We Are All Afraid.
There are some conversations I hope don’t end in hashtags, ice bucket challenges, or viral videos. There are some discussions that need to be had, over, and over, and over again. Street harassment is something that everyone seems to be talking about lately. I’ve heard a spectrum of reactions, but the one that always makes me cringe is, “It’s not a big deal.” It seems there are people who misunderstand what women are referring to when they reference street harassment. Street harassment is not respectfully walking up to a woman you don’t know, introducing yourself, and telling her she’s cute. It’s not asking a girl on the street out on a date, or making small talk while you both happen to be on the same dreadful morning commute.
Street harassment strips a woman of her rights as a human being. Did you digest that properly? It makes us feel less than human.
If you’re still confused as to what street harassment is, or why it IS a big deal, I’ve outlined not only an experience I went through last night on my way home from work, but the hours stress, family worry, lack of sleep, and the genuine fear I felt for the hours that followed. While this is just one example of the disturbing things women go through every day, I urge you to take this issue seriously. If you’re a woman, please, share your story. Speak up. If you’re a man, and you see it happening, stop it. If you’re a man and you’re actively participating in it, stop it.
I didn’t think much of the black SUV parked on the side of the road 100 or so feet ahead of me. There are always cars parked on the side of the road in Brooklyn. My neighborhood happens to be one of the lucky ones which lends itself to street parking on days when the street cleaners aren’t sweeping away the weekend filth — cigarettes and beer cans, broken glass and flyers, the token battle scars of New York City. The sun was beginning to set, and it was that magical hour just before dark, where the whole city glows.
I usually have my headphones in when I’m walking from point A to point B, but I always take them off when I’m walking home from work at night. Something about noticing your surroundings. Something about not appearing unaware. Something about not being a target.
“Hi Sweetie, come over here.”
As any human would, I glanced over. Confused at first, I made eye contact with the stranger in the Black SUV who was now licking his lips and waving at me. Usually I say something back. Whether it’s, “No thank you” or, “Leave me the f*ck alone!” I believe in making it known to an offender that the type of behavior they are displaying toward me isn’t okay.
This felt different.
I ignored his advance, and carried on my way, distancing myself from the SUV. As he drove away, I stopped for a moment and waited — for his vehicle to go through the light, to make a left turn, to disappear into the distance.
I lost sight of the vehicle and assumed that one of the three had happened. As I continued walking down the street, I heard it again.
“Sweetie! Hello again!” The man motioned for me to come closer. Horrified, I realized the man had actually deliberately re-parked his vehicle and waited for me to walk by him again. Without thinking, I froze. I stopped dead in my tracks. Call it fear, or a bad set of instincts, but I felt my entire body tense up. I locked eyes with the Hasidic man behind the wheel, his beady eyes piercing through mine, hand gesturing up and down in his lap.
“Come over here. I have something for you.” I refused to take a step closer or look down. I knew what he was doing. In between blocks, with no streets to turn down, my only option was to continue straight on my path until I was able to make the next turn.
The next turn happened to be my street.
I quickened my pace and took my phone out. I opened my dial screen, unsure of who to call. The local police? Shomrim? 911? My dad? My brain became a flip book of different scenarios, and none of them ended with this man finding out where I lived. I knew I couldn’t turn onto my street.
My pace was almost at jogging speed, and I could feel my backpack banging against my spine. I approached the next intersection, unwanted company still driving alongside me, laughing now. It was a game to him.
Instead of turning right on my street, I turned left, crossing in front of his car, catching a glimpse of his license plate with hopes of remembering the numbers.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you.”
The woman stepped around me, clasping her daughter’s hand tightly, pulling her away from me. I stepped in her path, determined to get her attention. “I’m SO sorry, I know I’m a stranger, but I need help.” I realized how frantic I must have sounded. My hands were shaking, my mouth gaped open, my eyes became manic and watery. I must have looked desperate. I felt ashamed to be asking anything of her.
“Are you okay?” The young Hasidic woman whispered something in Yiddish to her daughter, and her daughter ran down the street.
“That man parked across the street has been following me for several blocks. He has continued to yell things at me through his open window. He tried to get me to come near the vehicle. Each time I walked away, he would drive ahead of me and park his car waiting for me to walk by again.” I was out of breath and by now, shaking.
“Was he Hasidic?”
It wasn’t until I answered that question that I could see the disbelief set in on her face. I was sad that it took that much. It didn’t matter to me that he was Hasidic. Street harassment can’t see religion. It can’t see color, or race, or even gender. What mattered to me was that he was a man going out of his way to make a me feel threatened. Feel worthless. Feel at his mercy.
“I’m so sorry this has happened. Men aren’t supposed to do that in our religion. He could be married!”
