Ladies of the light rail

Regional Transit’s budget crunch doesn’t mean Sacramento women will stop riding public transit. Here’s what it’s like to be female on the rail.

Drown out: Rachel Townsley, 18, rides light rail to Sacramento State. Her method to avoid confrontation? Use an iPod, read and don’t look up.

Drown out: Rachel Townsley, 18, rides light rail to Sacramento State. Her method to avoid confrontation? Use an iPod, read and don’t look up.

Photo By Alia Cruz

On a Friday evening in February, a group of men surrounded young Cyndle Jackson while traveling on light rail from Meadowview to Alkali Flat.

“I was having an argument with my boyfriend over the phone,” Jackson remembers. “There was a group of guys sitting behind me, acting a fool, laughing and making comments about me and my phone conversation. They were out of their realm and in my business.”

She stood up to them, telling them to stop—an act that, while admirable, seriously jeopardized her safety: The men threatened to beat her up.

She alerted a guard, who was hesitant to get involved because “he was scared himself,” Jackson says.

As she exited the light rail, the men tried to follow her—that is, until they spotted a police officer.

“That was a close one. Things could’ve went all bad,” she says.

Only a day after the incident, Jackson—with hair full of electric-blue and purple streaks, thick black eyeliner and smudged mascara—rides public transportation again, sitting and reading a textbook on auto repair.

Many people ride light rail regularly but have never experienced a situation like Jackson’s. Yet 51 percent of rail riders are female. And women also operate behind the scenes, comprising 32 percent of light-rail operators. Jackson’s incident echoes the stories of many women, who share tales of creepy men. Lots of creepy men.

These female travelers take light rail to school, a few ride it on their way to homeless shelters or alcohol-abuse treatment centers, and others rely on mass transit for everyday business. Most women ride alone. All appreciate the freedom Sacramento’s public transportation system allows, but acknowledge that this independence comes with a price: plenty of unwanted male attention and the fear of traveling alone at night.

Consider a fanny pack instead of a purse.

On a Saturday morning, a rambunctious pack of teenage girls laugh loudly and trash-talk their grannies.

“My nana is a ho!” one woman cackles. She gets specific, adding, “My nana is a Bay Area ho!”

Her friend chimes in: “She ain’t no ho no more! She got a man. She tied down!”

No one bothers these ladies, who followed Regional Transit’s suggestion to “ride with a friend.” They’ve followed this rule times five. Minutes later, the girls disappear into the Broadway station.

Sabine Jacob, a middle-aged woman reading a book, says she rides at least three days a week to the Mather Field/Mills stop for her job. She rides 50 minutes and takes her bike, which is the “suicidal” part of her journey, as she has to cross busy streets—and most drivers don’t pay attention.

“[Light rail] is good. It’s very nice. People are weird, of course, but they’re weird everywhere,” Jacob says.

Her single complaint: the limitations of Sacramento’s public transportation system, compared to her hometown of Cologne, Germany, a lively artistic and cultural city on the Rhine River, which boasts more than 1 million inhabitants. In Cologne, 20 different trains run throughout the city, Jacob said, while in Sacramento, there are only two. Jacob left that bustling metropolis for Sacramento—which she considers a “cow town” in comparison—five years ago. Still, she enjoys riding mass transit.

“It’s a no-brainer. I get some exercise on my bike. I meet new people,” Jacob says, adding that she only rides during the day. “Sometimes, I think, ‘Oh god, I’m so glad I don’t have to take it at 10 p.m.’”

Walk assertively, confidently. Do not appear weak or submissive.

Candi DuBois, 38, rides light rail every day and has a strong affection for the quirky riders. “I have a little time to sit back … and clear my mind for what’s waiting for me at my destination,” she says of her ride’s Zen effect.

Photo By Alia Cruz

Rachel Townsley, 18, is on the Gold Line toward Folsom, which transfers at the 16th Street Station. She rides light rail every day on her way to and from Sacramento State, where she majors in criminal justice. She sits with her legs crossed, wearing pink tennis shoes. Books on Indian art spill from a backpack onto her lap.

“It’s pretty cool. I actually think it’s kind of fun riding the light rail,” Townsley says.

As for troublemakers, she has a method: Be aware of the surroundings. Plug in earphones and listen to music on an iPod. Look the other way. Avoidance. This “drown out” method is popular: pretending to be preoccupied with electronic devices as a way of interacting with the surroundings as little as possible.

Farther down the train, an attractive woman named Katrina sits looking out the window, large dark sunglasses covering her eyes. Katrina has been riding since high school and is now 23 years old. She rides to Sacramento City College and plans to transfer soon. Sometimes, men hit on her and ask for her phone number, she says, removing her sunglasses.

“I don’t really ride it at night by myself. I mainly ride it during the day,” Katrina says. “Sometimes there’s a creepy person walking around and making a ruckus.”

The train smells of cigarette smoke. At the Cordova Town Center stop, only a few people mill around, including a woman wearing maroon scrubs with her hair pulled back tightly in a ponytail.

Two men sit on a bench opposite and yell at us: “Dang, she got a fat ass!”

We pretend to not hear them; turns out our asses are, actually, nothing remarkable, as they yell the same thing to other women walking a few minutes later.

The woman in the maroon scrubs, Jessica Chapman, calls light rail “convenient.” She leaves home at 6 a.m.—and she’s not a morning person—takes two trains and a bus, and an hour later arrives at Heald College, where she’s studying to be a dental assistant.

“You tend to get a lot of weird guys [on light rail],” says Chapman, 18. “I’ve seen people have problems, but I haven’t had any problems. People just aggravate and harass other people.”

Chapman’s normally friendly but puts up a hard front so people won’t mess with her, which reflects the public persona of most of her fellow female riders: a tough facade with kindness underneath.

Report someone who is ‘acting nervous, sweating inappropriately.’

Two security guards stand around at the Power Inn station in Rancho Cordova. The stop sits adjacent to a traffic court and family courthouse.

“[People] get out of court and get a little crazy,” the male guard says. In three years of working for RT, he and his female guard companion have seen prostitution, drunkards, drug trafficking, domestic violence, fights and questionable males follow female riders.

Do riders treat the female guard with respect? “Negative,” she says, scoffing. “They don’t like the guards telling them what to do.” She gets called “bitch” a lot.

Regional Transit police services employ 17 transit officers, 50 security guards, a couple dozen officers from the Sacramento Police Department and personnel from the sheriff’s department. Of the sworn law enforcement, 11 percent are female, and 40 percent of transit officers are women. Security forces patrol by car, train, buses, foot and bicycle. Some stations have guards 24 hours a day. The guards on the train, who serve as an immediate defense, only carry pepper spray and a walkie-talkie.

RT’s current budget crisis could impact security, as the department lost $26 million in funding—which was eliminated by the state—and have a $60 million deficit this year. RT has already announced layoffs and may consider service cuts.

“We’re facing a new challenge. I’m not sure what is going to happen. Everything is on the table,” RT spokeswoman Alane Masui says.

Back on the train, Candi DuBois rides from Rancho Cordova to downtown. She is a 38-year-old student and a mother. Despite what she calls “long waits” for a train’s arrival, she says she appreciates light rail and even the weird people on it, simply steering clear of those folks who act a bit odd or who are “sweating inappropriately,” as the RT safety rules call it.

“The ride itself is actually pretty relaxing,” DuBois says.

“I have a little time to sit back, stare out the window and clear my mind for what’s waiting for me at my destination.”