Can you please….. I just need to get through.

I’m out shopping this afternoon. It’s rainy, and cold, and I’m in a hurry. My winter boots are cheap, and worn almost through — my socks are starting to absorb the moisture that has leaked through the cracks in the sole.

I’m in a busy part of the city at a busy time of the day, but it’s quiet in the beauty supply store when I get there. The security guard smiles, makes a joke about the weather as I try to shake the water from my shoes and coat. I’m helped at the wig counter by a woman who has helped me before. She smiles and rolls her eyes as I walk in — what is this crazy costume design lady gonna ask for this time? 

I have the wig in my hand, and I’m headed up the stretch of long aisles towards the front of the store, where an older woman sits behind the register, windexing the counter. I’m in the middle aisle, with the wig in one hand and my phone in the other, my purse slung across my shoulder, when I notice a man in a hooded sweatshirt blocking my path. He’s in his fifties, maybe. Skinny. Bearded. Dirty jeans. Looking at eyeshadows.

I get a little closer, and as he sees me coming, he leans forward, resting his elbows on the makeup counter, extending his legs so as to make it impossible for me to pass through. He makes eye contact with me as he does so. He smiles a little. I realize he is missing teeth.

“Excuse me,” I say. “I just need to get through.”

He smiles, again. He hasn’t stopped looking at me this whole time. His eyes remain focused on mine. His lips turn upwards slightly into a half-smile. The left-hand corner of his mouth twitches a little. I don’t like how it makes me feel.

“Not till I get them digits on your phone,” he says.

I purse my lips.

“Uh,” I say. “No, thank you. I just… uh. Can you please let me by?”

He leans closer. My shoulders shrink backward.

“No,” he says. “Not till we have sex.”

I feel as if this moment lasts a very long time and not any time passes at all.

“I just need to get through now,” I say.

He doesn’t move. My heart is rattling, scratchy.

“I need to get through,” I say.

He shrugs. “Suit yourself.”

Slowly, with his eyes still on me, he raises his hands,  a gesture of surrender.

He moves out of the way. I walk past him, towards the register. I make my purchase and leave.

When I look behind me to see if he is still in the store, I don’t find him. I walk quickly back to work, partly because of the drizzling rain, partly because I’m newly aware of how, in a stretch of a few blocks, how easy it could be to shove me into an alleyway, how quickly I could disappear.

*

Here’s a funny thing about privilege. It’s all kind of relative, right?

Here’s what I thought about, as I walked back to work:

I know I am privileged because I found this incident upsetting.
Because something like that hadn’t happened to me in awhile.

I know I am privileged because this kind of thing doesn’t happen to me regularly.
If it did, my heart probably wouldn’t have been beating as fast as it did.

I know I am privileged because I got to walk out of the rain and into my workplace.
Where I could tell people, and they listened, and said, “Ew,” and “I’m sorry.”

It had probably been three months since the last time I was that viscerally afraid of an assault, since the last time my stomach contracted and I had wildly calculated my options in the span of a few seconds.

That, to me, is progress.

And that’s incredibly fucking sad.

*

Poll: It’s time to take the car for an errand! Do you first check:

a) The rearview mirror
b) The gas tank
c) The undercarriage and backseat for hidden rapists and assailants?

What? Did your mothers not tell you to do that?

*

I’ve talked about gender issues here before. Gender equality has become a big topic in my small world, more so in recent weeks than most — a lot of important discussion being generated specifically as it pertains to women in my chosen field.

I could say more, and I will. But here’s what I will say for now:

I love being a woman. It’s the foundation, the cornerstone of who I am, informing all the rest of it. Being a woman is the way I smell and the way my hair moves and the way my body curves and the way I breathe and the conversations I have and the voice I inhabit and the logic of my mind and the warmth of my soul. It’s everything and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Being a woman is also being a little bit afraid all of the time.
Being a woman is to choose safe rather than sorry.

Being a woman is having to figure out what to do if the guy from the wig store follows you home.

And that sucks and I wish that were different.
And that sucks and I wish that were different.

And that SUCKS.

And I wish that were different.

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34 thoughts on “Can you please….. I just need to get through.

  1. I used to feel invincible. (I was also drinking a lot then.) Now I am much more aware of my surroundings and who is sharing them. I hate it that as a woman I am vulnerable; but it is reality and I need to acknowledge it.

