Updated: Feb 20, 2020
It started as a fast-moving blur in the corner of my eye. By the time I whipped my head around, the assailant, a woman, had sprinted through the open train doors at the 7th and Metro platform and was on top her quarry, a young woman, in seconds. Flailing wildly, the assailant landed punches to her target’s head. The young woman screamed and slid to the ground, the assailant on top raining down blows.
A man stepped in, yanked the assailant by the scruff of her collar and pulled her off the young woman. The assailant screamed incoherently, but otherwise exited the train without further incident. I approached the young woman and asked if she was OK. I found a few napkins in my bag to dab the traces of blood off her hands and face. She was shaken and battered but otherwise had no apparent serious injuries.
“I have no idea who she was,” she stammered.
It’s funny how the mind works trying to make sense of the senseless. From the few seconds of the assault, and no other information, I had made up a few scenarios in my head to try and explain what had happened – had it been an argument between strangers that had started on the platform? Were they romantic rivals fighting over a love interest? An eruption of an on-going dispute between co-workers?
The assailant, in her 50’s looked professionally dressed, not at all like a disheveled transient one would expect this behavior from. Her target was a woman in her 20’s dressed in khakis and a white polo on her way to her job in Universal Studios. My made-up stories didn’t add up. Along with others on the train, we tried to piece it together to find some meaning in what happened.
The man who pulled off the assailant said that he had seen her on the platform pacing, smoking and muttering to herself before the train arrived. Though the young woman had been on the same platform with the assailant they hadn’t interacted. There seemed to be no obvious reason why she would target her. The reasons will forever be locked in the assailant’s mind and for her, and her alone, to understand.
And this is when my superstition began when riding the train.
There is plenty of advice about riding public transit – most of it seemingly dispensed by people who don’t regularly ride and don’t understand the dynamic nuances – that every time you get on the train or bus it’s a whole new crowd of people, all sitting in different spots, with a different vibe and perhaps even a different physical layout from the last time you rode.
The best common piece of advice is to position yourself as close to an exit as possible. A good practice in general, but doesn’t allow for the realities of riding:
The woman who was attacked was in this "best" seat which also put her in the direct line of fire and blocked from the closest exit by her assailant.
Sometimes these positions aren't available anyway and 2nd, 3rd, 4th... or 20th closest is your only option.
If you're traveling with children or bulky items, like a bike, and want to be out of the way of foot traffic.
And then there is the ease with which someone can snatch and run through nearby exits during a stop. (This tactic is more prevalent in some neighborhoods than others – an asphalt anthropologist is savvy about what happens in the specific neighborhoods they frequent – ‘cause you can’t worry about everything.)
“Sit close to the exits” advice doesn’t account for the countless variables - but worse, it doesn't prepare you to identify the next best thing.
Feeling safe is not the same thing as being safe.
The young woman was sitting in the seat with the highly advised nearest path to the exit. Sure, that scenario was an outlier, and call me superstitious, but I swore off that seat like a bad penny after that.
Instead I came up with a "lucky" spot of my own after witnessing this assault. The seat where I feel safest is the spot on the first row on the inside by the window. It’s on the same side as the door, close to the exit, but with the handicap seat preventing a straight path to the doors.
So while the handicap seat can be a liability, I see it as an advantage: someone would have to make an awkward twist and reach across a seat (and maybe another person) to access me or my stuff – rather than having a clear shot at me like that deranged assailant did when she attacked the young woman.
Before I get responses lecturing me about the risks of sitting on the inside making it harder to escape, I get it. Most women already know this and are sufficiently terrified of the inside seat, thank you very much. I’ve spoken to several women who have spent years in Krav Maga but who still find themselves without the self-defense skills to defend themselves with weirdos on the street or public transit. So I do not take lightly the idea of sitting on the inside of the row – this is a completely personal preference and dependent on current circumstances.
So if getting/feeling trapped runs counter to our primal survival instincts, why do I personally prefer it over the aisle? Obviously the assault I witnessed made a strong, emotional impression. But while I still avoid the second row and other more confined spots, I have since observed some interesting interpersonal dynamics that the prevailing self-dense advice misses:
Based on my own experiences and conversations, I’ve developed a working theory that women typically prefer sitting next to other women.
90%+ of the time it is other women who take the empty seat next to me.
Quite often I’ve seen men pass up a perfectly open seat next to me or other women for another spot further down the car.
My train rides have become my laboratory on testing my theory that the genders generally prefer to stick together to avoid trouble. It’s a completely non-scientific study, and I have no doubt that other women have very different experiences than me. Recently, however, it seems that others are noticing this trend of genders sticking together too.
As for feeling trapped, it all comes down to psychologist James J. Gibson's concept of affordances – that how one perceives their environment determines how they interact with it. Rory Miller has extrapolated this idea to the self-defense world. For example:
I recently saw a young man on the inside seat brace his back against the wall and use it as leverage as he started bicycling his feet fast and furiously shoving a screaming racist off the seat next to him. The screaming racist landed on his ass with a thud and just sat in the aisle looking stunned for a moment. Right about then, we arrived at the next stop and the screaming racist got off without another word.
Deep down I'm kind of a softie, but I also like to think I am cold-hearted enough to use my seat-mate as a shield should the need arise.
None of what I just walked you through should be taken as advice on where sit or not sit on public transit. If you are looking for concrete to-do lists and advice you’ve come to the wrong place.
The goal here is to get you thinking about what works and doesn’t work for you – and it all depends on factors about yourself, the other people and the environment. And these factors are dynamic – we’re not even the same people from day-to-day in terms of energy level or attention span – all the more reason to be flexible.
Our brains like to run on auto-pilot. Our automatic brain is essential to processing information as we move through our day allowing us to juggle busy lives and make decisions in a short amount time.
But if we can move away from generalized superstitious shortcuts designed to make us feel safer (checklists that tells us to “always sit by the exit”, etc. ) and towards mindfulness that allows us to read the environment, we can be safer. I know this might feel like a lot of work at first, but once you develop the mindset, it becomes unconscious.
The key is to make adaptability your habit – the challenge for me I extend to you: play with standing or sitting in different spots on the train (or restaurant, or office – whatever makes sense for in your life) so you become familiar with ALL of it, not just your little corner of it.
This adaptability is not only a critical self-defense skill, but just as importantly, a critical skill to simply enjoying the world and being more at home as you move through it.