The woman who appeared in a viral video this week objecting to a fellow passenger’s feet on a subway seat and I agree: you shouldn’t sit on anyone, not even to make a point. Which is why she wants it to be known that she didn’t do that.
“I want to emphasize that I didn’t sit on his feet,” says Miel Vasulka, now famous for her appearance in the video. “That would be assault, and I did not assault him.”
While Vasulka insists she was not on top of anyone’s feet or legs, but seated in front of them on the seat, she does say that it wasn’t the first time she has called out bad behaviour when she sees it, “If I see some small injustice being done in society, I try to correct it.”
The video drew widespread attention after it was posted on the internet Wednesday, and was widely interpreted, including by me in a column in Thursday’s paper, as showing her sitting on the man’s feet in order to teach him an etiquette lesson.
Opinion was polarized on the subject of who was to blame in the heated situation the video depicts, but many considered Vasulka a kind of instant folk hero, cheering her on for standing up against the kind of obnoxious and inconsiderate behaviour people witness so often in public, and on the TTC in particular. My email inbox reflects that widespread support for her, and Vasulka has been recognized by people on the street, who she says have mostly been supportive. “I was approached by a woman at an appointment, she wanted to do a selfie with me,” she says. “I went to the local coffee shop to get a hot chocolate, and I saw myself on the news, I thought ‘Oh my God, what is happening?’”
She says the particular incident in the video didn’t begin with her setting out for a confrontation. “I was on the subway a few seats away from a young black man, who had his feet upon the seat in front of him. I got up to take a look at an ad, and on the way back I asked the man if he would mind taking his feet down off the seat. He said that he could do whatever he wanted to, and my response was, ‘Well, in that case, so can I,’ and I plopped myself in the seat where his feet were. The point that I want to make here, I didn’t sit on his feet, I sat in front of his feet.”
It is unclear to viewers of the video exactly where the man’s feet are. He says to her, “Get off me,” and “I want to know why you’re sitting on me,” and she doesn’t directly contradict him. Later in the video, after he gets up and shoves her, he says in vulgar language that she had sat on his leg. The man in the video has not responded to repeated requests for comment from the Star.
“He said, ‘Get off me,’” Vasulka says. “I think he meant by that I should leave him alone. I think that’s why people who saw the video assumed I was sitting on top of him … That’s why I didn’t respond directly. I wasn’t on him.”
He started swearing at her, and they exchanged angry words, as viewers of the video can see. “He hopped onto the back of the seat and he shoved me. I went flying, right? So I pulled the chord.” She says that after the guy left the train and the conductor was speaking to her about it, she decided not to file a report because she didn’t want to make herself and witnesses wait around for the police to show up. “I let it go, and the guy took off.”
Many people felt a charge watching her confront the man’s inconsiderate behaviour — as one letter writer to me said, “I’m in the camp supporting this lady for actually doing something instead of doing nothing when young people put their feet on seats.” For those of us who ride the TTC everyday, there are so many small discourtesies that pile up: pushing and shoving, people smacking you with backpacks, spreading their legs to take up many seats, refusing to give a seat to an elderly person or pregnant woman. There’s a sense I get that many people would like to confront what they think is rude behaviour, but generally don’t, and are now happy someone did. I asked Vasulka what made her decide to act instead of ignoring it.
“My family comes from Europe, and when I was a little kid, if I dropped a tissue, whether it was on purpose or accident, somebody would knock on my shoulder and say … ‘you dropped this.’ That was my cue to say thank you and walk over to the garbage and dump it in the garbage. That’s how they taught the young people how to behave. The parents couldn’t be around all the time … It was everybody’s job,” Vasulka says.
“Young people in Toronto think they can do whatever they want to, and people don’t bother with them because they’re on their way to jobs and appointments, they don’t have the time. But if you live in a small community, people take the time to teach each other the proper way to behave. I think Toronto needs to do that, otherwise we’re going to wind up in big trouble.”
I ask if she does this often, asking people she sees violating social conventions to stop. “Yeah. Yeah, I behave like that.” She related a story of an incident she regrets somewhat, when she “took a piece off” a young man and his sister who were taking up several seats with multiple children and a case of Coca-Cola and a shopping bag, and not offering a seat to an old lady who came on the bus. “We got into it, and I said some things I wish I hadn’t because he seemed like a very nice young man otherwise.”
The 56-year-old says she believes strongly that people need to look out for each other, and she feels proud of the work that she has done on mental health. She has struggled with depression, and has written two books about what she’s learned coming out of it, one entitled “Creating Peace, Balance, and Lasting Mental Poise” is available for sale on Amazon, another “Cleansing for the Mind and Body” she expects to offer for sale soon.
When I suggest my idea that those of us wanting to stand up for civility need to demonstrate civility in the way we interact with others — trying to avoid angry confrontations or escalating situations, she agrees. “But that’s the old way of thinking, hardly anyone does that anymore,” she says. She says when she first spoke to the young man, she didn’t want a fight. “He had a very strong reaction to a very minor comment. I couldn’t leave it at that, because then he thinks it’s OK, that he can bully anybody out of anything.”
Edward Keenan writes on city issues email@example.com . Follow: @thekeenanwire
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