“He could be anything. I got his license plate number.”
“You’re not going to call the police are you?”
“I will when I get home. He should be reported.”
“Do you want me to go speak to him for you?”
“I don’t think that would be safe.”
“But I’m Hasidic, I’m sure he wouldn’t treat me that way. You’re dressed so beautifully. I can only assume men treat you like this all the time.”
“What’s your name?”
“Edel — do you live in the neighborhood?”
“Edel, I’m Carley. I live down the street.”
Still standing on the corner, the man who had followed me for three blocks, yelled various vulgarities in my direction, and beckoned me closer to his vehicle, had now parked across the street. His tinted windows were rolled up, but I could feel him watching us. I could feel his eyes undressing me. I imagined what would have happened had I approached his vehicle. What I might have seen. What he might have tried to do.
Safe inside at my apartment, I call the local police department, who direct me to 311, who directs me to 911. A 911 responder patches in and asks me to tell my story from start to finish. He asks me to tell my story again, from start to finish. He asks me to describe the man, the vehicle, the area, his intentions, his movements, his phrases, the first three letters of the license plate I managed to put into my phone in a state of sheer panic, everything. I recount the story twice, and he tells me that due to protocol, they are sending police officers to my apartment to check on me.
Two police officers arrive at my apartment and apologize for the situation. They ask me to tell my story again, from start to finish. They fact check the description of the man, the vehicle, the area, his intentions, his movements, his phrases, and the first three letters of the license plate. I remember the last four numbers but am unsure of the order. They run what I think may have been the correct order through their system. No match.
Once the questioning is over, they are kind, reassuring, and empathetic. They file a formal report, which was more than I had expected. Still, having two men in your home, uniform or not, that you do not know after being followed for three or four blocks by a strange man you also do not know, is taxing, and emotional.
When they have all the information they need, I see them to the door. They give me a direct line to call if I have any more problems.
I call my father. I can hear the tension in his voice as I tell him the story. I choke back tears. I was hoping for peace of mind, but his obvious discomfort with the situation makes me feel uneasy.
I call my best friend, and she offers to come over. I decline.
I think about calling my mother, who is on vacation in Canada. I know that the time difference means it’s much later where she is and I decide against waking her up and scaring her with a story about her daughter being followed by an SUV with black tinted windows.
I open my blinds and peer down onto the empty street. I wonder if he harassed anyone else on his way home. I wonder if he’s home in his apartment with his family, if he’s lying in bed feeling pleased with himself. I hate that I’m even thinking about him.
I wake up feeling frenzied and disoriented. I was dreaming about his voice. I heard, “Hi Sweetie”, over and over again. Every time I closed my eyes I saw his vehicle pulling up beside me. I tried to remind myself that I was home. I was safe. My doors were locked. It was over. It would all be fine tomorrow.
I am walking to work, carefully eyeing the license plates of the black SUVs in my neighborhood, hunting my line of vision for tinted windows, and men with red hair and beady eyes. I approach the same cross section where I had asked for help the previous night. Just as the walk signal turns, a man in a pickup truck pulls up to the red light.
“Looking good, Baby.”
“That’s not how you speak to women!”
“Mind your business, Bitch.”
Edel offered to walk me home. I suggested that we walk in the opposite direction. We had been standing on the corner for a half hour talking, and the man was still parked across the street. At one point he slowly rolled his window up and his evil grin disappeared behind a pane of black glass. As Edel and I took off in the other direction, the man finally drove away. We paused to make sure he was gone, and to make sure he was not returning. When it seemed safe, we made our way to my apartment. Edel did her best to distract me.
“So what do you do that you get to dress so beautifully?”
“I’m a publicist.”
“Do you sell things door to door?”
“Ah, no — do you ever read magazines?” I realized after asking it was a silly question. Edel looked down at my bare ankles and back at my eyes.
“No, I don’t read many magazines. Are you on television?”
“I’m not ON television, but I try to help big companies get on television.”
“So you have to look so nice all the time?”
“I guess I try to look nice. I really just dress the way I do because I like it.”
I glanced at my outfit as if I hadn’t dressed myself that morning. For a moment, I questioned my knee length skirt and my sleeveless blouse.. I knew what I was wearing wasn’t suggestive, not that it mattered, but I tried to analyze my outfit from her perspective.
“It’s so different from what I know.” We exchanged sympathetic smiles. When we arrived at my apartment, Edel opened the gate for me, and apologized for the strange man. I nodded, and thanked her for her kindness. I told her to be safe.
“Sometimes I look at the non-Hasidic women and I think, ‘They are so beautiful — they must not be afraid.” Edel’s face saddened.
“But now I think…Maybe we are all afraid.”
“We are, Edel. But we shouldn’t have to be.”