It’s December. A cab driver picks me up on my way home from a friend’s Christmas party. The driver of Yellow Cab medallion number 4520 spends the next several miles trying to coerce me to sleep with him after his shift ends at midnight, in just 20 minutes. I tell him no and change the subject, again and again. He persists.
A sign in front of the passenger seat tells me his cab number and directs passengers to report incidents to 311. I make a note of the number in my phone and try to keep casual. But when he takes me past my destination and stares at me with cold, intense eyes in the rearview mirror, I am convinced I am being abducted. Luckily, when I call out his action, he begrudgingly turns around. When he finally lets me out at my destination, the intersection of Lawrence and Central Park Avenue, he asks me for my number, for my Facebook. I take a deep breath, exit his cab, and tell him I’m not comfortable with that. I hurry down Central Park. I turn around, and see that he is still sitting at the red light. I hide in an alley and wait for him to leave. The two-block journey home from that alley is the most frightening walk I’ve ever taken, and I panic with each set of headlights coming my direction.
My roommate is awake when I get home. I tell her what happened, and she encourages me to report it. The next morning, a Sunday, I file a complaint. I hear nothing Monday, nothing Tuesday. By Wednesday night, I am anxious. That driver is still out there, being trusted to transport people all over Chicago. So I do the next thing I can think of: I tweet at 311 and Yellow Cab. I work in public relations. I know how to become someone else’s PR nightmare.
I also email a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. I tell him I filed a complaint days earlier but have heard nothing. “This man should not be a cab driver,” I write. The reporter calls the city’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. The next day, my complaint is addressed- in a way.
The Director of Communications for the Bureau calls my cell phone. She’s just heard from the reporter, and has read what I wrote on the Internet. She’s angry. She says she knows I am a writer and accuses me of trying to get a story. She is the only woman I deal with in this entire process, and she comes just short of accusing me of lying.
“Are you sure that’s what really happened?” she demands, “Because we’re going to pull the tape from the cab.”
“That’s great,” I say. “I welcome that.”
She asks me if I’ve filed a police report, and I say I no. I ask her, my supposed advocate, if she thinks filing one will help my case.
“You do that,” she says, and hangs up.
This conversation is the point where I begin to see why victims of sexual harassment and assault are reluctant to pursue action against their attackers. Still, I move forward. Wanting to show I’d done everything I could, I take her advice and file a report. Part of me cynically suspects she only wanted me to do it because she knew how it would play out.
I walk to the police precinct by my house, dreading what is to come. The reporting officer behind the desk is polite, but resistant to completing a report.
“Maybe he just got lost,” the officer suggests. “We can’t just go arrest this guy for making a wrong turn.”
“I am not asking you to arrest him,” I say, trying to stay calm. “I am asking you to write down the words that I am telling you, so I can show that I documented this.”
With my face burning, I repeat the questions the cab driver asked me, using his words.
“Do you have a boyfriend? Are you interested in a short-term relationship, just tonight? I get off work at midnight.”
I say how these questions were asked of me again and again, thrown back each time the driver wasn’t given the answer he wanted.
Another officer overhears our discussion, and comes by to give me some advice.
“Next time a guy asks for your number, just give him the one for the police,” he suggests. I tell him I’ll keep this in mind for the next time I am potentially on the verge of being kidnapped or assaulted.
I walk away with a bare-bones report that doesn’t include any of the details I shared in my humiliation. Boxes are checked; X’s are scrawled. An empty set of lines sits in place of where my words could have been. I’d been in the station for nearly an hour.
When something like this happens to you, almost everyone has some unsolicited advice. “You should carry mace.” “You should learn self-defense.” “You should travel in groups.” You should, you should, you should.
