Jonaya’s story: THE BEST BYSTANDER STORY OF ALL TIME.
It was wet, and cold. I was carrying 20 lbs of cat food, and my cell phone was dying. I wanted to be off the bus and go home. Wet and rainy Los Angeles is a dismal place, everything misses the sun. As usual, I read Jezebel and Reddit for a bit on my phone till it died. I had ignored the other passengers until then, so when I put it away, I looked up. There, in front of me was a scene that made my skin crawl.
In two seater across from me was a young woman desperately looking out the window. Uncomfortable and visibly upset. The reason was obvious. A drunk man was whispering to her. His voice got louder and is words were clear.
“Oh? You can’t talk to me? You should talk to me. I don’t like white women. You’re pretty. I like black women. I’m just trying to talk to you before I go home to my black woman.”
He was touching her. Actually touching her.
“You should tell your boyfriend he’s messing up,” he said, ever closer.
I looked around to my fellow passengers, and many were upset. They weren’t doing anything though. No one was doing anything as the woman shrank into herself before my eyes. Smaller and Smaller. Bit by bit. Was no one going to help? Did anyone see?
I looked at him angrily. No, of course not. Everyone would hope she could handle herself. Don’t make waves, you could drown.
Well, fuck that nonsense.
I know how she felt. I know how you feel like if you just scrunch up and look unhappy, they’ll leave you alone. They won’t follow you home. They won’t hang outside the gate. I wished many times someone would stand up for me. The least I could do, was stand up for her. I wasn’t unafraid. He could have had a knife, but weapon or no weapon, I couldn’t sit there while she endured that.
“You got a problem, sister?”
He turned towards me, rheumy eyed. I felt bad for him in a small way, someone loved him once. I thought briefly of my family. Anger burned away that sympathetic comparison.
“I do,” I said in a tone I reserved for the three year olds I teach on a daily basis. “You’re making her uncomfortable. It’s not polite, to talk to people the way you’re talking to her.”
“Well, what-” he started.
“Well, nothing,” I finished, a familiar voice creeping into calmer tones. “She is very uncomfortable and you need to leave her alone. You are GOING to leave her alone. You have no right to talk to her like that.”
I heard my mother echo in my voice. The reproachfulness of my grandmother. Fear ebbed away, and adrenaline took its place.
“I’m going to let you finish,” he said, leaning towards me. As if that was a gift. Letting me finish. In the meantime the woman slid from her seat with the help of an older woman. She passed him with ease, because he had found a new target: Me.
“I AM finished. You needed to leave her alone. She was unhappy, and didn’t want to talk to you.” I turned and let her scoot past into an empty seat next to the driver. “Sit over there Momma and don’t worry about it.”
“Where you from?”
“New Jersey,” I replied easily. “Not that it matters, I barely got out.”
“New Jersey? FUCK New Jersey. I’m from Watts. I’m from Compton. You don’t know nothing. Let’s take this outside. Where’s your stop?”
Now I really was unafraid. He wanted to take this to the street, well, fine. “I don’t care where you’re from brother.” Now the tones I used were cold, and my eyes narrowed. I didn’t back down and I didn’t flinch. “You cannot talk to a young woman like that. You have no right to make her feel that way. You have no right to talk to her that way. And you certainly don’t have a right to talk to me. So you need to rethink what you’re saying. My Momma taught me manners, and so I’m not even going to answer you like that.”
“Hey, Jersey.” Beside me was a solid woman in fatigue pants and boots. She smiled down on me, and I knew her instantly. One of the owners of Panpipes. Her presence was an added boost.
He got up and moved to the front, cursing me out and telling me off as he went. He was going to do all sorts of horrible things to me.
The bus driver tried to drive and tell him to calm down. It didn’t work. He got worse. I set down my bag. Clinched my fists. Wondered if someone would hold my earrings.
“You’re going to leave her alone,” the woman fatigues said. In one moment, there was a little bond, and it spread. We were ready for a fight. He was going to lose.
“Did I do something wrong?” The woman he had originally harassed looked unsure, guilty.
I smiled, “You didn’t do anything honey. He has no business touching you. He has no business talking to you like that. It isn’t right.”
At that he set off again, and the bus driver calmly said, “Sir, this is your stop.”
“No, it isn’t,” he replied, the slur in his voice gone due to anger.
“Oh. Yes. It. IS.” And off the bus he went.
He gave me the finger. We all waved.
Stand up for someone. Make waves. Someone else may help you swim.