SAFETY AND COMFORT

I was riding the 75 northbound, north of Sandy Boulevard around 8:30 on a weekday evening. Three or four other riders were scattered around the bus. A group of high school kids got on. Some of them sat in front, on the Honored Citizen benches. The rest, standing up, had a quiet discussion. They were looking my way, but not at me. I heard one of the boys say to one of the girls, “Is that him?” The girl nodded her head.

The boy who had asked the question walked very seriously back towards me, two other boys following him. He ignored me, stopping in the aisle to face a man sitting directly behind me, on the bench opposite the door. The other two boys took their places on either side of this great leader.

These young men were dressed as if coming from a special event, or from a private school: business casual shirts and pants with a belt, dark shoes and plain jackets. I was half expecting a pitch for Jehova’s Witnesses. and half expecting trouble. I turned to watch.

The leader spoke. “Are you a stalker?”

The man glanced up, held the kid’s stare for a second and went back to his newspaper. He was maybe 55 years old, thin and tall. His clothes could have come from the same Sears where the boys got theirs, but from the blue collar aisle instead of the white collar aisle.

“I’m talking to you. Were you stalking that girl?”

The man looked up, an inoffensive smile pasted on his face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The boy looked down the aisle at his other friends. “Is this the guy?” I counted two girls and two boys, all watching intently. One of the girls nodded.

“My friend says you were stalking her.”

The man continued to smile and hold the boy’s glare. He shook his head and went back to the paper.

“Look at me. I’m talking to you.”

No response.

“Are you afraid?”

I was beginning to feel nervous. The boys were not quite full grown, but big enough together to hurt this guy – or me, for that matter. I thought that if they suddenly got physical, then I would jump in to break it up. I didn’t speak up, obviously, because I was not the one in their sights and didn’t want to get in line for a beating, if that was where this was headed. The kids up front were glancing around nervously, too. And what was up with the driver, who was silent?

The leader sat down. “I’m just gonna wait here until you get off. And then we’ll settle this outside.”

He sat, smiling, while his henchboys continued to stand.

A few seconds later, one of the boys in front called back. “They want to get off.” He meant the girls. The leader immediately stood up and jabbed a finger at the man, “I’ll see you again,” and as the bus stopped, he spit on him. He and the lieutenants got off the back, but before the door could close he turned and yelled (what else?) “Fuck you.”

Now the driver’s voice came over the intercom. “Sir, are you all right? We are here to ensure that you have a safe and comfortable ride. Intimidation and threats and physical confrontation are not allowed on TriMet. Have you felt threatened at any time, sir?”

I turned around to the man. He still wore the bland smile, which was turned on me. He got up and talked with the driver. The driver asked him some questions. The man was saying, “No. . . I don’t know. . . . I have no idea.” He came back to his seat, still smiling, strangely unaffected.

I said to him, “Those kids had you in their sights.”

He shrugged. “I didn’t do anything,” as if that were a guarantee that everything would be okay.

I said, “Did you really have no idea what they were talking about?”

“None.”

The driver made another short speech on behalf of TriMet about safety and comfort. He said none of us should ever hesitate to report a problem to the driver.

As I was getting off, I asked the driver if he was aware of the encounter while it was taking place. He said he was, but he couldn’t do anything unless someone touched someone else or made an overt threat. I thought the body language was about as overt as could be and told him so. He said yes, he saw that.

He then said, “Some drivers are cowards and will do nothing in a situation like this. I was ready to stop the bus, and I have made a call to TriMet security.”

Yeah, the driver probably did his job well enough. The victim’s neutral behavior may have kept things from escalating. As for me, I had wanted to be either Gandhi and make new friends out of the conflict, or Chuck Norris and end it quickly for the good guys – just delusions of being effective, I suppose.

The ending is not satisfying. Nothing has been resolved. If the man and the kids meet again, the tension will be there. This is real life.

© Nick O’ConnorIf you had been commuting an hour each way every weekday between Northeast Portland and the Sunset Transit Center at the border of Portland and Beaverton for two years and occasionally woke up, dislodged an earbud, or spoke to a fellow rider, you would have a few stories to tell, too. Nick blogs at Sardines Are Only Packed Once (where this story originally appeared).

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