Photo credit Catherine Just Photography
*Trigger warning: this post tells a story of a time when I was very nearly sexually assaulted. I was able to get away and it has a happy ending but people who are sensitive to the topic may want to skip this story.*
In high school, I was a joiner. Student council, cheerleader, honor society, yearbook – I joined them all. If there was a club, I joined it. Including Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD), even though almost none of my friends had cars because we took public transportation everywhere. As I headed to my freshman year of college, I was ready to drop all the bouncy, cheery stuff and let my inner nerd out. I was going to wear black and read Sylvia Plath in public (with the book held just so, to make sure you could see how cool I am). If not for the fact that cigarette smoke makes my face puff up like a blowfish, I would have smoked clove cigarettes. You know the kind – pretentious, clove smoking undergrads in black – trying desperately to feel more grown-up and sophisticated than their beer-chugging classmates.
I grew up overseas and my mom was teaching in The Netherlands the summer after my Sophomore year of college. Being the black-clad, poetry reading lone wolf that I was, I decided to go backpacking for a couple of weeks by myself before meeting up with her in Southern Italy where a friend of hers lived. I had nothing but disdain for the loud, cheerful hordes of flip-flop and sneaker wearing American college kids on their Summer tours through Europe’s nightclubs and beaches. I spent my days in museums and reading Camus alone in cafe’s, as I sipped my hot cocoa (because I didn’t even drink coffee yet).
I had, of course, pretty much run out of money when it was time to head down to Naples. I chose a night train, so I could save on the cost of a hostel. When I stepped on the train, there were two compartments available to me – each had two benches facing each other, a window on the far end and a door between the compartment and the “hallway” of the train car. The first one had a group of American sorority girls in it, I knew this because they all had their sorority name emblazoned on their sweatshirts, which they were wearing with short shorts and brightly colored hair scrunchies The second compartment had a young man in a sports jacket, who looked an awful lot like a young Freud, complete with wire-rimmed glasses and a leather satchel (a satchel, people!) and also an Italian mother and her 5 year old son. For a wannabe European intellectual, this was a no-brainer. I took a seat across from Young Freud.
As the night wore on, we came to a stop between stations, most likely at a train crossing since there was nothing outside but fields. From my seat, I saw a disheveled-looking man get on the train. Unfortunately, he saw me, too, and came in and took a seat in our compartment. He was wearing varying shades of dirty brown clothing and shoes that were cheap and falling apart. He got on the train between stations and he had no luggage. There was no question, this was a hobo.
We all dozed off as the train continued toward Rome. When we arrived, it was still night and, to my horror, my original companions on the train – young Freud and the mother and son – got off the train. I was left behind with only the hobo, who was now giving me creepy smiles. The sounds coming from the compartment next door of sorority girls singing and squealing with laughter had never sounded so appealing. I cursed myself for being so stuck-up that I ended up in the hobo car.
As soon as we were away from the station, the hobo started saying things like, “hey, baby”, “you like sexy time?” and “you nice American girl, no?”. The hair on the back of my neck prickled. The car was dark and I could barely see him, but I knew he was between me and the door to get out of this compartment. I was trying to ignore him while also keeping an eye on him. And then I saw that he had unbuckled his pants.
In a move that I can only attribute to my childhood love of re-enacting Charlie’s Angels episodes, I reached up and grabbed the handle of my backpack off the luggage rack above me and slammed it down into his lap while backing out the door. I spun myself around and threw myself into the train compartment full of sleeping sorority girls.
They could have protested. They could have told me that there wasn’t room for me. But, instead, one girl put her bag on the floor and another girl scooched her legs in closer so that there would be room for me. I tucked myself in amongst them. And I remembered why I used to join everything.
Because there is safety in a group of women.
Because there is power in a group of women.
Because groups of women take care of each other.
This is why I create programs and Facebook pages – I want you to have a safe place to land after life has unraveled. Whether that unraveling is a small, scary thing like facing a nasty hobo on the train or a big, scary thing like a divorce or losing a loved one. There is always a place for you here, we scooch.