Eventually, a hearing date is set. On the morning of Friday, February 13, I meet my best friend at a coffee shop nearby. Stefanie distracts me cheerfully, and together we walk over. I am told to go to a tiny room. I worry the cab driver will be in there, too. After about 45 minutes of waiting, an attorney for the agency hears I am there and approaches us. He tells me if I am comfortable testifying, we can take care of all this today. It is tempting to delay the inevitable, but I resist. I agree to testify.
Stefanie and I sit before a judge. The cab driver sits alone on a bench ahead of us. He is wearing grey sweat pants and a pullover sweatshirt. He has decided to represent himself in this case– him versus the city of Chicago. Even though I am the one who filed the complaint, the city served as the plaintiff, not me. I am just a witness, the only witness.
I stand six feet from the cab driver as I speak, and am forced to look at him when he is given the opportunity to cross-examine me.
He is helpless without an attorney of his own, and the city’s attorney cuts his legs out from under him at every turn. Against my best judgment, I can’t help but feel slightly sorry for him, only because he is so wholly unprepared.
In my cross-examination, the driver alternates between pretending not to remember me and insisting I’d given him the wrong intersection. The driver adamantly insists he has never been in trouble with the city before, but the attorney proves him wrong and provides a copy of a prior complaint. It is an unrelated charge, but it’s still enough to further discredit him. The attorney asks that the driver’s license be revoked. Shortly after, I’m allowed to leave.
Stefanie and I leave the hearing center and step back out into the cold February air. We walk arm in arm to the Brown Line, and I feel myself shaking.
“I can’t help but worry that he will come after me,” I tell her.
I expect her to tell me that that is crazy, and of course he won’t. Instead, she nods and tells me she would feel the exact same way. She gives me a sympathetic hug.
For weeks after the incident, I avoid the intersection where he dropped me off. This anxiety only worsens after the hearing, and I begin to make excuses to not travel alone. I make my boyfriend stay with me most nights, but I only ever sleep well when I am at his house, far from mine. I dream of home invasions and abductions. It is winter and it is dark all of the time, even when I leave for work in the mornings. I text my roommate constantly to see when she is coming home. Once when I don’t know she’s there, she surprises me, and I shock her by bursting into tears. I am too afraid to open our closet doors to check if anyone has broken in while we were away. These feelings don’t go away until I move out of that apartment months later.
I email the city’s attorney the Monday after the hearing to ask for the result. He emails back right away and tells me that, because I am a witness in the city’s case and not a plaintiff, I need to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to learn the outcome. I feel slapped by this indignity, but begin the process. However, the reporter I’d written to back in December beats me to it. He emails me to ask if I am satisfied with the verdict: Two $400 fines on counts of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior, and a 10-day license suspension.
I am devastated. After all I’ve been through, this man is still allowed to be a cab driver for the city of Chicago.
I take some time to gather my thoughts, and email the reporter back. I call out the Bureau for being less than helpful as my advocate, but say the city attorney did a great job. I say I am very disappointed in the outcome. This is an understatement. The story runs that night. I am quoted, though not named. Neither is the driver.
I want him to be named.
In this dark time, reporting what happened to me does not feel worth it. I am ashamed of these feelings, but I can’t change them.
Months later, I find I have been granted time and distance. I sleep miles away from where it happened, and soon I’ll sleep on a different side of the country. Until then, I still take cabs in Chicago. I look carefully at the driver before I get in, and it’s always on my mind, but I refuse to let one man’s actions dictate my choices.
I rarely bring up this story because I am tired of talking about it. I am tired of getting back unsolicited advice for how to best avoid abduction, tired of calls for me to carry mace or to not walk alone after dark. I’ve heard it all from those with the very best of intentions. But one bad experience out of a hundred doesn’t get to change the way I choose to get home safe on a Saturday night. One person who doesn’t know me at all doesn’t get to have that much control over me.
Meryl Williams is a Chicago writer who recently moved to Portland. She loves roller derby, upbeat music with depressing lyrics, and shamelessly ordering the Kids Pack-size popcorn at the movies. Sign up for her awesome TinyLetter.