This was cross posted from my Tumblr here. I'm going to be using my Tumblr instead of my blog soon, so if you want to keep up with me, please follow me there.
This isn't the title of a cute short story. Or the start of a romantic comedy. This is my response to the this UnWinona piece, about a woman who is regularly harassed on public transit and a scary incident she went through. Read it. If you're a woman, I'm sure it'll resonate with you. If you're a man, you should know what it's like on the other side of the coin.
I've never had anything of that caliber happen to me. Don't get me wrong, I've had a lot of scary moments, but they usually don't spawn from being hit on. That actually doesn't happen to me much. Usually, my scary or uncomfortable experiences like this derive from something else.
Now I'm going to do something I don't do much. I'm going to talk about my disability, and only because it's relavent to this story. Usually I don't talk about it online because it distracts from more important things. I am a person. I am not my disability. Being legally blind is a small part of my life. Actually, that's something important to note for the purpose of this post.
I am legally blind, but I do have some vision. I use a cane, even when I can see, to help with depth perception issues and to signal to others to move in case I don't see them. And, at night, it makes travel possible even though my vision is minimal. I like those aspects of my cane. What I don't like is the attention it garners. Some people find the need to say, "God bless you!" when they see me walking by - as if WALKING is somehow a miraculous accomplishment. Others feel the need to point out that I am looking at things. I have been yelled at in the middle of Times Square by a stranger for faking my disability because I DARED look at a (very large) sign above a door.
But that's not what I'm going to talk about. I'm going to talk about something that seems less offensive, and usually it is, but sometimes . . . Well, you'll see. I"m going to talk about people who offer to help.
No, not offer. People who OFFER to help - as in, "Would you like me to help you?"- are fine. Sometimes it does get annoying when someone offers on every corner and I just want to walk to my improv class in peace, but that's not offensive. Sometimes - like the other day when there was very poorly marked construction on a sidewalk I was on - I need. However, me needing help out in public is pretty rare. I've had 21 years of experience living a normal life with my disability. Walking around, crossing streets - these things aren't hard.
It's not people offering help. It's people assuming I need it. People who "help" without asking. Like those people who grab my shoulders and attempt to steer me if they think I'm about to run into something (even if I'm not). Or those people who try to pull me across the street with them when they say it's "Okay to cross!" Just FYI, touching a stranger, disabled or not, is not okay unless they are in a life threatening situation. Otherwise, ask first.
In the UnWinona article, Anonymous talks about how men feel they have the right to approach her because she is attractive and female. In my case, people feel they have the right because I am disabled and female. As she said in her post, if she tells them to leave her alone, she is a "bitch" because they just wanted to "talk." In my case, if I tell someone to not touch me, to leave me alone, etc, I'm a "bitch" because they were "just trying to help." Why aren't I GRATEFUL? This has led to a few scary experiences, including one right outside my apartment, at night, where I refused a man's persistant attempts to "help" and he called me a "bitch" and not so subtly implied that I "shouldn't walk alone at night." That shook me up a little.
And this is where we get to the Russian in the bus station. I never got his name and he never got mine (I had a fake name prepared if he asked), but he is responsible for one of the most upsetting, uncomfortable experiences of my life. And it all came from that, "I'm being helpful, so you should be GRATEFUL" entitlement.
I was stuck at Port Authority for 2 hours last December because I missed a bus. I got help finding my new gate from a Port Authority worker. I had my cane out because it was dem. I wish so, so badly I had just tried to find the place without my cane out. Because it was that long, white cane that made the Russian decide to talk to me. He was older - probably fifty or fifty-five - and I let him know very quickly that I was in a bad mood, I wanted to read while I waited for my train, and I wasn't interested in talking.
Not that it mattered.
He badgered me for two hours, asking me questions about my disability. Where were my parents? Why weren't they taking care of me? Surely I didn't go to school with NORMAL people? Did my siblings send me money? Why was I alone? "You need a man to take care of you," he said. It was almost a parody, how obnoxiously ableist and sexist he was. And no matter how many times I said I was busy, I was reading, I didn't want to talk, he just. kept. TALKING to me.
There was no one around. No one to seek rescue from. I wasn't sure if I should be annoyed or scared. While most of his comments were just ridiculous, others were vaguely predatory. When he couldn't think of new things to ask, he'd say, "So, what else?" Which, said in a bad Russian accent, has actually become a common phrase used by my mother and me.
"I'm going to help you onto the bus when it gets here," he said. Yes, he was going to be on my bus. A five hur bus ride. I wasn't even close to done with him.
"I don't need help."
"Yes, you do," he argued.
Then he told me all about how Americans are fat because they are lazy and eat too much, and how it would be better if we were like Europe, where they "shame them." (News flash, buddy, we do that here, too, and it's not a GOOD thing.) He never came out and said it, but by the way he kept leering at me, I think he was implying something about my weight. I was offended for too many other reasons to take this to heart, though. But if he was implying I was fat, it certainly didn't stop him from harassing me.
When the bus arrived, I had a plan. I KNEW he'd sit beside me if I didn't do something. So I asked the driver if I could keep my suitcase in the seat beside me instead of under the bus. I usually do this anyway because finding my bag in the pile of bags can be hard (this was before my AWESOME very bright, cool luggage set). The driver had no issue with that. I also sat up front so that I KNEW someone would be close by.
But the Russian sat behind me. I put in my headphones to indicate I was not talking. But that didn't stop him from leaning into the space between my seat and the one beside me, at the perfect position to look down my shirt. (Did he think i couldn't notice?) "I'll be back here if you need anything," he said.
He laughed and patted my arm. I jerked away.
"Why are you so jumpy? I want to help you!"
He did this for the next few hours, poking his head through the seats to "check on me." He even shook me awake once when I'd fallen asleep. I get the shivers just thinking about it. Then, when I didn't fall back asleep, he asked "Why?"
The worst part about this is that I couldn't ask the driver or anyone near me for help with him. Because what had he done wrong? He was just being "helpful," after all. I was the bitch here. I was the one in the wrong. He was a good person for helping a poor little blind girl.
I'm not kidding when I say I was scared this guy was going to follow me off the bus. Luckily, he didn't. Luckily, my friend was waiting for me right at the door, ready to whisk me off to her car.
And that was the last of the Russian.
My story isn't nearly as scary as Anonymous's on UnWinona. It's a different beast. But in a lot of ways, they are similar.
I face instances of this regularly. Not quite to this extreme, but variants of it. And when I get upset that a stranger touched me or attempted to force me to do something under the guise of "help" - I'm the one in the wrong. Because I am a woman - a woman with a handicap - who often travels alone, I don't have the right to refuse help. Or to get upset when someone infringes on my personal space.
Even my own friends and family say things to me like, "They meant well" or "they were just trying to be nice." But what if I don't want help? What if I don't want to talk? What if I want to be left alone? Well, apparently, I don't have that right. Women are supposed to accept all "help" or "flirtation" or "attempts to talk" from everyone. And if they don't, they're in the wrong.
I joke about the Russian in the Bus Station story now. It's a great party story complete with my bad Russian accent. Some of the things he said were remarkably offensive and highly quotable. But the truth is, that was a horrible, uncomfortable experience where I wished nothing more than to just NOT be blind and NOT be a woman. Because then, maybe, he'd leave me alone. And I wouldn't be the bad guy for wanting him to.
So there. There's my very long, very un-romantic comedy story. Take from it what you will. I just thought it was something that might need to be shared.