Spidey Senses

Warning: Although I cuss on this blog all the time, there are a couple of words in this post that were unpleasant to write, and I feel warrant mentioning. You’ve been warned. Also note that I am fine. Obviously, I’m right here, writing this post.

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I haven’t always trusted the warning signals my body and situational awareness give me. Those messages almost always run counter to the Good Girl training that is knitted into every cell and hair follicle of my being. That training, and my unconscious but slavish adherence to it, is what has put me in dangerous situations again and again. Had I always trusted my fear, I would have recognized and removed myself from all but the tiniest few of those moments.

Today I had a museum date with a dear friend who is one of my favorite people to visit museums with. As I walked up the hill to the subway, I saw a Black man outside the entrance. He drew my attention because he was pacing in a hard, agitated way that seemed off. He stopped pacing when he saw me, spat and went into the station. My mind tagged me immediately: look for him when you get inside, don’t look at him, just be aware of where he is, which platform he’s on. 

I didn’t question it for a second. Now that I’ve learned to listen to my internal sensors, I’ve seen how consistently correct those frissons of intuition are. I always listen.

In 1997, Gavin de Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear, was published. Subtitle? Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence. Yes, exactly. I will admit that I never read de Becker’s book, but it remains on my TBR list. By the time it came out, I had already learned to trust my gut instincts. There are still moments when Good Girl training pushes me to ignore what my body knows, but those moments are few and quite far between. When my brain went on high alert and told me to watch out for that man, I took that to heart.

As I approached the station, the man burst out and walked quickly past me, sneering, “Ugly slut,” as he passed. I felt it vibrate in my body. There wasn’t a question but that he meant it for me — not only because I was the only person around, but because he shot it, like a wad of spit, directly at my ear. 

I went inside and down to the platform, relieved that he wasn’t in the station and I wouldn’t have to keep an eye out for him on my ride. I sat on the end of a bench, watching the curve around which my train would come, wondering if I’d write about that moment.

People — men — don’t often say hateful things to me. Don’t misunderstand. Men say any number of disgusting, harassing things to me. Men are often the reason I avoid certain routes. Street harassment is real and awful and sometimes terrifying and dangerous. Too many women have been beaten and killed by men they didn’t smile at or whose lewd advances didn’t inspire loving responses. Those men are all about power and control, all about letting me know I don’t exist as a human, only as body parts they can use as they wish. I take those men seriously — hence the avoidance when possible. 

This man wasn’t a street harasser. This man didn’t muddy his intentions with slimy come-ons. He was focused on violence. And he wanted me to know that violence was focused on me. He wasn’t interested in exerting power over my right to be a woman on my own. He wanted my fear, wanted me to know he had seen me and that he could harm me.

About a minute before the train arrived, I heard him coming down the stairs to the platform, shouting, “Bitch tried to steal my ENERGY. Where’s she at?” 

The white couple beside me tensed, the man whispered, “Oh no.” I didn’t turn around. To give him that attention was to invite him in. And, too, my read on him was that he would want to attack me head on. He’d want to be in my face so he could see my reaction.

He walked past us a little further down the platform, talking loudly about people thinking they can steal his energy when they look at him, about tearing women’s heads off. He kept punching one fist hard into his palm, so hard the woman in the couple whispered, “So much rage! What can we do?”

What indeed. 

As the train finally made it to the curve, he turned back toward us and began to approach slowly and forcefully. (It was alarming but also interesting. I’ve never seen anyone move like that. I hope to never again see anyone move toward me like that.) At the same moment. An Asian woman stepped into the sightline between him and me. I’m pretty sure she didn’t do that on purpose, but I was grateful all the same. Not being in his direct line of sight felt necessary. She made her body a shield, whether she knew it or not.

The white couple was poised for flight, still seated but on the barest edge of the bench, ready to launch themselves to safety should anything happen. The Asian woman took a step back — because maybe she finally noticed the man approaching? I stayed where I was. 

