I was on the L train yesterday, and I saw her.

She limped on at the third stop into Brooklyn, wincing as she breathed and leaning her thin body against the center pole. She was close enough to me that all I need to do was stand and step, and I could reach her. She captivated me as she stood somberly.

I quickly glanced around the train thinking to offer her my seat. To be honest, I was also shyly looking to see if anyone else noticed her pain-stricken-face. I felt like my fellow passenger’s glances would validate my curious inquiry of her and fuel my confidence in approaching someone whom I knew was a complete stranger on this Brooklyn-bound subway car.

Just as I could feel myself rising to my feet, I realized there was actually a free spot across from me, and another adjacent to her. Instantly I felt my face grow red and immediately my self-cross examination commenced. 'What was I thinking? That was stupid. Of course she doesn’t need any help, she’s a grown woman. Thank goodness no one saw me do that. They would laugh at how naïve I am to be bothering a stranger.  There I go again, meddling in someone else’s business. How could I be so irrational?' I further justified my immobility considering that perhaps she didn’t care to sit? Perhaps whatever pain was causing her to wince and cry, as I now noticed, would be worsened by the labor of sitting down? That made sense. Right. Remain where I am. It’s not my business.'

Still, I wondered why she was crying, and I struggled internally with my desire to comfort her, or at least attempt to offer a shoulder to lean on. I continued to weigh my options. Would she think I was strange if I talked to her or would she be angry and ashamed that I had watched and then inquired?

Another time I had noticed a young girl sobbing on a Times Square subway platform. I had just moved to New York, and so the constant feeling of being on display hadn’t yet sunk in. Without even thinking it could be odd, I approached her.  This recent college graduate cried on my shoulder for a half an hour sharing the bulk of her life story from the past year, and how, on this night, her very best friends had left her by herself at a party. She grasped she was too drunk to make it home by herself and cried harder at how lost she was now that her phone had died and she was all-alone. Though we were underground I walked her to a spot I knew we could reach cell service, and using the remainder of my cell phone battery life helped her figure out how to get home quickly. By the end of it, she seemed to have felt much better, but I had missed the last train home.  Now well past 1AM , it took me almost another two hours to get home. Selfishly (and as a suitable diversion from my self-loathing) I wondered if stepping in tonight would also inconvenience me, or if I would embarrass myself if she rebuked me for bothering her?

As I watched this girl, so close to me, I suddenly realized her hair was very dirty, but combed, and that she wore a perculair bright red lipstick which seemed incongruent with her stifled silent sobs. Again, I wondered why she didn’t want to sit down? Where was she coming from? Perhaps a hospital? However, instead of my saying something, there she remained, hugging the pole and blankly staring down at her feet.

We rode the train with her well into Bushwick where my husband and I recently moved.

Our stop came, and Chris and I got off the train. As we walked to get dinner, my solemn silence was broken when, to my surprise, Chris brought up this same girl. He had noticed her too and expressed his own desire to inquire as to her wellbeing - except that he had a different vantage point than I did on the train. From his seat, he could see two men; one, older, sitting on the bench with another young girl, and the other, younger, leaning against the subway door facing our girl menacingly speaking to her as she continued to sob. As we traveled further into Brooklyn, the two men conversed with each other nodding in her direction.

As he began to explain what he was seeing, while I had been sitting just next him, a fuller picture started to form. Red lipstick, matted but combed hair, heeled boots, trench coat, labored breaths as lungs expanded against a potentially bruised ribcage, downcast avoiding eyes transfixed on the floor, quiet sobs on a tear-stained-face, in front of two large men who watched her every breath like hawks circling terminally injured prey. Could this have been what I think; an exploited victim held against her will? While there are endless possibilities as to her actual circumstances, even the thought of this potential scenario made me fall to pieces on the sidewalk in front of our Chinese restaurant sobbing tears of burning shame at my own embarrassed reluctance to at least ask if she was OK. 'At the minimum could I have at least inconvenienced myself enough for this simple question?’ Groaning sobs of deep regret followed while my imagination wandered wildly as to if my assumptions were correct, perhaps this chance meeting had been her only hope for a life line.

Once we were home Chris reminded me that if our hypotheses were accurate and she was, indeed, in some regard being abused or was a victim of CSE, our hands in that moment were tied. We carry no badges, have no authority and are without any reasonable form of self-defense.  Not to mention, we are only working off of our inferences of a situation we have no proof about. Even if we chose to act in any fashion, we could have easily endangered our fellow passengers on the train, ourselves, and further worsened and/or complicated her situation.

This experience tugged at my heart and made me ask of myself- when I do have an opportunity to step in, do I? Or do I remain a bystander from the safety of my bench?  How often do we let our own fear paralyze us from encouraging someone else, or offering a helping hand where we can? And, what is the negative narrative running through your head paralyzing yourself from doing the very thing your heart yearns to do?

Have you ever felt like I did? If so, I’d love to hear your experience, and what you learned in the process, so please share in the comments below.

I pray we have eyes to see, hands to help, and hearts to celebrate.

- Jess

P.S. For more information on what to do in situations where you suspect CSE (commercial sexual exploitation), abuse or domestic violence, check out these dedicated organizations:

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