spent a good bit of time walking and then sitting on the High Line. It was a beautiful day – warm, sunny, clear blue skies – so unsurprisingly there were quite a number of people out doing the same. I carried a packed lunch with me and at one point I sat down on a bench to enjoy my picnic, sunbathe and people-watch. It felt glorious. It was entertaining too, because everyone it seemed stop to marvel at a tortoise on the narrow lawn in front of me. He was a small thing, for a tortoise, about the size of my hand, and he was the only creature on the grass. He brought so much joy to surprised passersby, children and adults, when they noticed him wandering around there. “A turtle!” They would invariably exclaim, pointing him out to their companions and stopping to stare in wonderment. “How did he get there?” many would ask aloud, and then pull out their phones to take a picture. It was a great mystery, how this ‘turtle’ had made its way onto that particular patch of grass. This mystery was the cherry on top of the lovely treat the tortoise presented – us city folk rarely see animals other than dogs and pigeons when we’re out and about.

Although I didn’t notice the tortoise on my own, I became aware of him not long after I sat down, and was quickly more intrigued by the reactions of the pedestrians than the animal itself. It made me wonder about how we take pleasure in the magic of things that seem to just happen in our lives, though if we could see or understand the strings which brought them all together they would seem so much more mundane and even expected.

Lounging next to me on the bench was a quiet, unassuming man, who brought his wife’s tortoise to the park to sunbathe. Every now and again he would get up and bring Tortuga back into the area directly in front of him, but not so frequently that his presence was always obvious to those around us. Because he did not make a big show of his ownership of the tortoise, either by correcting people’s misperception that it was a turtle, or with body language that pointed to him as pet-owner, for all but those who came around to our side of the lawn to take a closer look, the mystery of Tortuga’s presence was preserved.

The gentleman’s actions led me to thinking about life in general, and all that must happen behind-the-scenes of events and circumstances that seem unexplainable to us. The fact is, whether we realise it or not, God is there. In the cosmic scheme of things, we are the turtles he has brought to the lawn.

Tortuga’s playground, which separated me and his owner from everyone else, recalled for me how our human nature and earthly home act as a barrier between us and God. While we may be looking at the same thing, we have totally different perspectives. Because of my position on the bench, I was privy to Tortuga’s name, his history and how he came to be at the High Line. I experienced his exploratory movements in a totally different way than everyone that whipped out their cameras – in fact I tried to take a picture of the people taking pictures. Our different knowledges put us in separate categories. They enjoyed looking at him while I marvelled at the great happiness he brought them.

This is analogous to my relationship with God. He is in control of my life, and knows things about it that I can’t, and never will. Furthermore, like Tortuga’s owner, he is always watching me and has control over what I encounter and when. From my perspective on the other side of the grass, I can’t see all that He is doing and will never be able to know the explanations for everything that happens, but I need to trust in him and his sovereignty all the same.

You look beautiful even when you clean your nose!

…a man shouted at me from his vehicle, as I approached the end of the sidewalk and prepared to cross the road in front of him. He must have seen me blowing my nose seconds before. I’ve written about catcalling elsewhere, but this is the kind of street attention that I find sweet and uplifting. The guy was nice, he had no ulterior motives, he just wanted to let me know he thought I was beautiful. Considering the fact that I was sick, and certainly not feeling like I looked my best, that was a really welcome compliment. Thank you sir.