As the train pulled in, the man passed us, fast, still punching his fist, still cursing about how easy it would be to “snap a bitch’s neck,” about needing to teach people never to look at him. 

But then he changed his mind. He had positioned himself to enter the train car that was slowing down in front of us, but then very intentionally jogged up a bit as the doors opened and boarded the next car up. Passing between cars isn’t possible on this particular train, which meant we were all closed off from him. Yes, the people in that next car were subjected to him, but we had been released. Yes, I watched the doors at every stop to be aware if he entered, but I had been released.

All of that was scary, of course. I mean, of course. And also sad. I’m sure if, given the choice, that man would rather not have been decompensating on the train platform in front of all of us. I may be wrong, of course, but I really can’t fathom a scenario in which someone would prefer what I witnessed today over equilibrium and the ability to live more easily in the world.

Why are we so able to not care about people who need help? We won’t be okay if he hurts someone, so why can’t we figure out how to help him now so that he doesn’t get to the point where he hurts someone?

That point could have been today. Could absolutely have been me. If I had made the mistake of looking into his face, he would for sure have harmed me. If I had responded to anything he did, he would have harmed me. If that Asian woman hadn’t unknowingly stepped between us, he might have walked up to me instead of walking past the bench where the woman, the couple, and I were seated. And then there would have been a story on the news (if my injuries were serious enough) decrying the horror of having dangerous, violent, mentally ill people on the street. And then the story would have faded — displaced by some other horror — and we would have gone right back to ignoring the people on the street who need help.

I certainly don’t have any answers. I can’t imagine the difficulty of reaching out to that man (and the many other people like him) and helping him access supports. But isn’t that exactly what we should be trying to do, isn’t that part of the point of making lives together in a city?

I’m glad nothing more serious happened to me today, glad to have another indicator of how finely-tuned my spidey senses are. But where’s the radioactive spider bite that turns on the social safety net spidey senses for my city? For all the cities? Why is it easier for us to let that man reach critical mass than to help him find care, find peace?


It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
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Original Slicer - GirlGriot

9 thoughts on “Spidey Senses

  1. Wow. This is powerful. First, I was struck that this was happening and you wondered if you would write about it. Second, your empathy. That in that moment, full of fear, you had empathy for this fellow human. I loved your ending and wonder too, what more we should be doing. I’m glad you’re ok and glad you chose to write about this moment. ❤️

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    1. It’s hard to help when people aren’t asking for help, but there has to be something that can be done. That man might not have been asking, might not have been able to ask, but I would want help for him. In a form he could actually accept and benefit from.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Damn, thank goodness for your ‘Spidey-sense’. We are born with a fear response for a reason.

    I could feel the rising tension, and explosive “Oh thank god” relief as I read this. I found it telling that the couple was on the edge of their seat – literally- prepared to run. I wonder. Would they have left you -to your fate- to fight on your own?

    The -oh so not so- simple answer is we can’t answer a question we don’t know to ask. We can’t ask someone who’s mentally is if they need help before it gets potentially dangerous because if they can’t/don’t/won’t see it in themselves to get help first we can’t/don’t/won’t see it until it does become a problem. After all, what does a mentally ill person look like before it gets that bad?

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    1. It’s uncharitable to say so, but I don’t think the people on the bench would have come to my aid. That doesn’t make them horrible people, but it would have left me very much on my own.

      And you’re right, we can’t help if we don’t know to help, if the person who needs the help doesn’t/can’t/won’t ask for help. But there had to be any number of moments much earlier in that man’s trajectory (and in the trajectories of other mentally ill people we see on the street, on the trains, etc.) for a small intervention to have turned the story in a different direction. I don’t know who is supposed to spot and act on that moment, but our system of care clearly needs to figure it out.

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  3. First, I am so glad you and everyone else on your bench are safe. Second, everything you say about how that man needs help and why can’t we as a city figure out how to help him and the people in his situation is so on target. Your post could be a flyer to hand out to everyone who works for the city in health and mental health. And yes, trust your spidey senses.

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  4. Pingback: Upended – if you want kin, you must plant kin …

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