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A Subversive Woman's Tale of Taking No Sh*t

Updated: Jan 17, 2020

melrose street mural
Somewhere along Melrose | Photo by Brian Donnelly

It was an odd time of day to be on the train. It was around 2:30pm on a weekday when most people were already at work. The lunch crowd had dissipated and the afternoon rush hour had not yet begun. So when I boarded the subway car and noticed only two other people further down the car, it was no big deal.

I opted to stand that afternoon. I had been sitting all day and was happy to stretch my legs. I stood at a spot opposite of my entrance, in front of doors that only open further down the line at one station, Wilshire/Vermont. Otherwise, all the other stops have the opposite doors opening. I was well out of the way of any future boarders and foot traffic.

At the next stop an older man got on. Seats were plentiful and it struck me as odd when he didn’t sit down. Instead of taking his pick of seats on the spacious car, he stayed by the doors. He was older and stooped a bit so his choice caught my attention. But I waved it away as nothing. Perhaps he had been sitting all day too.

The train pulled out of the station.

Seconds later he glanced towards me over his shoulder.

He took a step back in my direction.

Seconds later he glanced towards me over his shoulder.

He took a step back in my direction.

Seconds later he glanced towards me over his shoulder.

He took a step back in my direction.

Per usual on the train, my eyes were up and caught each glance and backwards step. My gut told me something was off, and it was his attempts at furtive movement that caught my attention. But I looked at his movements only in terms of their parts, not the sum as he inched closer in my direction.

A part of me was trying to figure out what was happening. I was in my head trying to rationally interpret the what was happening rather than listening more fundamentally with my body.


My body always knows what’s up. Perhaps if I had listened with my body I would have moved to the other end of the train car.

But I didn’t.

He continued with his glances over his shoulder and casual steps in my direction until, with one final big step, he was pressed up against my body.

He wasn’t there long.

My moment of being in my head was over.

You want to play sneaky games, motherfucker?

Ok, let’s play sneaky games.

I reached my arm up like I was adjusting my pony tail. Then swiftly I pivoted at my hips to plant my elbow squarely in the crook of his neck.

It wasn’t so hard to do any damage. But just enough to say, “I know what you’re up to motherfucker.”

‘Cause we all know how these motherfuckers work. If I had said something to him the usual line would have been, “Oh I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you there.”

Yeah, right. On a train with only two other people way down the car and you had no other place to stand? Sure. And I was just adjusting my pony tail. Sorry, didn’t see you there.

But the sneaky little bitch didn’t say anything. After planting my elbow in his neck he turned away quickly. I caught him looking at me sheepishly out of the corner of his eye, his head lowered as he slinked his sorry ass over to a seat and sat down.

I met his gaze.

I was pissed.

I gave him a hard look but remained silent.

He got off at the next stop.

Motherfucker. I still remember what you look like.


This experience happened some time ago and I often tell it in Asphalt Anthropology to illustrate the idea of “don’t deny it is happening”.

“Don’t deny it is happening” is a mindset critical to one facing violence. And for most people this is an incredibly hard concept to incorporate into their life.


Because most people are good, decent people and a violation of social norms is just too foreign to grasp that it is real and really happening. It would never occur to a good person to go lean up against another person’s body on a near empty train, so why would one connect the dots of his behavior to that ultimate outcome (I shudder to think of his next step if I hadn’t planted my elbow in his neck)?

And here’s the thing. I teach self-defense – both the physical and the street skills required to dodge this very kind of thing. And this guy caught me on a day where I wasn’t on my A-Game. Hell, I was ten years old when I first learned cat-calling was a thing. That was merely the first time I felt the indignant rage that instinctively rolled up from the pit of my stomach, through my throat and out of my mouth when I told a car-full of grown men to go fuck themselves.

But this time on the train I dismissed all the signals that I was being targeted that this perv was sending. And what were they?

Signs of Being Targeted

· Situational proxemics

· Is the threat closing distance?

· Trying not to trigger you?

I saw the signs, but distraction and being a non-pervert myself prevented me from connecting the dots until he was up on me.

Fortunately, I never lost the “how fucking dare you” indignation that ten-year-old me had. Plus the physical confidence from training over the years to take on that motherfucker as needed. But what I recall most fondly was my subversive response. I played his game and beat the motherfucker at it.

It is an often repeated cliche in self-defense circles that bad guys pick a target that they judge to be vulnerable. It is often repeated because it is true - they look for the physically weaker or the mentally distracted.

But here’s the thing: we can’t always walk around with hard, resting bitch faces. To carry myself the same way I carry myself when I walk through Skid Row would be exhausting.

I’m not a soft target.

But sometimes I’m tired.

Sometimes I’m distracted.

Sometimes I’m a million miles away from the present moment thinking about all the curveballs life throws at me. And that’s just when this motherfucker threw his curve ball.

That’s why knowing the cues of being targeted can give you a heads up. And knowing how to throw a knuckle ball of your own is everything.

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