Last night, I was riding my bike home through the side streets of Berkeley, the wind was chilly, there were actually dead leaves blowing around, it felt like fall, and I felt like I was back in Italy again. I spent a summer and two autumns in Italy, and I still wish I could live there full-time. At this point it’s not feasible because I don’t have a job there, wouldn’t make enough, and have spent a lot of time on the West Coast forgetting how to speak Italian. My Italian is now quite pitiful.
When I bike around Oakland and Berkeley, I move in almost constant fear of getting mugged. I know that while it’s more likely to happen here than other places, it’s still not that likely to happen; but, I have heard horror stories and therefore I move around in fear. Sometimes, I reassure myself by looking around and noting how many people are on the street and could help me were I in distress. And while I think of that, and of Italy, I am reminded of a particular Milan Metro incident from a few years ago.
I was teaching English at a summer camp in Milan, and it was miserable. It was hot, muggy, and while I liked hearing Italian everyday, my host mom was not a great cook (like my old one had been) and we lived on the outskirts of Milan so I had to take the Metro nearly everywhere. On a crowded Metro car one afternoon, I stood next to a tall, lanky Asian guy in a hoodie, with a briefcase. I was exhausted. I was sweaty. I was near tears because I missed my then-boyfriend and my school kids were horrible (my boss wasn’t much of a help). I was in bad shape. And this Asian man kept brushing up against me. With his hand. Right on my crotch.
It was so subtle that I wasn’t even sure it was happening on purpose. I just knew that I didn’t like it. I glared at him. It wasn’t that crowded. When a seat opened up, I sat down. He sat down in the seat next to me. His hand was right next to my leg (I had to wear shorts, even in Italy. It was too hot to do otherwise.). I inched away from him. His hand was still too close to my leg.
When my stop came, I got up and fled. I was through the station, up the stairs and halfway down the street to my apartment when I heard a man calling after me. I ignored him. I was ready to hop in my bed and stay under the covers for the rest of the afternoon. But finally he caught up to me.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” he demanded, “Why didn’t you scream?”
I was flustered. I stammered, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”
“When someone touches you, you yell!” this man told me. “You scream! You were in a crowded place. Why didn’t you help yourself? Next time, you yell. You let everyone know what the man is doing.”
“Okay,” I choked out, trying not to cry, “Thank you, sir, thank you for letting me know. Next time I’ll do it.” In my just-past-elementary Italian speaking, this was all I could manage at a time like this.
When he turned around and walked back to the bar he was headed for, I fled once again. Confused. Near tears. Praying the apartment would be empty when I got there so no one would wonder why I was upset.
Why didn’t that man say something for me, I wondered. Apparently he could tell I was uncomfortable. He could tell I wasn’t okay. I still wonder, but ultimately I know it should have been me that said something. I shouldn’t have stood by idly, letting myself be a victim.
When I ride around Berkeley and Oakland, I wonder what lesson the man was trying to teach me: to fend for myself, or that people aren’t necessarily going to jump in for me, just because they’re present? Did he have both in mind? Did he not have the nerve to say something on his own, just like me?