Brace yourselves, readers.
I’m about to be candid, I’m about to get a little gritty, it will definitely not be pleasant to read, and no, I do not know how to make sense of what I’m about to share, so, please, do not expect a conclusion that will leave you at ease or inspired or hopeful. Expect to slump into discomfort and bewilderment.
With that disclaimer in mind, proceed if you wish.
Please excuse me as I unravel my façade of doughty optimism and illimitable compassion. Please excuse me as my heart splatters open, like a peach from the highest branch dropping to hard ground. Please excuse all that mess. And I’m sorry if it sullies your good mood.
See, I’m a nice young woman, so I say “please” and “excuse me” and “I’m sorry” a lot. I say that last phrase all the time, often for imaginary infractions or for ones too slight to warrant it. I’d rather punctuate each breath I take with an apology than offend another person. Appearing discourteous is a prime fear of mine, trumped only by my fear of death. Rude is no way for a nice young woman to be.
I was flipping through my journal entries from over the past year and found a few in which, if I could edit past utterances, I would replace “I’m sorry” or “excuse me” or uneasy laughter with a clear and assertive, “Please treat me with respect.” See, I’m a nice young woman, so I can’t forget the “please.”
One afternoon in January I was guiding a man in his fifties around the warehouse to shop for his furniture. At one point during his appointment he paused to ask me if I was married. When I promptly replied that I was (I’m not, of course, but I did not want to appear available), he stamped his foot against the ground and exclaimed, “Dammit! I can never win!”
I might have found this amusing if he were not older than my father. Still, it didn’t bother me that much; I simply ignored his abysmal attempt at flirtation and proceeded to lead him to the area where he would select a kitchen table. I handed him a strip of stickers and instructed him to place one on whichever kitchen table he wanted. He peeled off one and, as he extended it towards me as though he were about to stick it to my shoulder said, “I wish I could put a sticker right here.”
I dipped my head forward and scratched the nape of my neck, then let out a timorous little laugh that made me hate myself. Before he left he said, in a lewd whisper, “See, that wasn’t so bad, now was it, sweetheart?”
I think I’m writing this now because at the time I wasn’t able to articulate the words, “Yes, you were acting very creepy, and you obviously know better because otherwise you would not have asked me that question. Shame on you.” God, I wish I had said something like that. But confrontational is no way for a nice young woman to be.
“Have a nice day,” I said.
When a different old man winked after asking me a few months later, “Will you be delivered with the furniture, baby?” I felt, again, flustered and demeaned. I shook my head and chuckled that no, I wouldn’t be. And again, the words I really wanted to say vaporized on my tongue.
“Have a nice day,” I said.
Let me be clear. A lot of the clients who come through the Furniture Bank doors are single men, many of them military veterans who had previously been experiencing homelessness. Ninety nine percent of the men with whom I interact each week are polite and simply grateful to receive furniture.
Why draw attention to the few who come off as misogynistic and sleazy?
Learning how to be more assertive has been one of my chief challenges this year, and I know I am not the only young woman who has a difficult time speaking up and standing up for herself when men pester me. While it’s tough to address this aspect of my work environment, I think it’s important to be honest about it, because I think other women reading this will feel comforted knowing they are not alone.
One of my main reservations about writing this post, which I have wanted to write for a while now, is the fear I will trip and fall into the trope of the delicate “damsel in distress” demonizing and seeking protection from disenfranchised men.
Let me be clear. I am not in distress. Nor do I hate the handful of men who have disrespected me over the year. I do not feel they are despicable or irredeemable, and I do not need protection from them, either. I’m simply jaded. I wish the men I’m referring to had enough self-esteem and self-respect they wouldn’t need to disparage women to wrest an illusory sense of power. And I wish I had enough self-esteem and self-respect that I could call out their inappropriate behavior, instead of laughing it off, inadvertently reinforcing it.
When men are acting base, it’s belittling to excuse their behavior because they “don’t know any better.” Perhaps they truly do not, but I’m going to give them a little more credit than that and assume they do. I’m not talking about older men calling me pet names like “sweetheart” and “darling” and “sugar” (sure, this is grating, and I would prefer men call me by name, but I think the majority of the time this habit comes from a place of paternal kindness and good intention).
I’m talking about men who honk and holler at me from their cars when I’m walking down the street to the MARTA station, the two men who yelled “sixty nine” at me from across the street and then made vulgar gestures when I made the mistake of glancing in their direction, the drunk man stumbling through the train car who, after I motioned for him to step off of the train before me, turned around and said, “You want to rape me, baby? I’ll let you.”
This last incident made me angry at first but in the end I could only pity him; he was pretty abject, loudly babbling nonsense, grocery bags stuffed with dirty clothes hanging from his elbows. He had the dewy eyes of a toddler, the fetid breath of a drunk. After he said he would let me rape him (a paradoxical proposition when you think about it), I briskly walked off toward the escalator. When I felt I was a safe distance away, I turned around to see where he had gone. He was grunting and gyrating against one of the train car windows. I could make out a woman seated beyond the window, turning away, repulsed.
Like I noted earlier, I do not know how to make sense of the world sometimes.
The other day I was waiting at the train station when a woman wearing a sleeveless black dress strode by. She was tall and svelte, self-assured, popping bubble gum with an air of insouciance, her long fingernails swaying by her sides as she walked, like beach grass in a breeze. There was an aura of enchantment surrounding her; I could sense everyone’s gaze turning toward her, like the tide toward the moon. Right as she sat down on the bench across from me, the older woman sitting beside me cocked her head towards her and said, spitefully, “That’s how women get raped.”
A lesson learned:
Don’t be beautiful. When you get hurt, it will be your fault. No one will listen to you cry.
One day I chose to wear a pair of boots that I had purchased for 50 cents from a thrift store to work. This happened to be the same day I had made a passing complaint about catcalling. A man told me, “Well, of course men are going to holler at you when you are wearing those boots.” These boots are made of flaking faux leather and my big toe pokes out of a hole in one of them. Their price tag was fitting.
A lesson learned:
Don’t gripe about unsavory advances from unfamiliar men. People will sniff out where the fault lies. In you. Always, somehow, in you.
I’m writing this because none of it makes any sense to me. Again, please excuse me as I slap all these puzzles down on the page without making it pretty for you. I ‘m at a loss.
I’ll leave you with this:
I love late spring and early summer. As I walk around my neighborhood, each breath I take is delicious, infused with star jasmine and roses and honeysuckles. I never feel as beautiful as I do at this time of the year, with rakish tangles swishing down my back, my cheeks pink and freckled like azalea petals.
Under the sunshine, I stand taller, I’m more confident. I celebrate myself.
I think over the course of the year, I have learned to stand tall whether it is sunny outside or not. I’ve become better at being assertive and standing up for myself. Despite all the challenges, all the frustration, all the weariness of moving through a world in which people relentlessly objectify women and police how they dress and act, I’m grateful, at least, that I am now able to say, “That’s not okay. Treat me with respect.”