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JENEÉ OSTERHELDT | Commentary

She ordered an Uber. What she got was a stalker

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She usually would have walked from her house to the Prudential Center.

But it was raining. So she called an Uber. On the way to the car, she tripped over her feet.

The driver hopped out of the Lexus RX to make sure she was all right. Old enough to be her dad, he seemed nice enough. You know, not like that Uber driver arrested for allegedly raping his passenger on Storrow Drive in March.

What’s going on at the Pru, he asked.

Dinner with a girlfriend, she said.

No boyfriend, he asked.

I’d rather spend time with my dog, she joked.

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What’s a beautiful girl like you doing running around single in Boston, he inquired.

On a 16-minute ride on a Sunday afternoon, he asked her a series of rapid-fire questions about where she was from, how long she’d lived in the city, and where she worked.

“My guard was down. He’s an old white man in a Lexus,” admitted Elle, who is white herself. (The Globe is using only her nickname at her request, for safety reasons.) “So I think, ‘OK, you’re probably not going to kill me.’ ”

Not like the man suspected of killing a South Carolina woman who mistook his Chevy Impala for her Uber.

RELATED: Women, tell us how your space has been violated and how society can change

Women should be able to safely catch a ride-share, bus, or train without worrying we’ll enter a passenger and exit a victim. Instead, we check license plates. We text a friend when we get in and out of the ride. We look for characteristics that mark a man as “safe.”

Maybe he reminds us of our father. Perhaps he smacks of suburban privilege or he’s too polite and professional to be dangerous. We believe the stereotypes. We forget a predator wears many faces. There is no one kind when it comes to violence against women.

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Before the driver unlocked the doors and dropped her off, he handed her his card.

Call me, he said. I’d love to take you out for a cup of coffee or glass of wine.

She wasn’t interested. But she politely said thanks the way women have been told they must in order to keep the male ego intact.

By the time she got home from dinner, she had a stalker. As she walked up the stairs to her building, she saw a piece of paper wedged in the front door.

It was a letter. From the driver. He had returned to her home while she was out.

I hope you had a nice night at the Pru. I have never done anything like this before so I really hope I am not off base. If I am, I am sorry and please disregard this.

And then he went on to talk about her “warming and energetic smile” and again invited her out for a cup of coffee or glass of wine.

The man used information he accessed through Uber and returned to her home, uninvited, and fake apologized before asking her out again.

“I could see the white paper stuffed in the door from the stairs,” she said. “I thought it was a menu so I grabbed it. But it had the name of my job written on the outside of it.”

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Luckily, Elle wasn’t alone when she came home to the letter. A friend was with her.

“Dude, that is creepy,” she said to Elle. And it was, but she tried to shrug away the discomfort. And then she couldn’t.

‘Just in the neighborhood’

That next day, Monday, she came home from work and took her dog outside for a walk. At the bottom of the stairs, she saw the driver. He was in his car, idling outside of her front door.

He hopped out to join her on the sidewalk.

I was just in the neighborhood, he said. The driver lives on the North Shore. She lives in Back Bay.

I realized that I was off base in asking you out, he said. I realized that today when you didn’t call me and I just wanted to say I’m sorry.

“I wanted to say you have no right to show up here,” she recalled wanting to tell him. “I wanted to say you should not be here. But I did not say any of those things. It’s ingrained in me not to provoke a conflict or say anything that will make someone upset, defensive, or angry. I was treading lightly, walking on eggshells to say the right things to keep me safe but get away from him without offense.”

There’s no need for an apology, she said instead. But to be clear, I was not planning on calling you. I don’t want to go on a date. To be honest, we are not necessarily in the same age bracket.

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The driver is 62. Elle is 34.

He played with her dog as she spoke. She did her best to drag the pup away and get to walking.

When she returned home, she reported him to Uber. Within an hour, she got a call from customer service. She asked no immediate action be taken to ensure he didn’t trace it back to her. They said they’d be sensitive to her concerns. They said they’d follow up.

On Tuesday, two days after her ride with the driver, two co-workers escorted her home. Elle was too scared to be alone.

But nothing happened. So by Wednesday, she’d returned to her routine.

But so did the driver. When she got home from work that evening, she walked her dog. By the time they made it to the Public Garden, there he was, waiting on the bench closest to the entrance.

She bolted. Underneath the bridge, she dialed 911. Two officers arrived — a man and a woman. She told them everything, including where to find him. The male officer asked her, more than once, if the man was Hispanic.

“I said he is an old white man with salt and pepper hair and red alcohol face,” she recounted.

The police found him on that same bench. He admitted he was waiting for Elle.

He’d been restricted by Uber, meaning he could not access the app to work. When a driver is reported, it’s a company protocol to keep them off the app while investigating to ensure passenger safety. But no one had followed up with Elle to warn her of the swift suspension. Uber insists they sent written notice of his restriction to Elle through the app. She never received any such message.

