30 October 2014

Don't Be a Menace to Women While Shopping for Groceries in the Hood

Street harassment has been a social scourge for ages, and recently it's finally starting to become the subject of discussion that it should have already been. Invariably, when women summon the fortitude to speak up about wanting men to stop ambushing them as they're trying to go about their day, there's some indignant guy who says something like what was posted in response to this Buzzfeed post:

I love it when "feminists" get all up in arms over what they feel are rude comments. Not our fault you chose to feel hurt, but something gives me the feeling they were never catcalled in life due to their physical appearance. Basically have a thick skin when that happens and find a way to "grow a set".
These guys want everyone to believe - you, me, and even themselves - that they're entirely benign guys just trying to be polite and they take the most serious umbrage at being castigated for it. So let me share with you an anecdote, Dear Reader, about a time when this entirely benign guy knew better than to be polite.

In case for some reason you're new to my blog, I have Crohn's disease. I try to do my grocery shopping later at night, because it's a lot less crowded then so if I need to abruptly find a restroom, I don't have to worry about being stuck behind nine slowly moving people in a crowded aisle. One night a couple of years ago, I was grabbing a few things and I went to buy a pack of Oreos. Pretty innocuous, you know. So I'm walking around the store in my own little world, just thinking about Oreos and whatever else I was going to buy, and when I round the corner into that aisle, there's a woman standing near the Oreos.

I can't really describe what she looked like. She was a few inches shorter than me (I think), thin (maybe), and anywhere from ten years younger than me to ten years older. Let's put it this way: if we were playing a game of Guess Who? the only thing I would feel confident asking is, "Is your person a woman?" But her reaction to me stepping into that aisle where she was is etched in my mind forever.

Neither of us had any idea of the other; I didn't see her until I had stepped into the aisle, and she had no way of seeing me approaching until I was there. She was standing near the Oreos. I reached for a pack, and as I did, I saw her become defensive. She didn't gasp or shriek or anything quite so dramatic. But I could sense her tense up and become paralyzed instantly. If anyone had passed by us, they may not have even noticed her reaction; I have no idea how subtle it would have appeared from a distance. But standing there just a few feet from her, I could feel the air around us change and that's not an exaggeration. There was a clear heat caused by the friction. Even recalling the moment now to write about it, my shoulders and my neck have warmed.

Some guys in that situation might have tried to talk to her, to reassure her in some way. They would have been clumsy and just made it worse for her. Still other guys, though, would have used her being caught off-guard to pressure her into talking to them. They would have followed her around the store, maybe all the way out into the parking lot. God knows what they might try to say or do along the way.

Knowing as much as I do about these kinds of things, I grabbed the Oreos and just got the hell away from her as quickly as I could. That's what she needed from me: a return of her safe space; not a sales pitch about what a nice, non-threatening guy I really am.

I'll never forget the wave of fear that washed over her in that split-second. It was unavoidable; if she'd been able to see me coming, she may not have been startled at all. If I'd seen her in the aisle by herself, I would have gone on and gotten something else and come back for the Oreos. But it happened the way it did, and to this day I still feel awful over it. I keep that incident in my mind whenever I go out anywhere.

One thing I've made a point to do ever since then is to take my iPod with me whenever I go grocery shopping. My hope was that if I'm ever in that same situation, she'll see the iPod and feel less threatened by my suddenness and attribute it to me being self-absorbed and distracted by the music. I know of women who wear earphones without even listening to anything at all. They hope that the sight of the earphones will discourage street harassers, but they're too afraid of not hearing what's being said around them to actually play anything through their earphones.

So to try to alleviate concerns that my earphones are also just a prop to aid me in being a predator, I have my iPod shuffle my entire library rather than go through a playlist. This way, I'm almost certain to want to skip something every few minutes, and I'll actually be engaged by the device. Sure, someone could just fake that, too, but this is the best I've come up with so far to try to send a visual cue that I'm doing my own thing and not about to interrupt someone else doing hers.

If we ever run into one another in public, Dear Reader, I promise to say nothing to you and get away from you as quickly as I can. I really just want some Oreos, same as you.

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