Monday, August 31, 2009

So now I always sit in the back

I’ve never written about this incident – namely because it happened during the Great Four Month Homelessness of 2008, when I was living at Kuya's and had no access to my hard drive or my winter clothes. But Karen Healey’s recent post, Snakes in the Grass has brought it all back.

One Monday evening last year, when I was working at the old place (bar/restaurant in the city) the boys and I finished work so late that I’d missed all the trams and had to get a cab. Curtis flagged one for me after we’d had an after-work beer, and the cab driver (youngish) must have taken in the environment before I was in the front seat heading to Kew.

After a moment’s silence along Victoria Street, the driver broke the quiet with, “So, you like drinking? You like drinking with boys?”

The implications of that (abrupt) sentence would normally get me into a debate. But I wasn’t in the mood to argue about double standards and whatnot – I was in the mood to suddenly detect a threat and mentally calculate both the time it would take to get home and strategies for concealing my actual place of address while answering the question in a way that might deter any further conversation.

Which is not so much a mood, but y’know.

“Actually, that bar is where I work,” I answered stiffly. “Those guys are my colleagues.”

During that answer I surprised myself by indignantly thinking, I’m just wearing my work clothes and a hoodie! Why is he suddenly implying I’m a drunken floozy- no, stop right there. Even if I’d stumbled into the cab in a gold mini dress he’d have no right to harass me. Clothing should not make the slightest difference to the manner in which I am treated by a cab driver. Not that it made a difference later.

The driver attempted more conversation, most of which I answered untruthfully. What do you do? What do you study? How often do you work? Do you go out on weekends? Do you live alone? (to THAT one I invented several older brothers as housemates) Then, it was a sly, “So, are there any bottle shops around here?”

“What?” I asked, feigning confusion as my heart started to pound. “I don’t know, there’s a Dan Murphy’s coming up but I don’t think it’d be open this time on a Monday night, why?”

He grinned. “We can get some beer.”

Skin now crawling. “But you’re driving.”

“The beer is for you!”

At this stage I’m half out of my mind with fear, looking around the dark streets as we approach Kew Junction and knowing nobody is around. “No thank you, please just take me home.”

In response he turned off the meter. “The rest of the fare is on me.”

I squeaked a thank you, snaking a hand in my bag for my apartment keys and wallet.

We reached my street, and I told him to drop me off ‘on the corner’ – my actual apartment building was therefore hidden from view, but by this time I’m frantically wondering how fast I can run, how quickly I can turn the key in the door of the building (and let me tell you, I’m the kind of person who will muck any simple thing up in a state of panic).

I hand him cash for the fare, unbuckle my seatbelt, and he asks, “Ok, what about a tip?”

It is polite but not customary to tip cab drivers in Australia, so that was an unusual question but I put aside my fear long enough to reason, sure, he did give me a fair portion of the ride for free. I start scooping some coins together when he grabs my arm.

“No, I mean my sweet tips,” he insisted, using his other hand to tap his cheek. “My sweet tips.”

My mind exploded.
Oh my God, he wants a kiss, he’s bigger than me, it’s so dark, he thinks I like drinking with boys, he’s still in control of the car, how fast can I run, how loud can I scream, is there anything in my bag I can use as a weapon, nobody knows where I am, does my phone have enough battery to call 000, would anybody be in that house over there, what if the childproof lock is on the car door, now he’s leaning closer...

Finally, I SMILED (probably trying to preserve myself best I can, but it still makes me angry) and threw the loose change at him.

The driver jerked backwards as the coins scattered everywhere, I threw the door open and ran for my life.

He did not follow me by car or by foot. I got into my apartment, barricaded the door with a lounge chair, and shook for about an hour before ringing my work friends and telling them.

“I’m shaking, what do I do? Do you remember what he looked like or anything?” I asked.

“No,” Curtis answered, “Jesus, did you get down his ID number?”

I froze. The name and identification card of Victorian taxi drivers is displayed on the windshield along with a six digit driver number. I hadn’t thought of that. “No.”

“Why not? If you did you could report him – you know there are security cams in taxis now, right? And he’ll probably try it on someone else, I mean don’t you remember anything? Did his picture match his ID? Or did you get the numberplate of the taxi?”

So here’s something I wish I'd thought of to say.

No, I did not record his identification number, the numberplate of the vehicle, and today I would probably be hard-pressed to give a detailed description of the guy. I am not of the habit of carrying around a notebook and pen and whipping it out in order to calmly record ‘useful’ such details

I was scared OUT OF MY MIND. I took what I thought were the best courses of action - for all I knew, I had to protect my LIFE! Sure, it might’ve been useful if I’d had the presence of mind to memorise the ID number at some point. But try going back in time, to that moment in the dark passenger seat when you’re alone with a guy bigger and stronger and in control of the vehicle and SEXUALLY INTERESTED IN YOU gripping your arm and asking for a kiss and see how useful YOU feel!

‘Cos I was feeling pretty fight or flight, myself.

It’s just... when you’ve been victimised, you really don’t need to be treated like an idiot on top of that, you know? I was already blaming myself plenty. And given the way the situation turned out – unpleasant advances, minor physical altercation, escaped safely – I know it could have been worse. I protected myself as best I could in a situation I was not in control of. To add to that, “Yeah, but you should’ve...” is so undermining and wounding, to take away what I DID do to protect myself and blame me for what I DIDN'T do to protect some imaginary future person?

Don't. Don't ever, especially if you consider yourself a friend to the person who has just been traumatised.

So I’m going to end this disturbing story with Karen’s wise words to me, something she insists I should not have waited so long for:

You are, like everyone, absolutely entitled to the basic right to go about your day unharassed and unmolested. When someone acts as if you don't have that right, it is not because you suddenly don't deserve it. The failure is not yours.


  1. I'd just like to echo what Karen said.
    You did what you could, so you did what was right.

  2. Thank you Saranga, I appreciate that. :)

  3. Do you mind if I link back to this? i think it's really important to state what you did about the ID number and stuff.