A few weeks ago, I went to Chicago to attend a giant gathering of women martial artists and self-defense instructors. It was amazing and I learned all kinds of great stuff.

But this blog post is about an actual self-defense situation I encountered while I was there.

When I arrived in Chicago, I got on an L train at the airport to get to downtown. At the first stop, a young man, maybe in his early 20s, got on the train and sat across from me. I immediately noticed his posture. His shoulders were up around his ears, and his hands where behind him on the seat, with his elbows pushed in by his sides. He was very thin and was wearing jeans that sat below his waist with boxers sticking out the top, and a spotlessly clean plain white t-shirt. He set a plastic grocery bag on the seat next to him, which appeared to be the only thing he was carrying. It was balled up, but seemed to have something smallish in it. Periodically, he patted the front pockets of his jeans.

I noticed him and felt uncomfortable the moment he got on the train and sat down. I immediately started thinking about getting off the train at the next station and waiting for the next one, or even just switching cars. In the meantime, while the train was in motion, I decided to analyze what was making my intuition prick up its ears.

He was weirdly still. My gut was telling me he was nervous, but he wasn’t fidgeting at all. In fact, he wasn’t moving. He was slouched in his seat, but he wasn’t relaxed because his body was stiff when the train’s motion was making other people sway and shift.

I noted the baggy shirt and jeans. I have been in classes with weapons experts and observed how stupidly easy it is to hide multiple guns and knives even in relatively fitted clothing. I knew that if this guy had a weapon the odds of me being able to see it were slim.

Add to this the fact that the only motion he engaged in was to occasionally bring his hands in front of him and pat the front pockets on his jeans. Some of my teachers, people who have dealt with a lot of violence, tell me that this is something to look for: a person who is patting themselves to make sure a weapon is still in place.

Then there was the grocery bag. It was a very small package, but he didn’t put it on his lap or keep a hand on it, or even look at it. Once he put it down on the seat next to him, he behaved as if it didn’t belong to him, as if he wanted everyone to assume it didn’t belong to him. Why might he do that? Some possible reasons that I thought of: if he was carrying something that he didn’t want to be holding if he was arrested; if it was an explosive that he wanted to leave behind when he got off the train (this seemed unlikely since it was so small, but I’m no bomb expert so I kept this theory in the running). Of course, it was also possible that he just set a bag containing a sandwich or something else innocuous down next to him but my gut was telling me that something was off in the way he was in relation to the bag.

By this time, we were slowing as we came into a station. I had pretty much determined to get off the train when it stopped, though I surprised myself by trying to rationalize staying on the train. After all, I had a large suitcase and I had been traveling all day and it was hot and humid. I just wanted to get to my hotel, check in, and take a shower. I reminded myself of what I tell my students: listening to your intuition usually has a very low cost in terms of inconvenience.

The doors opened and I was watching to see if this man would get off the train and save me getting my stuff together and losing my seat on what had become a fairly crowded car. He didn’t move. So I moved to get up. At which point, he got up, grabbing the bag. Oh, I thought. Very interesting. So I started to settle back into my seat. And he stopped moving towards the door, grabbing a strap hanger instead. So I got up and moved to the door at which point he let go of the strap and got off the train slightly ahead of me.

His head was down and he was heading for the escalators. I turned around and got right back on the train. I looked out the window onto the platform, but I didn’t see the man again.

What was going on here? Maybe nothing. Or maybe he was planning to rob me. It was Sunday. Downtown Chicago was like a ghost town. Barely anyone was on streets. I was clearly a tourist: I was coming from the airport with a large bag and riding a downtown train on a weekend. As a mark for a robbery I’d have looked pretty good to me, too. Besides the suitcase I was carrying a backpack with a laptop and a small purse with a thin strap. Things that likely would contain valuable items: computer, phone, cash, credit cards. Things that would be easy to grab. And I likely did not know my way around too well. It would be easy enough to follow me, wait for a quiet street, threaten me with a weapon, take the backpack and the purse and run.

I always tell my students to pay attention to who is around them and how they are behaving, and to listen to their intuition. Maybe I was reading too much into what I was seeing, but maybe not. I’ll never know, and that goes down as a self-defense win.