I remember thinking, I don’t want to sit near them. They stink of cigarettes and stale clothing. I move further up the bus, perching on a seat high up the back. I can see the only other passengers riding with me today: those two down the front (the smokers) and an elderly woman sitting in front of me. I settle in for the bus ride, gazing out the window, no more thought for my fellow commuters.
A lazy fifteen minutes later, my attention is jerked back into the present when someone in the bus starts yelling. At first, I can’t tell who it is; I can only see the backs of heads. Then one of the stinky people – a man in a dirty grey shirt – shifts as he yells, belligerent, moving his chin up and down. I’m not sure who the target of his abuse is … Until I notice the soft whines coming in response to the man’s abuse. They’re coming from the person sitting next to him. I almost didn’t notice her – I think because she wants it that way. She is a big girl but she is hunched right down in her seat, head down, bowed before the the filthy stream of language the man is spewing at her. I catch some of what he’s saying to her:
“You’re a dumb bitch. You’re a dumb bitch. You’re a dumb bitch. It’s women like you – no, it’s women like you – who fark it up for everyone … MAKE THE CALL. MAKE THE CALL … So he raped you, so make the call. You’re so farking stupid. What about my daughter, eh? What about that? You don’t think. Dumb bitch.”
The girl rises in her seat and scuttles away from him, into a seat across the aisle. He meets this show of defiance with sarcastic laughter. “Oh, oh! And where are you going?” She makes another whining sound, which he brays over.
My fingernails are digging into my palms. I feel the flush rising up the back of my neck. This is one of those moments that will pass, and later I’ll think, “I should have done something”. I rise up, out of my seat. Take a couple steps towards the front of the bus. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I get there, but my temper is up and that is such a rarity that I’m curious. What could I do? Could I step in? Maybe we can be heroes … (Okay, I need to stop repeat-listening to Bowie.)
What actually happens when I reach the back of Dirty Grey Shirt’s seat, is that the bus pulls into its final stop. The doors open next to me, and I automatically turn to exit. I don’t know, if we had pulled into the stop a few minutes later, would I have found my voice? Would I have done something heroic? I strode down the busway, thinking, Coward.
Dirty Grey Shirt exits the bus behind me, still bawling out his girlfriend. I walk faster, teeth clenched, and head for the lift. I don’t want to listen to another second of it. But as the lift arrives, I get in and turn around. And there they are: Dirty Grey Shirt and his battered looking girl, shuffling into the lift behind me. I hesitate, aware that I am now trapping myself in a small metal box with them. But something says, this must be faced.
It’s just the three of us in the lift: the girl is cowering in a corner, and Dirty Grey Shirt is eyeing me (well, slightly south of my face). He moves his bulk (beer gut and all) into my space, intimidating. I hold up the flat of my hand and say, “You need to back up right now.” He dances back a little, bulk wobbling, still murmuring in what he evidently believes to be a charming tone.
“You’re not a movie star, are you,” he says to me.
“No,” I grind out.
“Yeah. You don’t look like one.”
I bite back any response. Won’t do to provoke him when we’re in such close quarters. Grey Shirt keeps trying to pull me into a conversation, but I look over at the girl. She meets my eyes from under that mess of black hair and shapeless beanie, and for a moment we just stare at each other. I can’t remember ever seeing such naked despair, so close to me. Not just the misery, but the hopelessness. I have an impulse to put an arm around her shoulder and lead her gently away. But something tells me she wouldn’t accept it.
As the lift doors open, Dirty Grey Shirt grunts a reprimand at me, “Well fark, thanks for being so farking friendly.” And I let my temper snap.
I turn on him. “I don’t appreciate hearing you–” finger jab “calling her horrible names on the bus and speaking to her that way.” Jab, jab. “Treat her a bit better!” I shout that last bit at his back as he shambles away, unperturbed. Other people on the concourse look embarrassed. (My protest looks pretty lame when written down in text, and let’s face it, was probably pretty lame when I said it.) The girl has skittered away in front of Dirty Grey Shirt, clearly wishing to avoid a scene. As if there would be a scene. Even my rage-fueled diatribe was polite and carefully worded. I can’t believe that, in moments of righteous anger, I still lapse into the same patterns of speech I used when working in childcare. Starting with how I feel, using specific examples of inappropriate behaviour, and delivering a positive directive for improvement. Sheesh.
I can tell you, in my head I was using all sorts of foul language on him. In my head, I was giving him the serve of a lifetime. But it occured to me that he’s used to that; swear words have lost currency with him. I’d hoped that a relatively polite dressing-down might get through to him. But it obviously didn’t. The despair that I saw in that girl’s eyes – I don’t know how to touch that. If any of what Grey Shirt was ranting about was true, then she’s going through hell. I wanted to be a hero, but I didn’t know how to save her.
I hope she’s okay.