If I get out the door early enough in the morning to catch the westbound 78 bus, I transfer once to the southbound 82 bus and am dropped off right at the doorstep of my work. When I ride the bus, I can always count on getting a seat, I have more time to get into my book, and I get a better sense of demographic shifts as the bus goes from the mostly white neighborhood of Ravenswood through several white and Latino neighborhoods until my stop in the black neighborhood of North Lawndale.
But if I sleep in a few minutes, as I often do, I walk ten minutes to the Red Line or the Brown Line, board a train crowded with young urban professionals to the Loop, transfer to the westbound arm of the Blue Line, watch most of my fellow passengers get off at the University of Illinois in Chicago stop, and ride it the rest of the way often with a whole car to myself. The Blue Line spits me out on a platform in the middle of the Eisenhower expressway; from there, it is a six-minute walk or so to work, past a cramped gas station, greystone walk-ups, an empty lot, and a community garden. Sometimes I see a coworker waiting to catch the bus to ride it a frivolous two stops to the office and I walk faster in the hope that I’ll beat him on foot.
It’s a pleasant walk, but it’s often booby-trapped, from the playful “How do I make you my wife?” to the aggressive “PUT YO NUMBA IN MY PHONE! PUT YO NUMBA IN MY PHONE!”
I ignore some lines, particularly if the speaker is part of a group loitering outside the gas station. But in most cases I try to give a low-key response that discourages further attempts. I know that this comes with being a woman and walking in the city and the come-ons aren’t enough to make me want to stop walking on the street.
One Monday morning a couple weeks ago, a man did something I should have been prepared for. He was waiting to cross the street west but when he saw me crossing the street south, he did an about-face and walked alongside me on my left, the street on my right.
He asked two familiar questions: my name and if I had a man; and two that made me uneasy: where I was going and how far it was.
I answered vaguely but honestly and asked, “Don’t you think you should get back to where you were going?”
He didn’t answer.
As we came up on the alley that’s about halfway between the Blue Line stop and my office, he asked again how far I was going.
I repeated my “just up over there” non-answer.
He grabbed me in the crook of my elbow and pulled me towards the alley.
I pulled back.
He glanced around and pulled again. “Come on.”
I pulled back. “You can’t do this to people.”
“But I like you.” He pulled more insistently.
I began to realize the silliness of trying to coach this man through how I thought this interaction should go: him continuing on his way and not dragging women into alleys. I was trying to counter his objectification of me by starting a conversation in which we had a basic understanding of morality and mutual respect. But the conversation was going nowhere and he continued to pull me towards the alley.
We heard a yell from across the street. A yell to let me go. I realized, after a beat, that it was my coworker. After another yell and another beat, the man let go and ran off. I ran across the street to my coworker. Just then, the bus came and we hopped on. As we rode it the one remaining stop to the office, he explained that he had been at the bus stop off the Blue Line but when he saw the man start walking by me, he followed us on his side of the street.
At first, I tried to brush the encounter off, embarrassed that I hadn’t more aggressively rebuffed the man or blown my rape whistle or taken the popular women’s self-defense class at Calvin. I was embarrassed that I needed my coworker to rescue me, because most days he annoys me. He’s chattier than I’d like and it takes him a while to say what he’s going to say. He offers to carry things for me because he is a man and I am a woman, but I know from experience that he’s clumsier and slower. He bemoans having to walk those six minutes to the office from the Blue Line when the bus is running late.
I’m still thinking through how I’ll respond the next time this happens, because I expect it will. I don’t want to avoid the walk, because it’s broad daylight and it is a busy street.
Maybe I’ll find the sweet spot of respectful but firm. Maybe I’ll get some pepper spray.
For now, I’m trying to replace my annoyance with my coworker because I realized I wasn’t meeting him at his level of mutual respect. I’m trying to engage with him when he wants to chat or commiserate about the commute. And, to my surprise, I’m enjoying it.
India Daniels graduated in 2017 with majors in history and English literature. Her first year out of Calvin, she moved home to Chicago to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Turning the Page, a nonprofit promoting parent engagement and literacy in North Lawndale schools. She now assists Turning the Page’s used bookstores and coordinates a citizen-reporter program for City Bureau, a civic journalism lab on the South Side.