The MTA has an initiative called Poetry in Motion, which brings verse to riders of the New York City subway. The last time I was groped on the subway, I was reading one such poem: “To the Reader: Twilight,” by Chase Twichell. It is an enjoyable, accessible poem—they tend to be—but it felt strangely apt.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that any woman who rides any public transport for any length of time will, at some point, come into close contact with a covert masturbator. I should amend that, actually: it is universally acknowledged among women; men are always surprised to learn that this is a quotidian reality of distaff urban existence.
“Was it a very crowded train?” asked my mother, the first time it happened to me. I nodded tearfully. “Was it a businessman in a suit? It always is,” she said grimly. I was fourteen at the time, looked twelve, and found the experience exceedingly disturbing. We did not yet have poetry in the subway.
“Next time it happens,” said my mom, “shout ‘PERVERT! PERVERT!’ and everyone will turn on him.”
This advice, in retrospect, demonstrated a touching faith in the vigilantism of the average New Yorker. It also depended on a certainty that rarely exists in such situations. After the fact, somehow, you are always sure. But in the moment, packed like sardines in a crowded car, with a crafty pervert moving with the train’s undulations, there is always reasonable doubt.
In recent years, to address the problem of sexual harassment, the MTA has started airing public service announcements that sound as if they were composed by someone’s prudish maiden aunt. “A crowded subway is no excuse for an improper touch,” the announcer used to chide—more lately, perhaps because “improper touch” was too memorably vague, he substitutes “unlawful sexual conduct,” and encourages victims of said ungentlemanly conduct to report the cad to the authorities, who will, presumably, give him a sound horsewhipping to curb his animal high spirits.
If I could write these announcements, they would be more blunt. “Yes, you are being masturbated against by that businessman,” my announcement would say. “No one does that by mistake; most of us go to extreme lengths to avoid that contact, no matter how crowded the train. And it’s not an umbrella, or the edge of a briefcase; you know it isn’t. Here’s the test: grind your heel into his instep. If it stops, well, there’s your answer. In my mother’s ideal world, you would confront him, and by shaming him, you might spare another woman the same unpleasantness. Maybe one day you will. I suppose we all need to harden ourselves in different ways; it’s just a question of deciding how. (That’s not a pun.) Once I got out at the next stop just to end it, and until I could, I kept my eyes fixed on the flowery cursive of the civic poetry, and I was distracted by the image of snowy mountains and chilled by the thought that I could shout and maybe no one would care, and I was grateful for it. I think ‘Poetry in Motion’ is a good idea.”
Whenever I look
out at the snowy
mountains at this hour
and speak directly
into the ear of the sky,
it’s you I’m thinking of.
You’re like the spirits
the children invent
to inhabit the stuffed horse
and the doll.
I don’t know who hears me.
I don’t know who speaks
when the horse speaks.