Last Saturday, I stopped to get a boiled hot dog from a street vender for dinner (I promise that once October/ November… the holidays? are over that I will be better about my eating habits). It was in the middle of Times Square, the air crisp and humming with people walking in every direction, the lights from the ads on jumbo screens lighting their faces. As he warmed up the meat, the vendor asked me, “Where are you from?”
“Here,” I said.
“You sure you’re not from heaven?”
Oh, so that’s how that line ends. It could have been worse.
Living in New York for the past two months, I’ve encountered many people, and almost everyone (well, every man, actually) asks me, “Where’re you from?” I figured I must have looked so doe-eyed and out of place, blonde hair and a puffy jacket even though it’s never been colder than 60 degrees so far, that they just knew I wasn’t from the streets of NYC. But I quickly learned that it was a way to start conversation, like one a few weeks ago:
“Where’re you from?” the man asked.
“Los Angeles,” I said.
“How old are you?”
“Are you a virgin?”
The boldness of this man shocked me, along with his delusional line of logic that if I wasn’t married, I must certainly be a virgin. But I was left wondering why this man felt that he could ask a woman he knew three basic facts about something so personal.
On the way home from 110th and Malcolm X Blvd off the 2 Express subway that evening, I had a man tell me, “Have a good night.” Which is typical. So I ignored him and kept walking as I always do. Only I could see on the ground that his shadow was fast approaching me from behind. I turned around and he continued to ask how my night was, where I was headed to, what was I doing. I ignored him, stared ahead, kept walking. Then I feared I would upset him. At this point, it was just me and him on the street and it was around midnight. He was about my height, nothing intimidating about his size, and wore a black leather jacket, jeans scrunched up around his dirty sneakers.
I turned to him and said firmly, “Have a good night.” And I kept walking.
So did he.
He kept asking me questions, where was I going, why was I so furry (in reference to my coat)…
I finally said, “I’m feeling uncomfortable. Have a good night.”
Which, if you know me, is a pretty big step. I was proud I said something, but this still didn’t work. He kept harassing me.
I was skimming options in my head… a) kick him in the balls b) scream for help, which no one may hear c) run away, which he might catch me d) laugh it off and pretend to be friendly with him e) continue to ignore him f) spray him with pepper spray (that is forever-expected in the mail… damn it, Amazon) g) lie and tell him my big burly short-tempered boyfriend was meeting me at the next corner…?
“Are your feet hurting, girl?” he asked in response to me telling him that I was uncomfortable. Maybe he was just trying to provoke me, but he kept at it. Are my shoes bothering me? Did I want him to rub my feet? Where am I headed to looking all nice?
Sure, he didn’t say anything insulting or vulgar. But what was this man’s end game? Did he think I would be turned on, or flattered that I caught his attention and want to grab a drink with him? Why was he being so persistent and not respecting the fact that I did not want to carry on a conversation with a strange man in the middle of the night? I was just trying to walk home.
In Los Angeles, I had the safety bubble of my car. I could just roll up my window if someone shouted at me, drive away, turn up the music, and have the physical space and barrier of my car door. In New York, I walk everywhere. It’s just me, and my body is now the vehicle. I get hungry looks eyeing my body up and down, and I feel that I am reduced simply for the consumption of a man. Without a car, I am more vulnerable, more on display. I am just a body.
I realize it’s New York City. It’s big and scary and I’m a female. But I shouldn’t have to feel scared, or threatened, or be ready to fend for my life because I’m scared of what some man might do on the streets. I shouldn’t have to take a taxi “just in case” something might happen, even if the subway is less than a ten-minute walk away from home.
It doesn’t matter what I wear: sweat pants, no makeup, bun. Fur coat, heals, lipstick. It shouldn’t matter what I wear. I shouldn’t have to lie. I shouldn’t have to repeat myself. I shouldn’t have to feel “bold” or “empowered” enough to tell someone to leave me alone.
So I thought about what was keeping me from being bolder with this stranger (besides obvious fear for my safety). What if I simply said, “You need to stop talking to me. And you need to leave me alone and stop following me before I call the police.” The likely response would be for him to call me a bitch, a cunt. But why does that matter so much to me? Why did I feel repressed and that I wasn’t allowed to speak up? This man gets to go home, or most likely probably harass a few more females tonight, and think nothing of it. Me? Well, it’s past 1:00am now and I can’t stop thinking about how much this interaction between me and another human being bothered me.
New York isn’t making me jaded, I don’t think. It’s just making me hate men more and more each day. And I’m tired of pretending to be nice to scumbags who think they can objectify me simply because I have a vagina.
So now I suppose my options are:
A) Move out of East Harlem ASAP,
B) Move to Canada,
C) Spend my student loans on cabs if it’s after 6:00pm, which is unrealistic because cat calls and harassment happen at 8:00am just as much as they do at 3:00am.
The sad fact is, though, that even if I do move out of the neighborhood, these actions will continue to happen. In fact, when I was living in Koreatown in Los Angeles, I would get cat calls regularly and often with a little boy right there, soaking it all in, thinking this was a normal way to speak to women. This perpetual language used to degrade women is not isolated to income level. But I have seen it happen, experienced it more, in low-income neighborhoods. Why do men feel that they can objectify women as they walk past them, lick their lips loudly, shout out after you, “What’s your name, girl?” and “That ass, damn girl!” Even more disappointing is society’s reaction if a woman complains about these unwanted comments: at least you’re getting attention; what a confidence boost! well, what were you wearing? what were you thinking walking alone at night?
I am just a body, a girl in these men’s eyes. I have no choice or voice and simply must let them consume me as I walk on the streets. A girl is powerless in society, small and vulnerable. A woman is powerless, too, when dating or in her career, submitting to men’s fantasies and judgments based on her appearance. But when I’m home, I know that I am a woman, full of curiosity, intelligence, humor and compassion.