This weekend, something pretty disgusting and criminal happened to me, but the police didn't seem to care. After a friend's shabbos party, I swiped into the turnstile and paid the Metropolitan Transit Authority the $2.25 they've decided it costs to transport me safely home. It was late, and when I got down the stairs I could tell from the signal lights that a train had just departed; I was alone on the platform.
I walked to the western end of the station, which was Broadway-Lafayette Street in SoHo, because part of my mental map of the New York City subway system is my carefully cultivated knowledge of which train car will get you closest to which exit staircase at which station, and part of my OCD is taking this information and placing myself in the trains that I ride accordingly. And I knew I needed to be in car one — near the second or third set of doors if possible. So I found myself at the isolated far end of an empty subway platform in an empty station. It was 3 a.m. I started playing solitaire on my phone.
But the station was not empty enough, it turns out. About five minutes later, I noticed a man on the opposite platform, the downtown platform, standing in the same isolated western end as I was. I couldn't tell if he'd been there all along, perhaps behind a tiled bulkhead, or if he'd followed me. I could see that he was doing something with his hands at around waist level; I figured he was a drunk who'd wandered to the end of the platform to take a piss. In an attempt to give him some privacy, I turned away, still engrossed in my game.
Five minutes after that, I noticed there was some kind of a sound happening behind me. There was a series of grunts, followed by a lip-smacking. I turned, and without raising my head from my screen, I glimpsed the same man, still standing in the same spot on the platform, masturbating. Vigorously. Brazenly. With his genitals completely out of his pants. Facing me square on. He smacked his lips and grunted again. I played it like I'd turned around for no reason, like I hadn't even maybe seen what was beneath my notice, and just walked straight back to the middle of the uptown platform, where by now a couple other people were awaiting the next train. Over on the downtown platform, the masturbator took a few steps as if to follow me, facing me, his audience, the whole time. He continued to masturbate.
When by 3:19 a.m. he had not taken the hint that I was prepared to actually ignore his criminal behavior, provided he stop, I thought: Fuck it. My night is over. I have nowhere to be tomorrow morning. I don't care how long it takes or what happens, but I am going to make an official complaint to the MTA. I have seen my share of anti-social behavior on the subway — groping, loud arguments, pushing, shoving, sexual harassment, panhandlers with anger issues, one time a really out-of-sorts bum even tried half-heartedly to steal my purse — but I had never, until Friday night, seen a man masturbate openly on an isolated subway platform for ten minutes straight. I thought if I were going to complain, it might help to have proof. So I turned on my phone's video camera, and I walked slowly, deliberately down the platform, back towards where the man was still masturbating. It's strange; as little as I wanted to look at him, as hard as I was trying not to look at the man who was standing there showing me his penis and balls, seeing him as a figure made of pixels on a screen didn't turn my stomach. It hardly felt like looking at him at all. I took about 58 seconds of video and snapped five still photos at 3:20 a.m.
I walked up the stairs to find the station agent, and told him there was a man who'd been masturbating on the western end of the downtown B/D/F/M platform for the past ten minutes. The station agent asked what he looked like; I told him I had been trying not to really look at the offender, but that he was middle-aged, and black, and wearing a yellow button-down shirt and khaki pants. The station agent made a call, presumably to the police. I didn't know what to do, so I stood there for a minute, and then I asked if he would let me through the gate so I could get back to the platform without having to pay another fare. He waved me on. (It only occurred to me much later that by leaving the station agent and going back to the platform, I was entering a potentially dangerous situation. What was to stop the masturbator, now that he knew I'd documented his behavior and probably exited the platform to call for help, from crossing from his platform to mine? It wasn't until the next day that I even thought about how easy it would have been for him to get between me and the only exit. The station agent did not suggest that I wait with him on the mezzanine for the cops.)
Back on the platform, the man was still masturbating. I don't know what I imagined would happen. I'm not naïve; I know that, to a vulnerable woman late at night, the New York City police hold as much potential for threat as they do protection. I didn't exactly expect a crack team of specially trained agents from the NYPD Masturbation Team to rappel down from the mezzanine, fire a butterfly net over my masturbator, and drag him into the back of a paddy wagon as he protested, "But my wife is going to kill me!" And then for those agents to shake hands with me, the brave citizen who did her public duty, and ask if there was anything else they could do.
