I Was Groped on the Subway
I was late as usual, weaving through the 72nd Street subway station, rushing down the stairs to catch a departing train, and managed to squeeze into one of the packed cars just in time. It was Friday, a few weeks after my 29th birthday. I was on my way downtown to my job at my family’s taxi business, casually dressed in leggings and a striped orange dress. I pushed my still wet hair out of my face and found a sliver of space to stand. As the doors were closing, one more person shoved his way in and the car let out a collective groan.
As the train pulled away from the platform, I felt a man pressing harder and harder against my backside. I tried to evade him but couldn’t move an inch in any direction. I looked over my shoulder thinking the buckle of his bag must have been digging into me but there was no bag. Only his navy sweat pants. Is that what I think it is? It can’t be.
I shifted my hip to the right and then the left, but his body shifted with me. My eyes darted to each of the commuters around me, mutely asking for help. When none of their eyes met mine, I wanted to say something but no words came out. I held my breath until we got to the next stop.
When we arrived at Times Square, I pushed passed him with the force of the other riders behind me. I said nothing as I glanced down to see the bulge below his waist.
A woman approached me as I made my way to the exit, relieved to finally be off the train. She flashed a badge. “Can I ask you some questions?”
“Oh, no, ” I said, reflexively panicking the same way I do when I pass a cop car parked on the side of a highway, even if I’m driving 5 miles below the speed limit.
We stepped to the side as people rushed past.
“I think something happened back there,” she said. “Do you want to tell me about it?”
I knew that she knew and I just started talking.
“I froze. I had no room to move. If I made a scene he could have taken out a knife,” I said, looking at my feet and feeling like a coward with a bunch of excuses.
Why hadn’t I yelled, or elbowed him? Why didn’t I ask the people around me for help? I thought for a moment that I might be crazy, that I was making it all up.
The undercover officer asked if I would give her a written statement right there. I nodded, and she handed me a piece of paper. My hand shook as I wrote, my words jumbled. Finally, I handed her the sheet filled with crossed out inappropriate words replaced by slightly less inappropriate words. She said her partner would come talk to me in a minute and pointed toward a bench. There was the man in the navy sweat pants. He sat calmly, hands cuffed behind his back with a plastic zip tie. I hadn’t even realized they had stopped him, let alone that they were arresting him.
The other officer, a man wearing camouflage cargo shorts and a ripped T-shirt, told me they were watching for pickpockets, but that groping was “the real epidemic.”
“I saw your face first,” he said. “I have daughters and a wife, so I knew right away what that look meant. Makes me sick.” He assured me there was little I could have done, that my groper had picked the busiest train at the peak of rush hour for that very reason. I clung onto his words, grateful for his empathy.
He asked if I rode the train often and if it had happened before. It had, but I had never reported the incidents and had only defended myself once, calling the guy disgusting and moving to the other side of the car.
He asked me to walk by the bench to identify the man. I hesitated, afraid to have the groper see my face, but the officer stayed by my side. I nodded my head and quickly turned in the opposite direction.
Later, when I told my friends what had happened, they hugged me and a few shared their own similar experiences. Mostly, though, they were sure they would have been tougher: they would have kicked the abuser, screamed, pushed their way through the layers of fellow riders.
My husband and I practiced how I would react if it happened again: I would use my voice. Get away from me! Back off! Maybe I would toss a few expletives in. Except I didn’t intend for it to happen again. I wasn’t planning on taking the subway anymore, at least during peak hours. When I told my husband this, he was surprised. He was used to a resilient, strong wife. He knows I come across strange characters often in my male-dominated business and he was always proud to hear how I handled myself. When a client called me Honey or Sugar Lips I’d say, “I prefer to be called Kim.” I had no problem putting my hand up to interrupt a client who was being rude to one of the other women in the office.
But the truth is, I’ve always been secretly skittish, especially when I’m by myself. When I walked down the dark, empty industrial streets near my Long Island City office, I imagined being dragged into one of the dark warehouses, and held my keys in between my fingers in my pocket for protection. Even in my Upper West Side doorman building, I scurry from the elevator into my apartment each night.
Now I am just as anxious underground. Partly, it’s because I’m terrified to see my groper, but I’m also uncertain whether I’ll be able to muster the courage to stand up to a future assaulter.
When the district attorney’s office called to review the charges of sexual assault in the third degree and forcible touching, I asked if my name could be removed from the report. He already has your name from the arraignment, they said. But, don’t worry — he probably didn’t pay attention. I worried he might come after me seeking revenge. I knew the district attorney had no case without my signature. If I wanted any chance of stopping or punishing the guy, I had to give my name and sign a formal complaint and deposition.
I couldn’t be a coward again.
My fears may have immobilized me before, but this seemed like my chance to be a braver version of myself. I signed my name and instantly felt stronger. Almost strong enough to commute by subway again.