Note: This is a story by a friend of mine, who wishes to remain anonymous.
I like stories about carbon paper, party lines, or life before pantihose. They have a ye-olde spirit to them and a whisper of relief: how quaint that is, and how happy I am that we don’t live like that anymore.
Someone invited to speak at a storytelling event last winter, and I didn’t accept. Maybe I was busy. Maybe the venue was too far away. Maybe they said they were going to record the speakers, and I didn’t have any stories I wanted on the record. Now I want this story on the record, because I’ve been telling it for a long time and it should be carbon paper and party lines and pantihose… and it isn’t.
I arrived in a new city for a four-month contract. I’d travelled for similar contracts before and I was pretty good at rolling into a new place and living out of a suitcase for a week while shopping for a short-lease furnished apartment. As I left the hotel to walk to the office the first morning, a man solicited me for sex. It was broad daylight in the downtown core. I was still on the carpeted sidewalk in front of my upmarket hotel in the business district. I was wearing a suit. I was carrying a goddamned briefcase.
I said “No” and went to work.
When I got back to my hotel after work, I checked a city guide to choose a restaurant within easy walking distance and get my bearings on the local map. I walked three blocks at dusk… and a man in a white pick-up truck tailed me slowly the whole way until I cut across a parking lot he couldn’t access from the street.
I noticed during the first week that the women who worked downtown travelled in groups and only went outdoors at lunch. I deduced that most of them had office jobs because they left the core, en masse, at five. I was a coder; my hours were longer and later and I had no female co-workers. This is how it went, for four months: I was catcalled daily; I was groped occasionally; about once a week, I was followed, or explicitly solicited for sex. Sometimes specific dollar amounts were offered, as an opening line.
I had plenty of opportunity to polish my comeback. My go-to retort was a sunny, “No, thanks, I’m preserving my amateur standing for the Olympics.” While walking away. Briskly.
I’m not an idiot. I stopped wearing skirts. And make-up. Then I started wearing flats. And loose jeans. And sweatshirts. I sat down with a friend and reviewed my whole look to see what else I could tone down. Frumpiness as self-defense. He looked at my hair thoughtfully and asked if there was any way to make it less curly. December arrived. A down jacket made no difference.
I’m not an idiot. I maxed out my credit card on cab fares rather than walk alone late at night.
I’m not an idiot. I took birth control pills faithfully so that, if the worst happened, and I survived it, at least I wouldn’t be pregnant.
So I need you to imagine this. Sit with it for a few moments. Because this isn’t the story of the Big Horrible Thing that happened to me once. This is the story of the Horrible Little Thing that happened every fucking day for four months. And I genuinely felt lucky, at the time, because, hey, it was awful but I never got raped.
My first point is that, in my experience, this wasn’t special. This was same-old-same-old, heightened by being alone in a boom town. The point is that this is my absolutely unremarkable experience. I only remember this particular time vividly because there’s a punch line coming, sort of, so it makes a story. I’m saying that the only thing that’s special about this four-month span of daily street harassment is that it has unusually good narrative structure.
Someone is going to ask me where I was, and I’m not going to tell them, because I’m not going to let anyone shrug it off as the sort of thing that happens someplace else. It was “here.” I’ve been a lot of different places in my life, and it was “there.”
Someone is going to ask me when it happened, and I’m not going to tell them, because I’m also not going to let anyone kid themselves that this was once upon a time.
Someone is going to ask me how old I was, whether I was unusually attractive, and, inevitably, what I was wearing. So let me assure you that I am not special. I don’t give off some irresistible scent, hide powerful electromagnets in my pockets or deploy a bat-signal on my ass. I have many alluring traits, none of which is visible at night in winter from a pick-up truck two blocks away.
My second point is that not only was this same-old-same-old to me at the time, but that I was offered advice twice by teenaged girls… because it was same-old-same-old to fourteen-year-olds, too. A girl at the tutoring centre where I volunteered my time coaching math wanted to make sure I knew the trick about keeping my keys between my knuckles for self-defence; I did. A girl at a bus stop told me I was silly not to go with the guy who solicited me there: “You could probably get two hundred bucks;” I didn’t.
Oh, the punch line?
The last week of my contract, come three o’clock in the morning, I called a friend who lived near the office and said, “Can I crash at your place?” “Sure thing. Come by and I’ll buzz you up.” And I walked the three or four blocks to his place. It was winter and the bars were long closed and it was really quiet on the streets. And as I approached my destination, I actually got a bit giddy because I realized this was a milestone. This was literally the first time in four months that I’d gone somewhere without being harassed.
And that’s when the police cruiser stopped, and the cop told me he knew what I was doing out on the street at this hour of the night, and if I was still there when he came around the block again, he’d arrest me.