Tonight, I met with Detective Chichotky, of the NYPD Special Victims Unit. He kindly offered to meet me at my local precinct, 71 – pronounced seven-one, not seventy-first – which happens to be down the street from my house in Brooklyn. We had talked over the phone a couple of times and, after hearing his old-school Brooklyn accent, I was surprised to come face to face with a young-ish man wearing flannel and a hipster haircut. He had called me for the first time last night, less than 24 hours after I filed a sexual misconduct report on the MTA website, which I had filled out about five minutes after watching a man masturbate at me (to me? how does one phrase such a thing? whatever it was, he was looking at me while doing his thing) on the Brooklyn-bound B train on Monday night, about ten minutes after I left work.
It’s about 9:15pm. I sit down on an orange seat facing the back of the half-empty train. About a minute later, a man spreadeagles himself on the seats perpendicular to me. Right away, I notice him look at me, though his eyes do not search to meet mine. They are, instead, angled toward my crotch. I cross my legs. I don’t really think anything of it. (I know that sounds strange, but if you know what it’s like to be a woman in New York City, you know that this – being ogled by dudes of all ages and races, all degrees of kempt and unkempt – is not an uncommon occurrence.) The man is heavyset, dressed in baggy black pants. Cold eyes stare out from beneath a black cap. He looks mean. I try to ignore him, just hoping that he won’t try to talk to me on my 40-minute ride home.
At the next stop, a woman about my age with brown hair and a round face similar to my own gets in and sits at the back of the car. I later learn that her name is Caitlin. Creepy Guy, Caitlin, and I make a little triangle. Surreptitiously, I watch Creepy Guy get up, stand over there, stand over here, and sit down again. He keeps glancing back and forth between me and Caitlin. Back and forth, back and forth. He pulls at his pants. Maybe he’s itchy. He starts tapping his crotch. Oh my god, I think, this is really happening. This guy is actually masturbating on public transit. I’ve heard this story before from girlfriends and now it’s happening. What the hell do I do? I feel him looking at me. I pretend not to see him. Without thinking, I reach for my hat and shrink into my seat, trying to cover up somehow and half-hoping to disappear.
I watch the only other person in our area, a young guy engrossed in his phone, who moves away when he realizes what Creepy Guy is doing. Thanks a lot, Young Guy, for abandoning us. I consider moving away, too, but I can’t leave Caitlin there alone. I feel protective of her and oddly bonded to her by this revolting act.
Different emotions swim through me all at once. I feel unsafe, violated. I feel stupidly annoyed because I’d rather be reading a book and not being reminded of these things happening in the world. I feel pity for Creepy Guy and wonder if he was ever neglected or abused. I wonder if the early humans used to masturbate around each other and if it’s simply our modern culture that has pathologized sexuality. I’m sad that he doesn’t know the beauty of romantic intimacy. And, I’m angry for all the women who have to deal with this shit on a regular basis.
I take out my phone and sneak a few pictures of Creepy Guy. In one of them, he has his phone out. I have the feeling that he’s secretly taking photos, too, and I am horrified at the thought of him having a picture of me. I almost laugh out loud at the sick irony of the two of us mutually taking pictures of each other.
He moves back to the door, taps himself some more. He sits down and the next time I glance over, his penis is actually out of his pants. Oh dear lord, he’s actually twirling his penis. Maybe I should yell at him to knock it off. But, this guy looks dangerous. I keep my mouth shut and pretend to read something on my phone.
Eventually, he gets off. The train, I mean. I watch him walk across the platform at DeKalb Ave. and board an R train. He looks around the car. I wonder if he’s looking for his next… inspiration, muse, fantasy? What do you call this seed of perversion?
When I get a bit of cell service, I search “how to report sexual harassment nyc mta.” Within seconds, I am in the process of filling out an online form. I take a moment to walk over to the other young woman to ask her if she saw anything that I should add to the submission. She looks surprised. “I didn’t notice a thing!” As we disembark at our mutual stop, I tell her what happened. We introduce ourselves as if meeting at a social function and not over a disturbing sexual incident. Caitlin is genuine and warm. We commiserate over the craziness of the city, but the conversation turns slightly awkward. Do we exchange contact information? Become pals? Neither of those things happen. As we part ways, she calls out to me, “I hope your week gets better!”
Two nights, as I walk to meet Detective Cheech, I begin to doubt myself. What will happen to the guy if we actually catch him? He’ll probably just get thrown in jail, released, thrown in again. Would anyone ever help him with his obvious sickness? Maybe I shouldn’t go through with this. On the other hand, he seems dangerous. Masturbation is relatively harmless, but what could it lead to? What has it already led to? I think of Caitlin and the same feeling of protectiveness swells inside of me. I don’t want something even worse to happen to another woman. I decide that, even though I might not be making the “right” decision, I am making the better decision.