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The driver told the officers he was there to apologize. He hadn’t threatened her directly. So they sent him on his way. They told her they made sure he went to his car. It was parked five blocks down the street.

“He was following me,” Elle recalled. “He admitted to the police he was waiting for me. And they couldn’t do a thing, not even issue a citation.”

The female officer advised her to pick up the incident report the next day and file a restraining order. She asked that the police walk her and her dog home. They did.

She contacted Uber through their messaging system when she got home. She told them what happened. She requested a callback. Nobody called that night. No one had talked to her since Monday.

It wasn’t until Thursday, after she told a male colleague who knew a manager at Uber, that someone from the company called her back. It took a man’s outrage for them to follow up. And all she got was another empty apology.

“What’s been described is troubling and a clear violation of our Community Guidelines,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement to the Globe on Monday. “The driver’s access to the app was removed.”

Elle didn’t sleep in her own home for three days. After that, friends stayed with her every night for a week.

Fighting for protection

On Thursday, she filed what is called a Harassment Prevention Order. She had to miss work to do it. The harassment prevention law, Chapter 258E, serves to protect someone from a person who is harassing, stalking, or sexually assaulting them. The order requires three or more occurrences. In cases of assault or sexual violence, it requires just one.

It was a temporary protection. She had to go to court two weeks later to make it permanent.

According to the CDC’s 2015 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, one in every six women has been stalked in her life. Yet they have to prove they are afraid in order to be protected. To tell a stalker no is not enough. To reject him nicely doesn’t get the job done. In Massachusetts, he has to violate your space at least three times before a court will take action.

In the days leading up to her court date, Elle’s colleagues and loved ones rallied around her. But some of the input seemed to be more about excusing him. Or questioning her behavior.

Switch up your routine.

Buy pepper spray.

He’s a sixtysomething from the North Shore. He’s probably harmless and just stupid.

You’re too friendly and need to be standoffish.

He’s probably going through a divorce or something.

On Friday, April 19, 19 days after she first encountered the driver, Elle showed up to court with two girlfriends. And me. The driver came with a lawyer, a woman with the same last name as his carrying a Tory Burch bag filled with the patriarchy.

Elle stood alone, in front of the judge and a courtroom of mostly strangers, and shared her truth. She was terrified of this man who would not quit coming back to her home.

His lawyer spent 20 minutes questioning the validity of her fear.

“She was just uncomfortable,” the lawyer said, drawing a distinction between discomfort and fear.

“He apologized,” the attorney declared, using the fact that Elle was friendly and had a conversation with him rather than running away as proof he wasn’t dangerous.

His lawyer claimed Elle’s need for a Harassment Prevention Order had no merit.

“I was pretty shocked I had to fight for it as hard I did,” Elle said. “I had to really prove the way that I was made to feel, and it was a woman working hard to disprove my fear. I wanted to ask her, ‘What would you do if I was your daughter or your sister or your mother or you? What would you do if you were me in this situation?’ But that wasn’t the context of the hearing.”

His defense rested on the idea that since he didn’t threaten Elle or physically harm her and apologized every time he violated her space, it was all good.

It wasn’t. Uber prohibits sexual conduct between passengers and drivers. As outlined in the company’s community guidelines, there is no flirting, no inquiring about someone’s relationship status, no commenting on physical appearance, no unwanted contact after the ride.

What was your intention, his lawyer asked him. The driver barked the one and only word he said during the entire 37 minutes of the court proceedings: “Friendship.”

The judge said what Elle’s friends were thinking: “From what I heard, the only reason he didn’t come back is because she called the police.”

The Harassment Prevention Order was granted. The driver must not contact her. He must stay away from her home, her work, and 150 yards away from her — for one year. To extend it, she’ll have to go through the process all over again.

This is the best-case scenario.

“It was a lot of hoops I had to jump through,” Elle said. “What if I didn’t have the privilege? I am a woman who sort of knew what steps to take. I am a woman with means. I have a support system. I have a job that offered to relocate me, a job that allowed me to miss days of work to file the paperwork and go to court.”

As it stands, women have to work hard to protect themselves from stalking and violence. As women, we are tasked with murder and rape prevention. Men are entitled to our space until we fight for it.

The system, Elle said, should be working harder to protect us.

“I would like for men to drop the act that empowered women disempower men and drop their sense of entitlement to our space and our bodies,” Elle said.

For now, she’s doing what she can to prevent danger.

Elle bought that pepper spray — it’s pink. She keeps her court order close. She texts her friends when she gets home. And she shares her location with a few besties at all times.

“I feel comfort knowing they can look at their phones and see where I am at any time.”

We text each other when we get home. We share our locations. We agree to spy on each other and keep tabs on one another in an effort to keep our friends alive. This is our system of safety.

Because womanhood means a man is welcome until proven dangerous.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.