But I also didn't expect that nothing would happen. I did not expect that for the next twelve minutes I would stand on a lonely subway platform mere yards away from a public masturbator, thinking each time I heard a train arrive or a set of footsteps on the stairs that it could be a police officer, and each time being disappointed. For another twelve minutes — I know this because of the time-stamps of the two sets of pictures of the masturbator that I took on my phone — this man continued to stand there, masturbating. He even edged slowly closer to my part of the platform. When a garbage train pulled in to the uptown platform and unloaded a few transit workers, he hid. But as soon as they were gone, the masturbator came back into full view. He turned to face me again, squarely, and waved. He actually waved at me. Without stopping what he was doing, of course.
I think it is the right of any citizen to feel safe on public transit, and a 12-minute-plus police response time is not exactly the definition of "safe."
I started back towards the stairs, to complain again. An F train was pulling in to the downtown platform, and just as I reached the top of the stairs, I saw the masturbator get on it. I told the station agent that the man had been there.
"He's still there?" asked the agent, through his tinny mic.
"No," I said, "He was just here. He was here for the last ten minutes but he just got on that downtown F." The station agent looked at me, not entirely unsympathetically, and reached again for his phone. "I got his picture," I said.
"You got a picture?"
"I got a bad picture," I replied, and he looked at it through the bulletproof glass of his little booth and frowned. "There's no chance, is there?" I asked. The station agent just shook his head.
I walked back down to the platform and got on the next train. By the time I got home, it was well after 4 a.m. I had let two uptown trains go by (neither of them were my train, they were just, you know, trains) while waiting for some kind of resolution to my complaint, while waiting for some kind of official consequences to befall the man who'd decided to ruin everyone's night by masturbating publicly for over twenty minutes.
At home, angry, more upset than I wish I could have been, and not ready to sleep, I started tweeting. I posted TwitPics. I Facebooked. I tweeted at Hollaback. I got angry. A complete stranger who follows me actually called the police on my behalf. (That was very touching.) People re-tweeted my photos and description. Friends who were awake texted. I uploaded my video to YouTube. I felt incandescent with purposeless rage. In the days since, a lot of people have shared stories with me of similar incidents. Of being 12 years old in a public library. Of coming home on the subway from a high school play rehearsal. Of having to ride the subway in middle school. Of Greyhound buses and isolated train stations. There is so much that this world asks us to bear, as women. To ignore, to hope will go away. Hearing these stories has been both heartening and depressing.
Women are taught so many messages about how we need to behave in order to "prevent" sexual assault and sexual harassment in public spaces. How we need to look, how we need to dress, how we need to walk, how we need to make ourselves small and unremarkable, how we need to anticipate the behavior of others, how we must not "attract" the wrong kind of attention. Even though I resent that these messages fundamentally imply that women bear responsibility for insuring sexual assault does not occur, I still, almost in spite of myself, take all of these things into account when I get dressed and when I go out in public. To have already engineered your behavior to meet the threat of assault and then to still face criminal harassment just feels like an added injustice.
I called the city information line, 311, the next day, to try and get some answers. The operator, another man, was, again, sympathetic; but he suggested I talk to 911.
The 911 operator, who was a woman, explained to me that sometimes the police arrive more slowly at incidents like the one I'd reported because they have to take the subway to get to the station. She seemed not to quite understand why I was calling about something that had happened the night before, and I said I just wanted to know if there was any way to find out what, if anything, had been the outcome of the report I'd made. She said no, there wasn't any way to track that. And she said that a man exposing himself in the subway — even a man actively masturbating there — was not as high a priority for the police as someone getting robbed on the subway.
I asked her if she could tell me exactly what priority the New York Police Department does accord a citizen's report of a man masturbating publicly for over 20 minutes, and she just said, well, it's a lower priority than someone assaulting someone else, or a robbery, or an attempted robbery. She said a report of someone masturbating publicly is also a lower priority than a report of someone falling onto the subway tracks. I asked if it was normal for the police to take more than 12 minutes to arrive after not one but two reports of a publicly masturbating man, and she said, well, it was a busy weekend. A holiday weekend. (And yes, it turns out there were some shootings this weekend. The 911 operator didn't mention that at the time. The transit police are nonetheless a separate bureau of the NYPD; the cops who police the subway aren't the same cops that get the shooting call-outs or the domestic violence call-outs or whatever else.)
So the police couldn't tell me if, by some miracle, officers had later intercepted the middle-aged, bearded, yellow-shirt-wearing public masturbator and arrested him; they couldn't tell me whether any officers had ever in fact turned up at Broadway-Lafayette station that night at all. They couldn't tell me if an official incident report had been made, or what the outcome of any such report, if one existed, was.
I suppose if I learned one thing this weekend, it's that the next time someone masturbates openly on a subway platform, you shouldn't hesitate to tell the station agent that someone fell onto the tracks. The NYPD is bound to turn up promptly then.