Friday night I was on my way home from a pub in Islington. A friend walked me to the bus stop—it wasn’t that late, around midnight, but we were going the same way. After he left I pulled out my mobile to check my email and a man came up to the bus stop. He was creepy. He skulked. He looked like the love child of Tommy Wiseau and Buffalo Bill.
He saw me sitting on the bench in the bus shelter and, standing in front of me, tried to start a conversation. I couldn’t catch most what he said as he mumbled to me; he was clearly either mentally ill or on some drug I’ve never seen anyone on before. He didn’t seem drunk, or even high. He just seemed off.
“Do you want a cigarette?” he asked me.
“No,” I said, politely but firmly, and went back to my emails.
The man stepped a bit closer. “You look nice,” he said.
I kept looking at my iPhone, having long since gone through the couple of emails I had and tried to surreptitiously pull my cardigan around my rather low-cut top. A female friend of a friend earlier in the night had told me I had “magnificent bosoms”. I’d been chuffed. Then. Now I wished I were wearing a really big sweatshirt and an overcoat.
This man kept talking to me and I was getting more and more uncomfortable. Sometimes, on my way home after a night out, drunk men, or, more accurately, boys, can be a bit assertive in trying to talk. They’ll ask my name, my number. A couple have even followed me towards my flat if I’d passed them while they were coming out of the bars at the top of my hill. But I’d never been scared of them. They were just annoyances, not dangerous. But this man scared me like no one ever has. He just wasn’t right.
The bus was due. I moved to the curb to wait for it and he followed, still smoking. I saw the bus coming and put my hand out to call it. He said, “Please, let me do it.”
I said, “I’ve got it,” and kept my arm out.
The bus came and I climbed on, hoping he was getting on a different bus, but not looking back to check. Regardless, I decided that a) I would stay on the bottom level and b) I would sit next to someone else, so there’d be no empty seat next to me for him to sit in.
On the lower level of the buses like the type I was on, there are a few rows of seats leading towards the back of the bus, then a step up with more rows of seats. On the driver’s side, perpendicular and next to the first row on the step up, is another seat, facing the opposite side of the bus across the aisle instead of forward. I sat next to a woman in that row on the opposite side of the perpendicular chair, on the aisle. Unfortunately, my cleverness only went so far because the man sat in the seat directly across the aisle from me next to another woman and only about 2 feet away.
He kept trying to talk to me and I kept ignoring him. I considered going up to the top level, but thought he may follow me and it would be better to stay where I was. The man finally gave up trying to talk to me and simply stared. The person next to him got off the bus and he sat himself in the perpendicular seat instead, stretching his legs onto the other seats so he could see me from the front instead of my profile. I never looked at him, but I could see him out of the corner of my eye, staring.
I was beginning to freak out a bit. I didn’t know what to do, so I began to text people who I knew would still be awake. I don’t know why, it doesn’t make any sense, but I felt like I needed to be in contact with people I knew. I think I wanted him to know that people knew where I was, that I had connections to other people, that, I don’t know, I’d be missed if anything happened.
The man began making noises, possibly to get me to look at him, as he continued to stare. At first he started laughing, increasingly loudly and increasingly crazy. Then he began to cough. He coughed a bit, then paused, then coughed again, then paused, then coughed louder and louder until it was impossible to tell if he was laughing again or still coughing. Meanwhile we were heading closer and closer to my stop. I tried to read the book I had with me, but couldn’t process any of the sentences.
I began to plan what I would do if he followed off the bus. If he tried to talk to me again I would tell him firmly to leave me alone. If he persisted, I would go into the off-license on the corner where the guys behind the counter know me since I buy milk there a couple of times a week. They would surely intervene if I said I was being harassed, call the police or something. If he didn’t follow me into the off-license but appeared when I came out, I would go to the nice, rather large bouncer outside the club up the road from my flat and explain to him what was going on. He could call the police or scare the man into leaving me alone or even get someone to walk me down the road to my flat. At the very least, I could carry my keys and use one to stab him in the eye if he physically threatened me, something we’d learned in mandatory self-defense classes in high school.
We approached a major stop on the route and he began waving his arms violently in front of his face. By now I couldn’t tell if he was still trying to get my attention or if he’d just completely had a psychotic break. But, miracle of miracles, he got off the bus at the next stop without talking to me again. I nearly cried with relief.
Thinking about it now, I wonder if I didn’t overreact. Maybe he actually was just high or a harmless eccentric, or someone with a harmless mental illness, I don’t know. But I’m not easily spooked by people. There was something seriously wrong with this guy.
What I do know is that I felt vulnerable and exposed and in danger and I didn’t like it. I don’t like it. I’m not freaked out anymore, but I’m angry. Nobody has the right to make someone else feel like that.
In college, whenever I walked from the campus center or between quads in the middle of the night, any one of my guy friends would insist on coming with me. Though I understood, and understand, the need, and totally loved them for doing it, I resented that it was necessary. There’s something diminishing in needing to be escorted around after dark, as if I were a child instead of a woman. It takes away from your identity, your sense of self.
I don’t want to change how I dress because of some crazy freak, and I won’t. I don’t want to change my social habits or the hours I keep, and I won’t. But I know that this is the world we live in, and there are certain comforts and protections we give up for the freedom to wear what we want and do what we want. I think the key is to make yourself feel less vulnerable, less defenseless, whether by carrying pepper spray or taking a self-defense course. Me, I think it’s time to find a class in Krav Maga. Even if I never have to use it, there’s power in knowing that I could.