On Thursday, I was standing at the bus stop and felt someone’s eyes on my back. I shifted slightly and out of the corner of my eye I saw a man making a beeline for me, so I turned to face him. I don’t normally make eye contact with strangers — it invites too much attention — but I thought this guy, because of his aggressive movements, needed to know I saw him and was unafraid to look him in the face. He swerved away down the sidewalk and I hoped that was the end of that.
A moment later, he came back. This time he was walking more slowly.
“You’re a beautiful young woman,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said without looking at him, again hoping that would be the end of this interaction. It was drizzling and cold and I was beginning to suspect that I had missed the bus. I looked up the street and then down at my phone, thinking he’d get the hint.
The guy kept trying to talk to me. Over the next several minutes, he asked me my name, my age, where I lived, if he could have my phone number, if I wanted his phone number. I told him no. And no. And no. Eventually I just tried to ignore him.
I definitely had missed the bus. The next one wouldn’t be for another 20-odd minutes and I wasn’t sure what to do. I could walk the couple of blocks home and wait there, but then this guy would know where I lived.
“You smoke cigarettes?” he asked. Then, “You smoke weed? We should get high.” When a couple minutes had passed and he realized I wasn’t going to answer his questions, he crossed to the #60 bus stop on the opposite side of the street.
“I stay right up the street,” he called as he crossed. “You should let me call you.”
He stood at the stop watching me as the #60 roared by.
I finally decided that the least risky option that would get me downtown soon was to walk several blocks to a different route, but to do so, I would have to walk down the street in front of the creeper guy.
As I made my way, he shouted out one more thing:
“Hey, you want to make a couple bucks?”
He was smiling. He’d delivered the coup de grace. If I wouldn’t give him the time of day, I must be a prostitute.
I briefly considered crossing the street and ripping his head off and shoving it down his neck. I probably could have done it, but I didn’t want to go to prison.
This episode shook me hard. The next day I was almost late to the creative writing class I’m teaching because I didn’t get out to that same bus stop in time. I had to go home and wait for the next one, cutting my arrival at school unprofessionally close.
This episode shook me because — with all the much-needed public discussion about rape culture and the constant denigration women experience in our society — I had been thinking recently how often I get harassed on the street. It drains me, in part because there’s seemingly no right answer. Over the years, I’ve been talked to, talked at, talked about, threatened, cat-called, criticized, honked at, touched, chased. In response, I’ve tried ignoring, talking back, acting crazy, running away, pounding on car hoods, threatening with sharp objects (yes), spitting, ignoring, talking back, ignoring, ignoring, ignoring. It occurs to me now that none of these approaches stops it, because the problem is not with what I do or don’t do. It’s with what the harassers do.
The creeper guy harassed me on Thursday. The incident affected my mood for the rest of the day. It affected my ability to get to the bus stop on time the next day. It affected my teaching. I wrote a really bad poem about it on Saturday. I’m blogging about it now. This is the first time I’ve noticed how much energy gets sapped when men do this, although it must have been happening all these years. It’s not just a loss of a feeling of security, it’s a loss of my creative focus.
Compound that loss, multiply it by the number of women and girls in the world, and it begins to feel like a conspiracy. Keep us fearful and unfocused and we’ll stay behind. “Conspiracy” is too strong a word — it implies intention. But “culture” might not be.