Chicago Portrait no. 35: Unsafe in the City

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He was young, in a red polo and khakis. Sensible haircut. Chunky laptop the color of wet slate. By young I mean 30, which is older than me. But still young, I’d say. He had a young way of thinking.

He sat in the cafe for a while, peering at me from over his rocky-colored laptop. Then he asked for me to call his phone. Feigned that it was lost; padded his pockets. Looked around corners. I don’t know a thing about acting but I can still tell when it’s bad. I’m a bad liar, descended from a long line of bad liars, and I can see bad lies as easily as I can see a predator.

I dialed the number he gave me and his phone began to ring. At last, the man lifted the cushion of his chair, revealing his phone, perfectly placed flat on the center of the seat. I thought: oh jesus. A pick-up-artist. I just knew. You just know, once this happens enough. You can see the twinkle in the guy’s eyes and know that he thinks he’s scoring points in some game that’s obsolete and outmoded, the cartridge is full of dust and grime but the dude can’t tell, and he’s still blowing into it.

He sidled over and took a seat closer to me. My bristling, I’m sure, was obvious. But not to him.

“Do you live around here?”

“I guess.”

“I’m looking for new roommates, my old ones are moving out, they got married and that’s good for them, but now I’m looking for cool people-”

He is a man in his thirties with khakis and a red striped Old Navy polo who pulls pick-up-artist crap in the middle of a Sunday evening. He is not fucking cool people.

I look at him until he runs out of conversational steam. My face is slack. I look angry by default, but it’s intentional in that moment. I love my resting bitch face. It protects me.

“So,” he sputters, “Do you know anyone who needs a roommate?”

“You could try Craigslist,” I tell him.

He says that he has and that it hasn’t been working and I feel a little thrill from being so banal and unhelpful. My job involves helping a lot of people and answering a lot of questions that could be better answered by the questioner’s own effort. Look it up in the syllabus, I want to scream, but I never do, because I know what it’s like to be overwhelmed with information and to just want some human help, and I know nobody’s in the wrong there.

Outside of my job, I often find myself unwittingly snared into a short-term helper role, for a friend or a colleague or a former boss. It’s normal and human but I kind of hate it. So it feels good, in an indulgent way, to be so blatantly, blithely unhelpful.

“I just want to find somebody off Craigslist,” he says. “Somebody real, and cool.”

And I say, “Well, you’re just gonna have to go find some creep off the internet.”

And it’s an unhelpful, dismissive, ignorant thing to say. And it feels good. Pettiness is my new favorite form of self-love.

We sit there for another hour, this dude and I, working and mostly ignoring eachother. I hope that it’s over but sense that it’s not. I can’t explain how this intuition works, but it does. I know I have to avoid eye contact with this guy, or even turning in his direction, for the whole time I’m there. I’m writing a piece for a magazine on the note pad app of my phone; I curl up in the chair with my legs pressed into my torso and I turn away from him completely.

An hour later I’m done and I walk east to my home. I’m careful not to look at this dude as I pass through the door. It doesn’t matter; two blocks later there he is, khakis, polo, eager expression on his face, tapping my shoulder with his right hand.

“What.”

“Can I ask you three questions?” He’s smiling and I’m so mad and so unreasonably terrified. This is not how you make friends or hit on somebody.

“What are the questions.” I say it so stonily that anyone reasonable would shut the hell up right there.

“They’re good questions,” he says, as if there is such a thing in this context. “One, do you have a boyfr-”

“Yes, I have a boyfriend.” I fire the words out of my mouth. I want them to be bullets that rip open his throat. I hate that this is what it takes to get a dude to go away, but it is, and it’s true that I have a boyfriend, so it’s fine for me to say it. I am a bad liar. It’s easier to tell the truth with a ton of hostility.

“Okay,” the dude says. “Well, that’s it.” No more questions. He points up the block, at a flat next to Ollie’s. “That’s my house right there, let me know if-”

“Okay.” And I stomp down the alleyway to break off from him, unlock my phone, and block his phone number. This is not my first fucking day at the rodeo. I know what will come next — the texts overloaded with emojis, the dick pics and solicitations, the unanswered questions spanning weeks or months that I cannot nip in the bud.

Later, when I describe what happened to my boyfriend, my boyfried assumes the young man was like 20. Every time a man gropes or screams at or flashes me, my boyfriend assumes the perpetrator is like 20, young, a fratty white boy. I guess that’s what he imagines inconsiderate, entitled guys are like. But harassment is fairly universal. It’s not some passing young man’s incompetence. It cuts through all races, all ages, all styles of dress, all incomes. It has nothing to do with them. It has nothing to do with who I really am. It just happens. It just happens and happens and you just get used to it. But when men hear about it and don’t understand, I still get frustrated.

