At the end of this post is an original work that I helped create with composer Meg Huskin and flutist Robin Meiksins. While the piece itself is pretty self-explanatory, I wanted to provide some context about it rather than just posting the video, as I feel the backstory is important. Trigger warning: my story involves harassment and being followed.
On August 3rd, I set off on the train to Scapi Magazine’s 24-hour concert.
I was followed by an older man on to that train, through a tunnel, and on to another train before I turned around to him and asked, “Can you stop following me?!”
If you’re first question is, “what were you wearing?” I won’t judge you, because when I left my house on that 90 degree evening I had ditched the leggings I had worn to work with my sundress, deciding that with shorts underneath, the outfit was perfectly decent, but it was not my usual Friday night look, let’s say. It was Lolla weekend and, with half of the downtown population clad in bikinis and short-shorts, I figured my short-sleeve red dress that covered my chest and went past my finger tips when my arms were held to my sides (the test our grammar school teachers used to decide whether our shorts were “acceptable”) wouldn’t particularly stand out in any sort of way.
I saw the man in my periphery as he walked past me on the platform while I stared at my phone. He was black man, about my height, greying beard, with a baseball hat on, and seemed walk a little crooked. He looked like people I meet daily on my commute, so I didn’t have any reason to make any special not of him at this point. I had sunglasses on, and earbuds in, so when he kind of leaned in to ask something, I barely noticed, and then he seemed to walk away. I figured he was asking for money. When I stood to get on the train, he made a gesture as though he was allowing me to walk ahead of him, and I nodded my head and smiled in thanks.
I sat next to the window with the perpendicular seat in front of me--my favorite seat. He sat there, right in front of me. At this point I could feel him staring. I guessed he probably wasn’t “all there” in one way or another and he didn’t appear threatening, so I just sort of sat there trying to ignore him, figuring sooner or later he would get the hint. Shortly after he got up and walked past the door to the seats on the other side.
I breathed a little sigh of relief. He got it…
I peeked up to see that in fact he moved to give himself better vantage point. He was now full out staring at me. I didn’t want to cause trouble or make a scene, and I was getting off in a few stops, so I convinced myself it would be ok to just let him stare.
Then he got up and sat right next to me, trapping me by the window, with the other seat in front of me. We were on a mostly empty car. There was no reason for him to sit next to me. He let his leg repeatedly fall into mine over the next few stops, all while continually looking back and forth down the car as though to make it seem he was looking for someone or a specific location.
I started to worry...was he going to let me off the train? Was he going to make it so that I had to push pass him or climb over him or what?
At my stop, I stood, and to my surprise he stood to let me pass, but instead of sitting back down, I saw him scoot to the opposite door to get off at the same stop. It felt sneaky, and even though I wasn’t sure, I had a feeling he was going to continue following me as long as I was in sight.
For those who don’t know me well, I walk fast normally, but I decided to up my speed to my top former-New-Yorker speed, and swiftly ran down the stairs, through the tunnel and up the other side on to the Red line
By this time, I figured I had to have lost him. Like I mentioned, he seemed older and I estimated he couldn’t move very fast, but just to be safe I went and stood behind the metal divider on the platform so I wasn’t obviously visible. A homeless person approached me there and asked me for money, and as I declined I saw the man come into the corner of my vision to plant himself on the bench right in front of me.
I noticed a cop walk by and decided to follow closely behind…
Pause...I do not know exactly why I didn’t tap his shoulder. I do not know why I could not bring myself to say, “THIS MAN IS FOLLOWING ME.” All I can say is that the entire time I just wanted this man to realize he was making me uncomfortable and leave me alone. I didn’t want to embarass him, I guess, but I also did not want to be embarrassed, because I felt like I was going to be seen as this hysterical white girl who thinks the “scary black man” is following her. I assumed the first question I’d be asked would be “Are you sure?” I didn’t want to feel dismissed. I didn’t want to be told I wasn’t justified in how I felt. I didn’t feel like the cop or anyone would believe me and so I continued to try and handle it myself.
So anyway, I followed the cop about halfway down the platform, and it seemed like the man had not followed me. Again, I thought, “Good, he took the hint.” And then I saw him walk around the opposite side of the stairs and once again sit on a bench and stare.
The train was coming and I made a plan--I would wait until the train arrived and then I would bolt to the front car--he certainly would not be able to follow me and jump in the car before the doors shut! But, alas, that plan was foiled by a conductor who held the doors much longer than they needed to be held, allowing the man to join me in the car.
The train was more crowded this time, at least, so I purposefully sat in a seat where someone placed their bag next to them, giving him no option to sit next to me. When the man realized this, he jammed himself between to younger guys directly across from me.
I was in panic mode at this point--I questioned if I should run off the train or if that would be worse because at least there were people on the train and getting off at a random stop didn’t give me many options.
I was already running late, so I opted to stay on and hoped he stayed in his seat, but just as I thought this, he popped up and tried to sit right next to me.
The doors had just opened at the stop, so I made a split second decision to stand and try to push my way off the train, but a man in a backpack, plugged into his headphones, did not hear me ask repeatedly to please let me by, and by now the man was directly behind me, STILL following me.
“Can you stop following me?!” I asked loudly. Perhaps it was shouted, I honestly don’t know, but it was loud enough for him to hear among the crowd, loud enough for the people around me to hear and snap their heads to face us.
He mumbles something and exits the car in a huff, and I am left with people sneaking “WTF” looks at me--the looks of the oblivious masses who don’t pay attention to what’s right in front of them unless it disturbs their bubble. (We’ve all been guilty of this, myself included). “Bizarre…” a young man mumbles to his friend.
