Of Preparedness, Personal Space, and the MAX Orange Line from Milwaukie to City Center

Story contributed by Robert Wagner – @gangsterswedish on Twitter

Unlike many Portland-area public transit stalwarts, my foray into commuting via light-rail didn’t begin until the completion of the Orange Line to Milwaukie. As a resident of beautiful southeast Portland, I had been relegated to riding buses into downtown whenever my access to the family automobile was limited. Granted, my commute is short, a mere 3.5 miles, but suffice to say that riding the bus at 5:35am on any given weekday morning is a tad less comfortable than driving myself in the reclined comfort of the gas-guzzling family SUV. The Orange Line changed all of that. Now, after a brisk morning walk, I can get downtown in a few minutes without having to sit so close to Bus People; I could catch up on some reading or listen to some podcasts! I was, in a word, elated.

I consulted a fellow MAX-riding friend about the proper procedure for actually paying for my commute. Did I really have to buy a pass for each trip like I would on a bus? The scant few times I’d ever rode the MAX prior to the Orange Line I had never bought a pass – hedging my bet that the particular run I was on wouldn’t be patrolled by anyone that was going to check it anyway. Why waste the $2.50? My friend eventually convinced me that yes, I should pay for my rides, and eventually it would turn out to be good advice. Or so I would have thought.

There was a warmth pressed up against my leg

It was a cold, dark morning in January of 2016 and I was sitting on one of what I call the “side seats” of the MAX. “Side seats” are those seats on the train that face inward vs. forward or backward. I prefer “side seats” because they’re grouped in larger numbers and reduce the risk of anyone sitting next to me, though in general I tend to sit at the end of any given “side seat” cluster. On that particular January morning though there was little to worry about. The MAX was nearly empty, my car contained only about 5 people total including myself and no one occupying any of the “side seats” – so I took my usual place, got comfortable, and put on my headphones to enjoy my trip without the bother of background noise.

I got so comfortable that I closed my eyes.

I’m not entirely sure that I fell asleep but I know that one minute I was alone, and the next I wasn’t. There was a warmth pressed up against my right leg – from the top of my knee all the way to the top of my thigh. It took a moment for it to register before I opened my eyes again. As I did, I panicked ever so slightly, “How long did I sleep?” “Did I miss my stop?” and “When did the train fill up with people?”

Upon opening my eyes, I realized that we’d barely gone more than a few blocks. There was no one in front of me. The train wasn’t full at all; someone had just decided that they’d sit down right next to me. A train car full of empty seats and this person sits down next to me. Touching me, no, pretty much pushing up against me.

To my left I felt the cold metal of the otherwise useless armrest. It was too close to me already, offering no room to scoot over, even an inch. I cursed myself for having set my backpack down on the floor in front of me, rather than on the seat to my right in the space now occupied by my intruder. Nonetheless, in an attempt to reclaim some room I reached down and unzipped it, awkwardly shuffled some things around inside it, and zipped it back up. I leaned back hoping the kerfuffle would have been enough to convince the mysterious person next to me to move over, even a little bit. But he didn’t. Instead he pressed himself closer to me, the entirety of our legs now touching from top to bottom – from ass-cheek to ankle like we were old friends preparing for a three-legged race.

That’s when I felt his foot tapping against mine.

“Oh God!” I thought. What did he want? Was he flirting with me? Why else would any-one engage in a game of footsie on a train? I knew nothing about this man, having not yet looked at him. I knew only that he must be a man based on the size of the black shoe I could see on the floor, pivoting on its heel and tapping against the side of my foot. My eyes quickly diverted to the front of the train car, in desperate denial of the sight and feel of his foot and its rhythm-less shuffling against mine. The sound of the podcast I was listening to still droning on in my headphones.

A moment or two passed. The tapping stopped but I could still feel him, still feel his warmth beside me. I thought about getting up and moving, perhaps pretending that I mistook the next stop for my own – even though my stop was still another mile and a half away. “Oops, honest mistake! Ha ha! I’m so stupid.” But I didn’t move. I sat there, frozen. My left hand was in my jacket pocket, clutching my iPhone so tightly that I wondered if it might shatter. Not angry, not scared, just stuck somewhere between fight and flight – wholly unprepared for such a blatant intrusion of my personal space at 5:45am on a dark January morning.

Then came the feeling of his hot breath on my neck. Twice.

Cats instinctually protect their necks, as do MMA fighters

It’s one thing to to touch someone when they don’t want to be touched – and trust me, I’m not a particularly touch-friendly human being to begin with. It’s a whole other thing to be so close to someone that they can feel your breath on them, particularly somewhere as intimate as the neck. Necks are vulnerable places meant for meaningful jewelry and experimental adolescent nibbling, not the hot and smelly mouth emissions of random strangers. Cats instinctually protect their necks, as do MMA fighters. I like to think I protect my neck too – but then I also expect that I’m not going to have to go into a neck-protecting defensive posture while sitting by myself on a train heading into work.

That was enough. I leapt out of my seat and turned to face this wretched pervert and give him a piece of my mind. In doing so I inadvertently kicked my backpack across the aisle, the MAX train still in motion, relentlessly taking us to the next stop.

And there he was, all slick black hair and facial stubble. An unkempt mess of a man that apparently delights in getting a little too up close and personal with people he doesn’t know. I was going to tell him what’s what, that’s for sure. And I was just about to so when I realized he was saying something. His mouth was moving, repeating a phrase once, then twice, then a third time – only I couldn’t hear it, only the sound of some inane podcaster talking about those inane things only podcasters talk about.

I removed my headphones.

But my dog really did eat my homework!

“Pass please.”

I stared at him blankly.

“Do you have a pass?”

“What the fuck?! What?!!” I replied, still angry about his uninvited advances.

“Do you have a pass or not?”

“Yeah.” And with that I pulled my phone out of my pocket, my left hand still wrapped around it, white-knuckle tight and shaking. Too tight. My hand then twitched suddenly and let the phone go completely, dropping it to the floor. I reached down to pick it up and looked at the screen. It was off. I scrambled to turn it on but it sat there with a black, unresponsive screen. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the pervert-turned-fare inspector pull out a pen and some kind of netbook. He asked me for my name.

“I really do have a pass. My phone just shut off when I dropped it,” I said.

“Uh huh. I’m issuing you a citation for riding without a pass. What’s your name?”

“Just give me a minute. It’ll come back on. I have a pass!” I said.

“You need to have your pass ready for inspection. Now, what’s your name? I’m issuing you a citation for failure to produce a valid pass.”

Resigned to my fate I said “Robert.”

The train came to a halt. Looking out the window I could see that we were almost to my stop, just another intersection away. As the fare inspector finished taking down my name and other assorted personal information, I reached to the floor and picked up my backpack. We arrived at my stop and I disembarked.

I watched as the train pulled away, leaving me there alone with my ticket – stunned that my first experience with a fare inspector was so frustrating, disgusted that it was so invasive.

$175. That’s how much I paid for a 3.5 mile ride and an uncomfortable game of footsie with a grown man.

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