  2. amazing post! we are lucky to live in a country where we don’t live in fear of that kind of attack, but we as women need to do something that prevents men from trying to assert power over us.

  3. This is a really thoughtful piece, but I wonder if you’re slightly off in the wrong direction with your sense of privilege framing your emotional response to jerky behavior. The guy wasn’t threatening you. He was harassing you and being an asshat. Your felt threatened because of it, which is partly why harassment is so dispiriting and ugly, but it’s not the same thing, which is why I’m not sure the pitch of your response need be quantifiably higher/lower in direct relation to your imagined position in the grand hierarchy in the world. What I mean to say is that you’re not privileged because you found this experience upsetting, you’re privileged because you’re (comparatively) rich and white, and for all I know related to a Kennedy, but I think the (comparatively) rich and white status will certainly do to make the point, which is the encounter was objectively upsetting on its merits. No qualifying setup or explanation necessary.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this post.
    I’m sorry you had to deal with that, it is never pleasant when a guy is a jerk/sketchball.

    I remember a time when I thought encounters like that were normal. That it was just what I had to deal with as a women. It is a shitty feeling.

  5. Choices. Life can be different, but is one willing to put forth the required effort, in exchange? Muscle is a question of exercise and repetitive physical effort. Learning how to fight is a question of exercise and repetitive physical effort.

  6. I have spoken about this with my tall policeman brother, who was surprised when I told him I always consciously plan where my car is parked in relation to a building’s entrance and the street lights. He never thought about it, never felt he had to. I love being a strong, independent woman working in a field formerly dominated by men… but sometimes I am still painfully aware of gender differences, for better and for worse.

    • I do the same thing Kristin. My husband was surprised too when I told him all the things my mom taught me: try not to park in parking garages if you are on your own, don’t live on the first floor of an apartment building even if it’s cheaper, be ware of living near parks they are lovely during the day, but … Yes we all decide what we’ll worry about, what fears to hold onto and what opinions to change from our parents, but I think women think about safety much more often than men. Such an interesting topic!

  7. My two cents worth: Perhaps this was one of those situations where one simply chooses not to stand his or her ground for a couple of good reasons; one being to not give this jerk the satisfaction of a confrontation; and the second reason being not to put one’s self through the emotional escalation these situations provoke. You mentioned “aisles” so this was apparently not the only route to reach the sales associate. After the first request to pass and his stated condition to have your phone number, had you simply turned and gone around him, you’d have sent him a clear message that his behavior was inconsequential. Your action would have said, “I don’t tolerate harassment. I don’t suffer fools. You’re a fly speck on the window of my day. I’m busy, I don’t have time for your lameness.” In the end, you were seriously rattled (understandably) and at least a portion of your day was poisoned. He, on the other hand, got his smirky satisfaction out of the encounter and, to some extent, was empowered. This would have been an entirely different situation if this had been the behavior of a co-worker or someone in a supervisory position. This was not a “battle” worth picking, IMHO. You’re a lovely, strong person. Sometimes, ignoring ignorance is the win. So that’s my two cents; here’s your change. 🙂

    • here’s the thing I’ve learned though: chances are, that’s what he wanted her to do. If you turn and run you’re weak and then he won.He knew 100% she wasn’t going to give up her number, the question was is she going to run or stand up. I’m not saying it’s logical or right, I’m saying that’s the thought process I’ve encountered more often than not.

      • Beth, I get that. But I still maintain that Katherine’s *not* engaging and getting ramped is his fail. Guys like him look for the reaction–that’s the fun for him–embarrassment, discomfort, fear, etc.

  8. I always check the back seat without even thinking about it. I don’t worry about under the car so much, but only because in order to fit under there he’d have to be one skinny ass motherfucker. I also scan the entire area around my car as I walk toward it. I don’t even know I’m doing it half the time anymore- it’s instinct.

  9. I was flashed in a used bookstore about 20 years ago. Like your experience, it was really unsettling and threatening, I don’t think I was ever at risk. I just encountered a creepy guy who wanted to exhibit some level of power over a random girl in a grey anorak. Strangely – it was raining that day.

    We are fortunate to live in a society where we’re allowed to walk away from the creeps. Maybe we have to run sometimes and maybe we look over our shoulders – or we never, ever again shop in our favourite used bookstore.

