He didn’t put his hands on me. If he verbally threatened me, I didn’t hear it on account of my headphones… What good would it do to file a report and start a paper trail?
The Bus Stop
I kissed my date goodbye and jogged down the steps to the Silver Line station. I knew it’d be a long wait for the bus but the weather was still mild and pleasant and I could think upon the nice evening we had shared: snuggling (and snogging) under the moonlight after watching the sunset over the Pacific. It left me feeling affable and light-footed.
A harmless old gentleman wrapped up in a used but clean sleeping bag shuffled down the same stairs and eased onto a concrete bench. We were the only ones waiting. I entertained his initial questions.
He asked me if I had been waiting long and when the next bus was due to arrive. The station we were at was an expressway with a stop designated for precisely one specific route, so I was the bearer of bad news that it would be a while before the next one arrived and worse: it was the last one of the night.
His voice barely rose above a whisper but he didn’t wheeze or struggle with words. Still, over the roar of the Harbor Freeway next to us, I had to ask him twice to repeat himself on his third question.
“Where are you going?”
There’s no right answer to this question. It’s always a trick. Every single woman who walks around the world unsupervised has heard this question and knows exactly what it means. There are only three ways to respond:
- Be honest, or at least earnest and smiley when lying about her final destination;
- Be direct and assertive: “That’s none of your business,” or;
- Ignore it.
The part of town we were in is fairly affluent and it’s a miracle there’s a regional express bus at all, much less a rapid line that could get me all the way home without a single transfer. It’s no secret that even if I didn’t disclose my destination that I wasn’t leaving home and using an affordable and sensible method of transport to downtown activities.
I opted for an in-between answer with a half-smile and “Oh, I don’t know… somewhere,” before immediately turning around and blasting the first Spotify playlist I could run in my ears. Just as the music started, I overheard him again, much more clearly and loudly this time that I was out of arms’ reach:
“How don’t you know where you’re going?”
No Way Out
After dealing with a few snarls of downtown traffic, I stepped alone at the desolate campus hub that hosted my stop. It would be a several-minute walk home and I’d have to move quickly but would otherwise be fine.
The busway is situated level with the major highway adjacent, but the campus is several stories up and built into a hill. I had to go several stories up, cross a footbridge, and head the opposite direction of my house in order to get onto the main route to lead me home. There are no alternatives.
The lights at the station were on and that meant the elevator was still powered up for the evening; saving me a long and dark trek up six flights of stairs.
As the doors closed, the man with the sleeping bag shuffles toward me. I had my phone out to text my date, to tell him pre-emptively that I’d made it home safe fifteen minutes before I’d actually get in the door.
I mashed the door-closed button and for once, the machine complies on the first try. I breathed a sigh of relief; if I could get to the bridge and dash across, the guy couldn’t even make it up the stairs in that time. I’d beat him with a good head start and get home none the wiser. My plan was solid.
Except I forgot to use the second-floor call button, so I went nowhere. The doors opened and he confidently stepped inside. His limp was missing.
The busway was lit, but the elevator was a capsule of shadow and stale air. The man wore his sleeping bag like a toga and my mouth dried when I realized what all manner of things he could be hiding under it: weapons, drugs, tools.
He leaned in to speak and although I could hear him crystal-clear even with my headphones in, my brain refused to decode his words.
I felt numb and disconnected, as though I were describing a scene in a story rather than something happening to me.
I’m a clumsy texter more often than not and prefer calling or using the voice feature but I wasn’t going to risk it locked in a dark steel box with someone that was now officially a threat. Maybe it was luck, confidence, adrenaline, or all of the above, but for once my thumbs tapped out with perfect accuracy across the keyboard: “I was about to say I got home okay but there is someone almost 100% following me.”
He texted back instantly, asking if I was okay, then decided against it and didn’t wait for a return answer. He called a second later, the moment the elevator doors opened to the upper level.
Thankful for my long legs and equally brisk stride as a leftover habit from years working outdoors, I tore out of the elevator as fast as I could without running. My loafers were comfortable enough but chunky and a little big for my feet. The last thing I needed was a clumsy faceplant.
The walk home was sometimes breathless but I otherwise made it home without further incident. My date stayed on the line until I locked the door behind me. He listened patiently as I described everything that had transpired in the past hour, from when we parted to our current call. I felt numb and disconnected, as though I were describing a scene in a story rather than something happening to me.
One question pops into my mind every few hours since it happened: do I file a police report or not?
He didn’t put his hands on me. If he verbally threatened me, I didn’t hear it on account of my headphones. I keep recalling his face and classist alarm bells ring: he didn’t smell homeless, he only looked homeless. What if he was just a guy who liked to walk around wrapped up in a blanket? I remember noting that the bedding was clean. Old and used but clean.
The area I live in isn’t wealthy but it’s a resource desert: if he was truly destitute and transient there would have been nothing for him to do or anywhere to go. The bus we rode was an express and therefore cost seventy-five cents more than a regular route. I didn’t recall any squabbles with the driver or delays over its cashless fare when we boarded. That means he had to have had a bus card with at least a few dollars on it to board without issue.
What good would it do to file a report and start a paper trail? The man who followed me was black. I’m a white woman. I know based on that alone, that they’d take it seriously just enough to jot down a report but I fear it would only worsen systemic racism in the process and add another brick in the wall. Am I just being white-woman paranoid and connecting dots that aren’t there?
An ironic twist that reinforces my budding fear that this man was not at all homeless and knew exactly what he was doing is that he didn’t run when I bolted off. Did I escape a new Grim Sleeper, someone who knew it was only a matter of time before someone would fall for his ruse? Did he keep walking at his slow but steady pace, stalking my trail until he knew for certain I had escaped?
His quiet patience unnerves me now; sitting a few rows behind me on the bus, letting me relax and forget about the creep at the stop and the long awkward wait on a dark highway.
I certainly won’t forget him again anytime soon.