Once, a barista spent an entire shift staring at my ass and then looked up my name from my credit card receipt and tried to friend me on Facebook. “Remember me?” his message said. I did but not because we’d had a particularly scintillating chat. We had not spoken. I didn’t know his name and had never given him mine. A week later, I spotted him on the street outside my apartment, propping up a violently drunk, signifianctly older man. The drunk man staggered away and stumbled into a trash can, swearing. The barista looked at me and apologized. Said his friend has just come back from Afghanistan. It was hard to know who to be more wary of, so I just went inside.

I had a boyfriend who would show up unannounced at restaurants, clothing stores, cafes, and my workplace. He would disappear and reappear whenever he felt like it, but he was always an active, enraged, demanding presence on Gchat and in my phone.

When I finally dumped him, he responded by stalking me. He would linger outside of my office while I worked, curled up and hiding until I left for the evening. Sometimes he’d bear gifts: cute cat pictures, a muffin, a cup of coffee from the latest cafe he hadn’t been fired from yet. He would show up on street corners, or linger outside the window of my apartment, sitting in the fetal position in the parking lot, crying, not ashamed to be blocking the cars of tired cabbies who just wanted to park and go home. He would scream like a feral animal and throw things. He snuck into the apartment and battered my door while I cried and screamed that I was gonna call the cops. There were other things, but those are the offenses that seem the most relevant to the topic at hand.

For years after that, I would react to street harassment of even the mildest kind by screaming and flailing violently. My heart would race and my face would twist itself into something grotesque while I confronted, and swung my fists, and swore. I thought I was being righteous. I once chased a flasher down the street for several blocks while he fled on a bike, keeping pace with him and pelting him with groceries. My pulse thrummed in my ear and my chest the whole rest of the day.

This semester, I was in the middle lf teaching my students about PTSD when I finally came to understand all of it. When you have PTSD, I said, you’re always on alert, ready to react at a moment’s notice. Something that reminds you of the trauma may provoke an excessive response. It’s not like how it’s depicted in the movies. You don’t see literal visual flashbacks of a battlefield. You don’t think you’re punching Nazi’s while you’re whaling on the wall or your wife.

I stopped speaking for a second and said, here’s a mild example. I’ve been harassed and assaulted before. Nothing that bad, but. For years afterward, if anybody bothered me even a little I’d scream and lash out and react almost violently. It wasn’t like full-blown PTSD, but it was very much like it.

That’s what I told my students. I’m sure it made them uncomfortable. Maybe it was inappropriate. But the only part of it I regret is the hedging and equivocation. Why do so many victims feel the need to hem and haw and say it wasn’t that bad, they’re not in that bad of shape, they didn’t suffer that bad? Compared to what? It doesn’t help, saying that. Saying it wasn’t that bad doesn’t keep me from feeling this way.

These days, when a guy on the street tells me I look pretty or asks me to smile, I don’t respond with swearing or violence. I’ve learned to reserve that reaction for the truly dangerous. Sometimes, if a guy seems safe and simply misguided, I’ll even be nice, and smile and say thank you and wish him a good day.

A few weeks ago, a pair of young guys passed me on the street at about 11 PM. and I smiled at them. One of the men turned around and came up to me, to tell me that my smile had made his evening. I could tell in that moment he wasn’t going to ask anything more of me, and that he meant what he said. His compliment made me feel warm and safe and kind of lovely, too. I said, anytime. You have a good night. He walked off with his friend, all three of us beaming, and I felt a little sadness over all the positive interactions I’ve been denied in the past, because a few men couldn’t stand not to take my attention or my body from me.

I wish I could respond to each man as an individual. I wish that a small social faux pas or assinine comment wouldn’t dredge up years of abuse and harassment and make me feel uneasy, enraged, on edge. I’m glad that I’m learning, slowly, to differentiate a passive, well-meaning stranger from an active threat. But I don’t think I’ll ever learn to treat the threats with any nuance or dignity, really. It doesn’t matter whether an entitled man asks me to come home with him or grabs me by the shoulder or shows me his penis or anywhere in between. If he does any of those things, he’s a threat and I hate him. And why should I give him any more thought? After all, to him, I’m a generic “woman”. Throwing all men into the same bland awful category would be fair play.

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