  10. What a jerk. Here’s an idea. Stare him in the eyes. Tell him you’re going to count to three, and then you’re going to start screaming bloody murder. Odds are good that he will not only step aside, he’ll probably get the heck out of there. Of course, if he doesn’t and calls your bluff, then you pretty much have to start screaming. That’s okay – he probably has a criminal record, and he will either run away at that point, or risk the police checking his background and finding out about all the dirty things he’s done in the past, and possibly bringing him in on any outstanding warrants. At the very least, that will make sure that the proprietors of the store know about him and don’t let him come back.

  11. I have a daughter and when she and her friends started going to late night movies and driving themselves I would always give them “the talk” before they went – they are now adult women and still remember that! My brother had two daughters who are quite a bit younger than mine and when I mentioned my cautions to my daughter about going out at night he thought I was being silly and overreacting – I told him there was nothing wrong with being proactive and avoiding situations that could be dangerous by not thinking of your options and I told him to talk to me again when his girls were teenagers going out at night. As a guy it never occurred to him that walking downtown after 10 o’clock at night could be dangerous – he never felt uncomfortable doing it. Perspective is a strange animal! Oh and he rethought his stance on night time safety when his girls were teenagers!

  12. You articulated that perfectly. Gender equality has also made its way into my small world lately and it’s been super hard for me to navigate all these new feelings and conversations about topics I’ve never really thought about before. Great post.

  13. Wow. I am privileged because I have NEVER experienced that. And it sucks that my country is so privileged and safe and I take that for granted.

  14. I never had an appreciation for the amount of harassment women take from men until my gay friend took me to a gay bar. I have zero problem with that lifestyle but holy crap men are aggressive! You let 11 guys buy you a drink and all of the sudden you owe them something!

  15. As a single woman living in a huge city this piece touched me. I can from a small town and now I find myself looking behind me alot and making sure “that scary man” that just made me squirm isnt following me home. Very well said.

  16. Thanks for this one. It is a reminder how vulnerable we all are. And how much more our society has to do before women can be considered truly equal. I recently read a post by another female writer who said she’d had enough of all the complaining women were doing about not being treated equally. I thought, and did not write, “Just what planet are you on.”

  17. Man, if I had a dollar for every time I checked my backseat before getting into my car or palmed my keys so that they became Wolverine claws… I’d be rich enough to afford a driver and a bodyguard! I tell my husband that I’d love to start running again but he doesn’t understand why I don’t want to run alone. Men, mostly, do not understand what it is to be sexualized, diminished, etc. and I’m not a small woman. I know how to defend myself but I STILL know the odds aren’t always in my favor. My advice, not that you’re asking, is to get loud when some shitbag makes those comments to you. It is absolutely your right to pass freely without being harassed and MOST of those p.o.s. are spinless and getting off on you not sticking up for yourself. Plus, it let’s him know you’re not going to be a quiet victim. You’re going to be a problem.

  18. “Being a woman is also being a little bit afraid all of the time.
    Being a woman is to choose safe rather than sorry.”

    I strongly resonate with this. My mother told me a horrific story about being followed into a dark apartment entrance, feeling her skirt lifted up by a man in a hoodie until she figured out which key fit the lock in the dark and got away. It’s hard to NOT look at people like that now, not see the danger. It colours your entire world.

  19. Great post. I think it’s interesting that some women are saying they are privileged because they don’t have to worry about it in their country… this kind of harassment happens everywhere. It just comes in different forms; some are more subtle. Where there are gender inequalities, this happens. I’m tall and confident and yes, I still do all those things my Mom taught me to do. Guys just don’t have to think about it in the same way.

  20. I agree that this guy is an asshole.

    I don’t agree with specifically putting women in boxes like ‘Being a woman is being a little bit afraid all of the time.’ and ‘Being a woman is to choose safe rather than sorry.’
    This is not necessarily true and this highlights a difference between genders that can’t be generalized. There are plenty of fearless women out there and they have every right to be fearless. There are plenty of men out there who choose safe over sorry, and they have every right to do that, too.
    It may be true that MOST women are in general more afraid than MOST men. I definitely know that women have to deal with this shit more often than men, but it is not okay to take ‘woman’ as a unit. Anything that says ALL women will never be accurate.

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