This is exactly what I worried about. I didn’t want looks or glares, or raised eyebrows that say “What’s up with that crazy girl?” This ingrained fear of being seen as the “problem” as opposed to a victim is why I stayed quiet instead of asking for help, and it’s why I asked my harasser to stop instead of telling him to.
I started to tear up behind my sunglasses, and I saw a couple knowing glances from women, but it’s a flicker of a moment before everyone goes back to minding their own business.
As I rode the rest of the way, I was genuinely concerned he was on another car; That he would continue to follow me once I exited the train; That I would be walking alone, in an area I did not know, and I would still be followed with no one willing to help me.
As my car emptied, I kept looking into the next car to make sure he wasn’t there, and finally managed to convince myself it was ok now. I was standing in the car as it went above ground, and looked out of the window as the train passed over a park to notice what looked like a dog wandering around. I walked closer to window and peered out to realize it was a coyote--A lone coyote just moseying through the park. I’d never seen a coyote in person before, let alone in broad daylight...in the city. “Bizarre…” I thought.
I got to the church. I related the basics to my friend who asked how I was. I realize I didn't exactly answer the question...but really, is there a single feeling that sums up that experience?
The premise of the concert was that we were split into groups of musicians with a composer and that we would meet briefly to discuss logistics before leaving the composer to work overnight to write the piece. My name was the first drawn, and the group I was put into just happened to be all female--composer Meg Huskin, flutist Robin Meiksins and me, a soprano.
We sat together and Meg asked us if there was anything that happened recently that we thought we could write about. In my post-followed thoughts on the train, I had fleetingly considered the idea that maybe we could use this for our piece, but I just as quickly dismissed the idea. Still, she had asked the question, and I answered.
I related my story again, this time in more detail than the quick “greeting story” to my friend, and that opened us to a flood of stories and emotions we each had on the subject. We talked about our personal experiences of harassment and even stalking, stories we heard of, stories in the headlines. We talked about where the line was, why people couldn’t discern when it was being crossed. We talked about the overtly ingrained sexism that popped up in our own behaviors because that’s just how women were taught to behave. By the end, Meg had scrawled pages of notes and ideas, and was ready to compose.
Overnight and into the morning, I questioned our choice. I questioned MY choice to share my story. When I read Meg’s beautifully constructed piece and it’s stunning last lines, I still questioned whether I could perform it. It was so fresh to me, and did I want to be that performer...that female performer. But, there was no backing out, I had to.
When we met back up to rehearse, it became clear very quickly the piece was special. Everything was clicking. It felt...important. Ross, one of the coordinators filmed some of our rehearsal process and asked us if this piece made us feel vulnerable, or something like that. And, to my surprise, not only did we all say yes, we all admitted that at some point during the process we questioned our ability and/or want to perform such a piece. Meg and Robin had gone through the same questions I did. There was an urge to continue hiding our feelings, hiding our experience despite the fact that we had all discussed that it was universally shared and validated. And then there was the fear of being the “overtly feminist performer” (If we’re going to give it a name). Did we want to be the all female group writing a piece on the hot-button issue, bashing men and their inability to see women as anything more than objects? But, that’s not what our piece was...was it?
I was happy to hear they struggled to, and I think we gained even more strength from this solidarity, and our decision that we had to perform this beautiful work, and to do it justice.
And we did it. We were the last performance (NO PRESSURE!) My parents were there (again, NO PRESSURE!) I heard people react as I sang. I felt people get uncomfortable, and I felt them struggle through that feeling and then get the message. It was beautiful.
At some point that morning when I questioned my ability to perform something that made me feel so vulnerable, that took my raw feelings and so many women’s raw feelings and put them out there, I thought of Mel Brooks (stay with me here…) and I was elated when my dad came up to me at the end to talk our performance and said “It’s just like that thing Mel Brooks said.” (We’re not related, right?)
Anyway, what we’re both referencing is this one interview where Mel Brooks is talking about creating The Producers and how people questioned and even protested how he, as a Jew, could make fun of Hitler in that movie. And he responded with something along the lines of “I needed to take the power back, and what better way than making a joke out of it.” I am most certainly paraphrasing, and I couldn’t find the exact interview, but in another interview with NPR’s Morning Edition, Mr. Brooks said he felt it was his job to “make terrible things entertaining.”
And that’s how this process felt...I think why we all ended up making the decision to move forward with the performance despite our reservations was this feeling of duty that we not only needed to put it out there for ourselves, and all the people who’ve experienced this or something like it, and all those who will never speak their truth, but also that we brought it into our realm-- we melded our hurt with our strength and made this terrible thing into art.
I know that my experience was mild. I know that people go through so much worse, and I also know that there are people who go through so much worse and will fold to their instinct to be silent. And it is for you that we created and performed this piece, and I hope we will continue to perform this piece and that others will continue to perform this piece and take back that little chunk of themselves that they worried may have been taken from them.
Due to technical snafu, the original performance at Scapi’s event was not captured in its entirety and that seemed a shame, so the three of independently got together and recorded it, wiith a bit more rehearsal ;)
We hope you listen, hear and experience this work. Enjoy, “Coyote”
A big thank you to Robin and Meg! (I'm so glad I know you ladies, now!) And to Scapi Magazine for putting on such an amazing concert with amazing musicians!
You can watch the full documentary and hear the other pieces from the 24hr Concert here!
Listen to more of Meg Huskin's beautiful compositions on her Soundcloud!
If you're interested in hearing more of the brilliant Robin Meiksins, follow her on her amazing Youtube channel!
If you like what you hear, like us, follow us, HIRE us! #workingmusicians