I’d had a sucky weekend. The reasons why, the story about what happened, that doesn’t matter. Just know that I’d spent my entire weekend indoors, stewing, just wanting to be somewhere else. Finally, it was Sunday and I spent the day anxious to jump out of the house, if not out of my very skin, and just go somewhere. That morning I laid out an outfit. That afternoon, I put it on and left my house with no destination, no concern for one. I was keen to just walk. Through the streets of my neighborhood, to the center of the city I was born and raised in. To think, to be alone, to see something other than the yellow walls of my living room or the pink (ugh) walls of my bedroom.
What I was wearing doesn’t matter, but know that I was covered from collarbone to toe. There was nothing at all provocative about me, guaranteed by the 60 degree weather of the day.
The plan was to just walk until my legs gave out, or until my best friend, who is male, was ready to meet up, whatever happened first. I had My Chemical Romance blasting in my ears and all I wanted to do was listen to them do the screaming that I couldn’t do (because it’d look a little odd, just walking down the street and screaming, you know). The walk from my house to the city’s center is about three miles. I looked forward to each one.
I’d made it about three blocks before the first car honk. Those are easy to tune out. A couple of blocks later and the first car pulled over.
“Hey, hello, how you doin’?”
I couldn’t hear him, of course, because of my music. Now, when this happens, my default response is a smile and a polite decline when he asks for my number, or a dinner date, or whatever. And then politely decline again. And again if necessary. This particular Sunday, it took a lot of energy–a lot of energy–to do that, but I did it. I did it the first time.
Hey. I’m fine, and you? My name is Tracy. No, thank you. Alright, you have a good day.
I did it the second time.
Hey I’m fine I’m Tracy no thank you have a good day.
And even the third.
And you know what? I even managed to grin through it the fourth time, when a car that I’d ignored as it passed me on the street circled the block just to cut me off and stop as I was stepping off the curb of the sidewalk, slowing my stride, breaking my zone and effectively taking another piece of my day away from me.
“Hey, Ms. Lady. What’s your name?”
I never stopped walking, but I did engage long enough to get to the “no thank you.” Again, I always try to stay on the civil side of things when dealing with these situations. As a common courtesy, I guess, I don’t know. Maybe it’s my semi-southern upbringing that moves me to be instinctively polite to strangers, even the ones who are on my last good nerve before they even open their mouths.
I lost it two cars later, though. As I walked past a car wash about 5 blocks down, I noticed a black SUV turn off the main street and into the parking lot to cut me off at the pass (again). Seeing him, I sped up, intent to pass before he had the chance to reach me, and I did so successfully. But even over Gerard Way screaming bloody murder in my ears, I hear the driver yell at me:
I snapped my head around violently and asked him what the fuck he just said to me. He said it louder, with more authority, as if I’d genuinely just misheard him.
Now let me pause here to say that I am 28 years old. If the “man” behind that steering wheel was older than 19, I’d be authentically surprised. Where the hell does anybody get off talking to a stranger off the street that way, let alone a teenager to an older woman?? Had I not been so mad, it would have made me sad, but I was too pissed to care about the patriarchal state of society that made this little boy think that was acceptable.
“What the fuck?!” I snapped, “That’s not how you fucking talk to people! That’s not how you ask for shit from people!” I went on shrieking as I turned up my headphones and stalked down the street a little faster. Behind me I heard him saying something, then heard the boy in the passenger seat laughing, but I don’t know what was said. He probably called me a bitch or a whore or yelled that I wasn’t all that cute anyway.
From then on, I resorted to tactic #2: the ice grill. The scowling, rabid mask with sharp hints of “I with a motherfucker would” poised at the corners of the mouth. I’m very familiar with this. I’ve perfected it. but I abandoned its use when I discovered that it doesn’t work because men who see you walking down the street and decide that they are going to have a conversation with you don’t care about whether or not you want to have a conversation with them, if you look uninterested, if you’re on the phone or listening to music, if you look like you’d rip their heads off and chuck them into oncoming traffic. They have something to say, and gotdamnit, it’s a free country, so listen up. Maybe they’re the ones who can brighten your mood. You probably just need some dick anyway. That’s probably why you’re mad in the first place.
“You too cute to look so mad! Can I see that smile?”
That’s it. You’re cute. If you were ugly, they wouldn’t have bothered. So it’s kind of a compliment, right?
Anyway. The mean mug didn’t work. I was cut off by more cars before I ducked into the parking lot of a White Castle to wait for my friend. On the phone with him, I tried to explain my frustration, why I was annoyed, why I just wanted everybody to just leave me alone and let me walk down the damn street. I hung up feeling like I hadn’t done a good job, and when he pulled up and I hopped in his car, he said, “Well that’s what it is–you’re too beautiful. You look really really good today. That’s all it is, babe.”
Sigh. Here’s where it becomes difficult. How do you express displeasure/discontent/annoyance at being complimented without looking like a snooty, ungrateful bitch? Answer: you can’t, until you can effectively explain to someone that these are not compliments. They are intrusive, unwanted, often forceful and disrespectful advances that I do not have to like or entertain. You know what a compliment is? “Hello, ma’am, you look very nice today.” That’s a compliment. Driving around the block to cut me off and force me to talk to you, not going away after I ask you to or attempt to annoy you? Harassment.
This is what men have trouble understanding, I think. On their end, it’s just a man acting on a natural urge when he sees an attractive woman. It’s well intended. But on our end, it’s a caution not to look too cute when you plan on walking around in the world outside. Don’t wear that new sundress you bought, even though you really love it and it’s warm outside, because you never can tell what the site of your bare shoulders will do to a man. It’s a warning to take the long way to your favorite florist to buy your favorite flowers because you know a corner full of men waits for you in the middle of the short route. It’s a prompting to just say fuck it sometimes and stay at home because you may not have the strength to put up with it today.
And that’s unfair. All of that is unfair. Men often think that it’s not a problem because they’d love to get that much attention from women. Or at least they think they would. But they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t appreciate being constantly stopped and approached by women that they’re uninterested in any more than they’d like a call from a new telemarketer on their cell phones every 5 minutes.
In my friend’s defense, though, he was trying to cheer me up, and I believe that he got my point as I was explaining that what a woman looks like, what she’s wearing, is never, ever, ever an excuse or reason for everything, nor does it mean that she should be grateful for attention she never asked for in the first place. Still, it made me all the more tired.
So what’s the answer? What can I, as a woman, do to keep this from happening? The answer is nothing. The needed change cannot come from me or any other woman–this is a charge that falls in the laps of men. Do you think its okay to approach women on the street? Fucking stop it. It’s not. If you pass somebody and you like her and want to date her and marry her and have kids with her, have some faith that fate will hook all that up for y’all later, and if it doesn’t, get over it. Are you a man who recognizes the problematic state/affairs of street hollering? Then when you see some other knucklehead following a woman down the street or honking his horn at her like he’s at a damn drive through, say something. Teach these dudes. The change has to come from y’all.
The street hollering scene is absolutely horrible in Louisville. If any of you self-respecting men would like to do some teaching, this is a good place to start. I was stopped by at least 8 cars in about an hour’s time. I can give you car descriptions–I can guarantee you they don’t remember me, but I remember them. We always do.