Riding the Bus While Female

One of the pieces of being a YAV in DC is that we are completely reliant on public transit unless you choose to bike. The metro is pretty expensive if you ride it a lot, so generally we get around via bus.

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Waiting for the bus during our orientation week.

The bus has become a bit of a sacred space for me. I love the people watching, the glimpse into someone’s morning commute, the space to be quiet, listen to music, and read. I ride the same buses enough that I typically see the same people each week, particularly on Sunday mornings when I get the 6:50am bus to go downtown for Radcliffe Room.

Here’s one of my favorite bus stories. We had spent our Community Friday in Anacostia (southeast DC) and were heading to back home. I was carrying leftover macaroni and cheese from our lunch because it was too good not to take home. As we boarded a pretty full bus, I headed to the back where there were a few seats open. A little girl with a bright pink backpack invited me to sit beside her. I thanked her and said, “I like your backpack!” She looked me a little warily and said, “Thanks. I like your macaroni.” I became fast friends with the little girl and her two sisters during the twenty minutes we were on the bus, and I still think back on that day and laugh.

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This isn’t a bus that I ride, but that is the church where I work in the background!

I love riding the bus, but I have a different experience riding the bus than my housemates do because I am a woman and they are not. I promised myself that my blog wouldn’t just highlight the best parts of my YAV year, so here are two experiences that I’ve had in the last week that have left me feeling anxious and unsettled.

Last Friday, our site coordinator planned an allyship training day for our Community Friday. Cody, Ben Wild, and I took the same bus downtown. I was sitting across from Cody in seats that face the aisle of the bus. There were a surprising number of open seats around us considering it was the 8:30 bus, so it was kind of odd when a man walked up toward where I was sitting and chose not to sit down. Instead, he turned the front of his body towards me and stood over me, his crotch in my face. He stayed like that, uncomfortably close, for almost ten minutes until we reached his stop.

Was he doing anything wrong? Technically, no. Would he have chosen to stand like that if Cody or Ben Wild, both tall white men, had been sitting in my seat? I can’t say for sure, but I am willing to bet that the answer is no.

In our workshop that day, this came up. How do you serve as an ally when someone is clearly uncomfortable because of the actions of someone else when they aren’t technically doing anything wrong? How do you own and use your privilege to be on the side of someone who is being encroached on?

I was uncomfortable last Friday, but I had an experience today that left me anxious and a little afraid.

It’s a rainy, yucky day in DC and I thought about taking the metro to work just for ease. I changed my mind when I got to the bus stop where I would’ve gotten on the metro and the bus I needed to transfer to was already at the stop. Too good to pass up! I never have such good luck!

The bus wasn’t very full, so I went to the seats I love best. They’re elevated and face the aisle. It gives me the chance to really see out of the windows and it doesn’t feel as closed in as the regular seats can feel.

There was a man on the bus who was kind of loud, but not nearly as loud or disruptive as other people I’ve been on the bus with. I really didn’t think anything of him. I was happily in my head, listening to the Hamilton soundtrack and wondering if the rain would let up during my walk to the church.

When we were 8 minutes or so from my stop, the man who had earlier been a little loud stood up and turned toward me. He left his things in the seat where he’d been sitting and started walking slowly toward where I was sitting, staring at me the entire time. There were seats open all around me and he sat down one seat away from the one I was sitting in. He stretched his arms out behind him and as he was lowering them, he pulled on the hood of my raincoat and then left his hand on the window behind my head. I jumped at that point and attempted to move closer to the wall, further from where he was sitting. He moved his hand and as he was doing so, bumped my bag that I had sitting in my lap. I again tried to move closer to the wall, keeping my head down. After another minute or two, he stood up and moved back to his seat.

When we finally reached the stop where I’d be getting off, I chose to walk to the back door instead of walking past the man to go to the front. While waiting for the door to open, an older woman who had been sitting in the back tapped my arm.

“Honey, did you know that man?”

I shook my head.

“Well, I was watching him in case he got stupid. That wasn’t okay.”

I told her that I was grateful to know that she had been watching and left the bus feeling like she’d had my back even if I didn’t know it. I felt like she probably knew the kind of dialogue I had been having in my head: “What are my options right now? Do I get up and move? Where do I move to? The front of the bus where there aren’t many seats and a lot of men are joking around and talking really loudly? Do I go to the emptier back of the bus even though I would have to walk past him? Am I just overreacting? I’m probably just reading too much into it. That’s gotta be it. You know, if the other YAVs were here, I bet this wouldn’t have happened. If I wasn’t by myself, I bet this wouldn’t have happened. If I was a man, this probably wouldn’t be happening.”

I don’t have this kind of experience often, but having two in the span of the week has been a bit much. My disposition while on the bus has shifted. What was once my sacred space where I could live in my head has become a space that I am continually a little anxious. It’ll take me time to be fully comfortable again.

These are types of experiences that I have had that my housemates have not. Riding the bus while female–it’s no joke and it can be really uncomfortable. But one of the cool things about the YAV program is that I have no choice but to work through this discomfort.

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