Now that I’m in my final stretch of being a New Yorker, I thought it would be fun to make a little daily feature filled with things that I’ve endured, but have ultimately always despised about living in New York. I really wanted to come up with a long, bitter-sweet account of my life and time in this city, but I’ll have to forgo the niceties because this place is cluttered with garbage. Ain’t nothin’ gonna change that.
Welcome to: SMELL YA LATER, NEW YORK
Street Harassment: (And no, it does not matter what I’m wearing).
This afternoon, Monday, July 22nd, 2013, I walked 6 blocks from my apartment in Bushwick down Wyckoff Avenue for a cup of coffee and received verbal sexual-harassment 4 times. That’s 4 times in less than 15 minutes. I even attempted a different route to avoid passing by the men who made comments to me, but someone got me from a car! A drive-by! I must say that I’m looking forward to living in a Boston neighborhood with a reputation for its gay population. Also, I’m really looking forward to not receiving unwanted remarks from filthy men who spend their entire day sitting on the street in front of bodegas because they don’t know what jobs are! Maybe you’ve heard of all the complaints that girls make about street harassment, and maybe you’ve entertained merely listening to an anecdote about the silly or clever things that girls have done to respond to street harassment so they don’t feel so vulnerable as they try to walk home from the subway or go to the grocery store. My experience is not unique, but the point is, I refuse to accept being a victim of street harassment in New York City as “part of life” here for a girl.
During the first days that I lived in Brooklyn back in 2006, I was sort of amused by being hollered at as I walked down the street. As a 17 year-old white girl, it was HILARIOUS to be called “Snow Bunny” by a young man on Flatbush Avenue while I did something as ordinary as crossing the street. And that nice old man wearing a suit and walking with a cane on his way to church? Well, it was just so sweet when he said “Mm’m, mm’m, aren’t you beautiful. You have a nice day now.” I didn’t even ask what he thought about me! After a month or two, I stopped acknowledging the men who made these comments. The comments made by old men or workers outside of a storefront felt pretty benign. It wasn’t until I went to a place near my school for beer, aptly called ‘The Candy Store’, that I arrived at a turning point that proved to me that there’s a disturbing ulterior motive to being harassed sometimes. A girlfriend visiting from her college outside of the city was on a routine trip with me to pick up Sparks to drink in my dorm room. We walked into The Candy Store and zipped straight to the back of the bodega where the alco-pop was stored. As we migrated to the counter to cash-out and commence an evening of orange tongues, my friend – we’ll call her Joan because I’m pretty sure she likes Joan Jett – engaged one of the men at the counter in conversation. Joan was wearing a skirt with flower-print tights and a pair of boots.
“Is that what your skin looks like?” asked the man.
“No! This pattern is actually printed on my tights!” said Joan.
“Ah, I thought you had such colorful tattoos on your legs.”
“No! But my mom actually has a shirt that makes it look like she’s completely naked. It’s just a print of a naked woman’s body.” At this point, it still seemed like this exchange would remain friendly banter. The Sparks and a pack of Djarum blacks had been paid for, and we would be on our way out as soon as a congenial farewell was made.
“Hey, I want to make an offer,” said the man.
“What?” said Joan with a smile on her face. We were so naive. It was almost cute.
“I got a friend outside with a car and we’ll give you $100 to get in it.”
At this point, all forces screeched to a halt and I felt horror come over me. This man had just offered money to my friend to get into a car. How were we going to get out of this bodega? What if they followed us?
Joan declined with a chipper tone, but the man pressed on.
“$200. All you have to do is get in.”
Luckily, my friend Charles appeared out of nowhere and intervened. “She’s not getting in the car. She said no. And we’re leaving.”
The man continued to make offers and yell at us as we exited the store, but we made it back to campus in one piece, without getting into any cars.
While I was a spectator rather than an almost-victim in this event, it changed my perspective on how easily a few remarks and words could be transformed into a really pushy offer that bordered on force. The experience made me feel like simple words could escalate in a matter of seconds to unwanted offers and commands.
I’ve had the experience of being followed as I walked home from the subway alone at night, I’ve been surrounded by several men in a store or on the street as they made comments to me, but I’ve pretty much always gotten home safely or emerged from the experience unscathed. Eventually, it becomes no different than walking through a swarm of gnats or sitting outside in the summertime and getting a couple mosquito bites. It’s annoying and irritating, but it goes away after awhile.
But today of all days, in my final stretch of living in New York, the mosquitos bites were extremely itchy. I’m sick of ignoring catcalls or avoiding leaving my apartment alone because I don’t want to hear “Hey Baby” or “SMOOOOOOOOOOOOCH!” or even “Hey Sweetie, enjoy your day” while I’m trying so damn hard to mind my own business and not feel infuriated that I can’t be invisible while I walk down the street by myself. I’m sick of complaining about being on the receiving end of these seemingly benign, but truly offensive and disturbing comments. When I’m told that there’s “nothing you can do about it, it’s just the way that these men act” I feel like I’m actually just being told to shut up. These men are not making compliments that are sweet or cute. These remarks that are targeted almost always at young women walking around alone come from a very aggressive place. Whatever satisfaction the perpetrators get from putting me, or any other woman, in the position of being bombarded with such overtly sexual comments is deviant and wrong. I should also add that sometimes I have to restrain myself from throwing whatever I have in my hands at these men or their cars. One thing that might make me even more angry than hearing words that make me feel like an object to be evaluated without my permission, would be if I actually did throw something I wanted and spent money on at these rats.
For my final meditation on the subject of street harassment, I will say that I find some solace in the fact these men – these perpetrators of street harassment – know only a superficial aspect of what it means to be a man. These are human beings who were born with a penis. When they discovered their penis, it was the greatest day of their life, the greatest revelation of their existence. They love it. They want to use it. They want everyone to know that they know how to use it! So, if I happen to not be staring at the ground to avoid contact with these guys and I actually see them, they appear to be only (and quite literally) great big dick heads competing for attention from women just to gain a one-up on their peers. Imagine this with me, no matter how disturbing it might be. That man who just smooched at you or called you baby, he is a 5’5” penis dressed in a t-shirt with beer stains and a worn out pair of pants. He’s standing around with other similarly dressed dick heads that are also flopping around for your attention in a pathetic dance of sloppy compliments. He only has one eye and it’s just spouting dick things all over the place. It’s so gross! But just remember, a dick without a brain is just a dick. Now, I challenge anyone who tells me to “just ignore” street harassment to NOT be horrified by that image. This is the most genuine depiction I feel I can give of what these men are doing when they target solitary women. If I can distill them to simply penises with the ability to catcall women, I have every right to be offended that I have to bear witness to such sick spectacle.
All that being said, New York City, I’m sick of street harassment and all those great big dicks drinking beer on the street here. Smell ya later.