Eve Pearlman: No innocent bystanders
Last Tuesday, just past dusk, I was riding my bike home from Borders when, near the corner of Park Street and Otis Drive, I noticed a young man, maybe in his 20s, yelling at a young woman of similar age. They were near the boundary of the Walgreens parking lot, he in the lot and she on the sidewalk on the other side of the park strip. He was letting loose a trail of expletives and insults, the nasty and demeaning nature of which I find it hard to recapture in the retelling.
He ordered the young woman to come to him, saying, “You f—-ing b—–.” Stepping toward him, she banged her face on lowest branch of a newly-planted liquidambar there on the strip of greenery. She stepped back, rubbing her forehead, all the while he kept up a steady stream of expletives.
I wheeled over. “He can’t talk to you like that,” I said. She turned to face me. “We’re fine,” she said. “It’s okay.” He turned to face me. “Who are you?” he demanded, surveying me. He was not a big man, but bigger than I am, and I was glad that my wheel was between us, and that there was traffic all around. “You don’t know us!” He reached in his front right pocket. I felt a slip of fear. He continued. “Where are you from?” he asked. “This is the Bay Area, and I can talk to her how I want to.” It was puzzling logic, laughable if not cruel. I repeated my statement: “You can’t talk to her like that.”
“Who are you?” he questioned again. “You don’t know us,” he said, turning away.
The two walked on toward the corner, she carrying a Walgreens plastic bag that dangled by her side, and he continuing on with his nasty stream of insults. I stood over my bike, watching. I pulled out my cell phone and thought about taking a picture. But then I worried how he might react to the flash. My phone takes terrible pictures anyway. And it was dark. And what would a picture do?
Should I call 911? Were any laws being broken? Is it illegal to yell and swear and insult someone? Wouldn’t he just stop yelling if the police came? Why was I shaking? That I knew: because I was shocked that on an otherwise peaceful evening, this young woman, standing just a few feet from me, was being cursed and verbally assaulted.
The light changed, and the pair crossed Park Street. Once across the street, she stopped, and stood facing the intersection, as if waiting to cross in the other direction. He proceeded perhaps ten feet down Otis and then called back. “What?” he yelled. “You like that lady better than me? You don’t even know her!” And then she turned and followed him.
On they went, he yelling, she walking beside him. Would police come and find them if I called? And then what? I pulled my bike back onto the street, and as I rode by the pair I shouted – was it loud and clear enough for her to hear? – “You don’t have to be treated like that! You don’t have to be with him!” I saw their heads jerk up when they heard my voice, but neither responded.
I rode on in the night air, thinking about what this man’s life had been that made him think it was acceptable to talk to her like that. And what her life had been to allow herself to be mistreated and demeaned like that.
And I wondered if it was stupid of me say anything. Probably. He could have been far more aggressive toward me. I could have spurred him to be more cruel to her.
Then I realized why I had intervened. It was because of the news reports that I’d been reading about last Saturday’s gang rape of a 15-year-old girl outside her high school just after her homecoming dance in Richmond. Fifteen or 20 teens watched, the news reports said. Some joined in. They say it went on for more than two hours. Calls and texts went out from the crowd, yes, but only to share the news. No one stepped into a shadow and called 911. The girl was airlifted to the hospital in critical condition after someone finally called, after it was over. She was found under a bench in the alley behind the school.
I think it’s because of that teenage girl in Richmond that I spoke to that couple on the corner. Because there are no innocent bystanders.
Contact Eve Pearlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.