I spend about an hour inside of the 71 precinct with Detective Chichotky, or Detective Cheech as he tells me to call him. I feel like I have walked onto the set of a cheesy ’90s cop movie. A handful of men mill about the shabby-looking office, lazily typing at Windows computers, laughing and teasing, wondering what to order for dinner. I wonder if they would act differently if I wasn’t there. They keep glancing at me and, from time to time, lower their voices. A severe-looking woman, the only other female in the room, concentrates on her screen in silence, sometimes furrowing her brow at a document in her hand. A big flatscreen plays ESPN in the background. On the far wall, I notice a dark, empty jail cell.
As I try to drink in every detail of a scene I’ve never imagined myself in, Detective Cheech asks me questions he’s already asked over the phone. I can’t tell if he’s just forgetful, didn’t take proper notes in the first place, or wants to make sure that I give consistent accounts. What was the man’s skin color? Age? Height? Weight? Facial hair, jewelry, tattoos? I have trouble paying attention to the detective. I wonder how many women have sat before him, detailing gruesome incidents of sexual assault and rape. I hope that his friendly but businesslike manner softens in those situations. I am grateful that I’m not telling one of those stories.
Detective Cheech hands me a black binder labeled “White” in neat handwriting. He tells me I can look at the photos on my phone to jog my memory, but after that, I am not allowed to compare them to the photos in the binder. I start flipping through the 8.5x11in mugshots and am more than a little surprised to see Creepy Guy after just a few. I mark the place with my hand and quickly make my way through the rest of the photos, but no one else looks remotely like him. Det. Cheech asks if I’m sure that’s the guy, that he could show me more photos on the computer if I want to. I ask Cheech what the purpose would be. He hesitates to say much; he doesn’t want to influence me. Driven more by curiosity than justice, I figure it can’t hurt to look.
A few months ago, I had read a New Yorker article about so-called super recognizers, people with uncanny memories for faces who were hired by Scotland Yard to help catch uncatchable bad guys. Facial recognition technology has not yet caught up to this special squad who scour thousands of photos and hours of footage from the ubiquitous surveillance cameras all around London. I was deeply fascinated by this story. I stayed up late one night taking a long quiz to test my own abilities (above average, but not super recognizer caliber). And here I am, in the SVU, fulfilling my funny little fantasy of identifying someone.
Det. Cheech sits me in front of his computer. I click the “next” button over two hundred times, looking at dozens and dozens of mugshots of men who’ve been arrested on the New York City subways for sexual misconduct – hundreds of men who fit the specific demographic of white, middle-aged, heavyset, between 5’6″ and 5’1o”. Several photos are doubles: many men are shown with eyeglasses on and off. Paunchy jowls, gaunt cheeks, hooked noses, bulbous noses, bald heads, ponytails, peyos, goatees, stubble, mustaches, ears that stick out. Blue eyes, brown eyes, beady eyes, round eyes, glassy eyes. Every pair of eyes seems angry, sad, confused. My heart begins to feel heavy. Any bit of fun I’d been having at this unexpected scene in my life fades and all I can think about is how did they get here? These are real people I’m looking at right now. All of them are sons. They’re husbands and fathers. They’re executives and cooks and janitors and teachers. They’ve all committed “public lewdness,” in the words of the court. When’s the last time any of them were hugged or touched with even a trace of sincere affection? When’s the last time they expressed their own tender feelings to another person?
Not one image has come close to the likeness of Creepy Guy since the one I’d marked with my hand in the binder. I would bet money on that being the guy. The detective nods slowly, but says nothing. I can’t decipher his reaction. I guess he’s trying not to influence me.
He fiddles around on the computer. I stare at a fish tank – full of water, devoid of fish. The other detectives decide on pizza.
Minutes pass by. Cheech finally tells me we’re all done. As I wrap my scarf around my neck, he asks if I would be willing to ride the subway with him to see if we can find the man. We make a plan to meet and he tells me that, in the mean time, if I see Creepy Guy, to call 911. Detective Cheech ask if I want a ride home. I politely decline and walk the block-and-a-half in the cold, sprinkling rain, more aware than usual of what could be lurking in the shadows.
I’m home now, feeling a bit overwhelmed and sad. I’m thinking of friends who have survived sexual assault and rape. My own experiences have been triggered in my body. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve never, thank God, endured a violent or traumatic attack (knock on wood). But, I can feel my confused five-year-old self, having just been kissed and fondled by an older boy at a neighborhood party. I’m feeling the presence of every countless creepy guy I’ve had to deal with my entire life. Even though I know in my head that I’m safe at home right now, my sense of safety in the world has been jostled a bit. And, I’m pissed off that so many of us women have to walk through life with a heightened awareness of strange men because of countless assaults on our bodies, our minds, our rights to exist as full-fledged human beings.