“Oh sweetie,” cooed a random condescending passenger from across the bus aisle, “Your hair looks fine, honestly. You can’t even tell any of it’s missing.” I gazed up from the handful of hair I was clutching in my hand. Yes, random businessman, a single sarcastic thought cutting through my deluge of panic, the issue here is the inconvenient bad hair day, not the fact that a stranger behind me just took a pair of scissors to the back of my head.
You probably don’t remember the news story that topped news.com.au’s ‘WTF’ section that week, but I do. Back in April 2016, I got on the 339 at the corner of Clovelly Rd and Mount St. I sat down in the last window seat on the left hand side of the bus. Directly behind me were two backseat bandits, a man and woman who sitting pretty much on top of one another. I honestly can’t remember what he looked like with much accuracy, but the mental image I’ve constructed of him is pretty unforgiving. I remember him as pallid and greasy, kind of pimply. You know that one weird crusty dude from your high school that wanted to be a DJ and wouldn’t stop trying to link you his SoundCloud? That’s pretty much how I remember him. The chick on his lap smirked at me as I sunk into my seat and pressed my lips together in an awkward acknowledging smile.
I hadn’t done my readings for my Performance Studies lecture because it had been my birthday the day before, so I was skimming through them on the bus. After a few stops, a man in a suit sat down next to me; he was reading a brochure on bicycle tours in regional Australia. At one point, the greasy dude tapped the man next to me on the shoulder and asked if he could read the bicycle brochure after he was finished with it, which, to me, was one of the weirder bits of the whole fiasco.
“Um, no” he said, curtly.
At the time, I had long dark hair. Honestly, I’d been thinking about cutting short for a while. As the bus trundled past Centennial Park, the dude sitting behind me decided to let me know that he thought it would look better short too.
As an advertisement for Spotify Premium played through my headphones, I heard a faint snip, shortly followed by another. I thought nothing of it until I moved to run my fingers through my hair and a sizeable chunk of it fell into my lap. It was very surreal; I couldn’t for the life of me work out where it had come from until I realized that it had been cleanly cut through. It was at this point that I started to—as one would—freak the fuck out. The guy to my right glanced at me for a moment before burying his face in his pamphlet. I turned around to face the couple.
“Did you just cut my hair?” I asked. The crusty dude snickered and said no. His equally crusty girlfriend was sucking her thumb, and she chuckled into her fist. I turned back to face the handful of hair resting in my palm and noted that at some point during this interaction I had begun to hyperventilate and that tears were rolling down my cheeks.
“You alright?” said the extremely unhelpful bicycle brochure guy. For some reason, between wracked sobs, I said I was fine. He decided that was an adequate response and continued to read his pamphlet as my weeping crescendoed into hysterics. People sitting in the rows in front of me began to glance around to see what was happening, and as the bus pulled into the next stop on Anzac Parade, the creepy couple rose from their seats and bustled off the bus as quickly as they could.
I started to cry harder and it became pretty obvious to the whole bus that something had gone wrong. Bicycle pamphlet guy really wanted to finish reading his pamphlet, in spite of the scene unfolding around him. Word travelled up the bus to the driver about what had happened, and he pulled over the bus, opened the doors, and ran off the bus after the couple. When the pair noticed the bus driver running after them, they bolted and made a break for it down Cleveland Street, hailed a cab and drove away.
On the bus, the people surrounding me seemed concerned to assure me that my hair didn’t look too fucked up, which was honestly the least of my concerns. It felt like there were at least ten middle aged men all calling me darling and telling me that I still looked really pretty, honestly sweetheart, even with my new haircut. Eventually everyone else was waved off the bus and the driver sat with me as I reluctantly filled out an incident report. A friend from primary school who had been sitting further down the bus realised that she knew me and kindly sat by my side as we rode the empty bus to central. I sunk into my seat, wishing I had chosen a different seat to sit in that morning.
I got to uni about an hour later than anticipated and sat down in Courtyard Cafe, a little dazed. I sent my friend Sean some very incoherent text messages about why I hadn’t made it to the lecture. I still had the lock of hair tucked in the inner pocket of my jacket. Sean ran into Courtyard and hugged me and I immediately burst into tears again. Our friend Millie followed about ten minutes later—carrying a birthday present for me, because it was after all the day after my birthday.
Within the hour and a half I spent in Courtyard with Millie and Sean, the story of my haircut was on the news. Bicycle pamphlet guy spoke to Sydney Morning Herald about the “creepy, freaky” “class-A whacked” situation.
Several friends who knew that the 339 was my local bus route linked me the news stories and said how weird it was, and I had to explain that actually, I was the girl in the story. I spent the evening sifting through comments on the news articles, trying to decide how to feel about what happened.
What happened to me felt so bizarre that I’ve never really been able to accept it as a kind of assault. I felt humiliated, scared and violated, but what had happened was so bizarre that it didn’t fit into the narrative of assault—or what I thought assault was. I wanted to brush it off as no big deal.
I initially refused to launch a police report and, when the bus driver sat me down and spoke to me, I was very reluctant to even report the incident to NSW Transport. I received a call from a detective the next day. They had read the NSW transport incident report and wanted me to come into the station. I refused, over and over again, insisting that I didn’t want to make big deal of the incident, until the detective inquired, “what if this guy does the same thing to someone else?
After a week, the moment had passed and the story had disappeared from the news cycle. Then, a month later a detective called to let me know that the guy had eventually been arrested, was being charged with assault for cutting my hair. There was a warrant out for him for several other minor crimes. At some point they called me again to let me know that he had plead guilty and was sentenced to counselling and community service.
I don’t believe what happened has shaped me or particularly traumatised me, but I still don’t like to talk about it. When I do talk about it, I joke about it, because that’s the easiest way to understand it. In writing this, I expected to reach some revelation about how to feel about it, but that hasn’t happened. I still catch buses every day. My hair is now cut short above my shoulders. The incident on the bus only crosses my mind when I find myself on public transport with somebody sitting behind me. I go to brush the long hair I no longer have over my shoulder, out of reach.