I’m fundamentally a coward when it comes to the threat of physical violence. With my last fight occurring at the age of fourteen, I shy away from any situation that seems potentially hazardous. When I travel, I’m especially cautious, always mentally preparing for the need to escape a dangerous situation should one arise.
Today, on a train ride from Riga to Sigulda, I was confronted by a situation that seemed like it could quite easily have become threatening—and for an embarrassing moment or two, I was paralyzed and that paralysis (and what it means) has stuck with me for most of the rest of the day.
Shortly after the train left Riga, a big Latvian guy who had obviously been drinking heavily came into my train car, holding a a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. Almost immediately, he turned his attention to a group of women at the front of the car, who I would guess were Indian Muslims from their appearance, though I can’t be certain. After addressing the women in Latvian, Russian, and English to no response, the man decided to start loudly yelling “Taliban” and suggesting that they were carrying a bomb on the train.
The three women kept their eyes down and did their best to ignore him, but it was clear they were nervous about the situation and so was I, sensing how easily the situation could get out of hand. In desperation rather than out of logic, I decided to get up and sit down next to the man, who was alternating between standing and sitting, hoping that someone to talk to would offer a distraction.
After learning I was an American, he immediately asked me what I thought about Donald Trump. I have to admit that I hesitated for a moment, but eventually decided to tell him that he was a bad President, reasoning that even a belligerently drunk xenophobe from Latvia could likely tell that Trump was no good for the world.
I picked the right answer, and soon we were off into a forty minute conversation that revolved around my new companion’s contempt for Trump and Putin, his desire to visit the United States, more painful fist bumps than I can count, and one odd handshake during which I thought he might break my hand, a handshake that only ended with each of us hitting our chests once with our own fists.
Other than telling me how beautiful the Indian women were and speculating about their immigration status, my companion managed not to terrify anyone else on the train for the duration of the trip.
What’s stuck with me, though, was that moment when the oldest of the three women put her head down and averted her eyes, hoping it would be enough to end his abuse. It was the gesture of someone who had clearly been in that situation before and someone who knew it would come again. It wasn’t fear precisely, but resignation and vulnerability.
Hers was a vulnerability and resignation in the face of abuse from strange men that I suspect far too many people feel far too often, a feeling I rarely have to encounter traveling as a man.
This certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced a belligerent person like that on public transit and almost certainly won’t be the last, but I can’t quite shake the feeling about how difficult it was to intervene, even in the small way I did. For a long moment, I did exactly what the other four people in the train car did; I looked away and hoped that I would be left out of the disturbance.
And that’s the moment I can’t quite shake.