Image: Flickr / chriscardinal
Yesterday I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some yogurt to go with dinner. On my way in, a store employee lingering outside smiled at me. I smiled and nodded and walked in. On my way out, I vaguely heard someone else calling to me, “Hey baby! Baby!” Quietly, then louder and more insistent.
I hurried through the parking lot, trying to ignore the person cat-calling me. The store employee who had smiled at me earlier then started calling to me from 30 feet away as I headed to my car. “Hey miss lady! Alright now!” I glanced at him, and it was clear he didn’t want anything but my attention.
Annoyed, I got into my car where my dog was waiting. As I was exited the parking lot, another man flagged me down, pointing to my headlights. Thinking something was wrong, I slowed to a stop. He smiled and said, “I like your dog.”
Him: “Are you single?”
Him: “Are you really not single?”
Me: “On my way to my man’s house right now.” [True fact: The easiest way to get a strange man to leave you alone is to tell him that you're someone else's property. Equally true fact: It doesn't always work.]
Him: “Do you want to make a friend?”
Me: [Blank stare, preparing to pull off]
Him: “Well, do you need some CDs, DVDs…?”
I drove away.
As harassment goes, it certainly wasn’t the worst I’ve experienced. Neither of these men made remarks about my body or called me a bitch because I wasn’t receptive. Neither of them blocked my path. (All of these things have happened to me. All of these things have probably happened to all of the women you know.) It was just a deluge of unwanted attention. I joked about it — the bootleg DVD offer was funny — to my boyfriend when I got to his house. But I was joking because it was so infuriating. And I knew that if I were at the store with him, it wouldn’t have happened. Being a woman alone in public means I can’t even buy a tub of yogurt without fielding unwanted advances.
I left that grocery store never wanting to go back. I’ll avoid it if I’m by myself. Here’s the thing street harassment apologists don’t seem to understand when they say “don’t get offended just because a man says hello to you.” It’s just plain stressful being approached by multiple male strangers — especially when I don’t know how they’ll react to my disinterest. I’ve been yelled at, I’ve been cursed out, and physically intimidated. I’ve also been wished a blessed day. But the unpredictability is what makes it so upsetting. Even as I make the choice to avoid certain places, I hate it, because it’s just another example of the ways street harassment limits women’s access to public spaces.
Of course, I don’t have a choice much of the time. Standing at the bus stop on Rhode Island Avenue on fine mornings means being called to by all kinds of men who are sitting, bored, in their cars on their way to work. There are different methods of dealing. There’s snapping back, there’s being silent, and there’s being polite and dismissive. Still, the result of each tactic depends solely on the guy and whether he’s willing to leave me alone; it has little do with whether I desire to be left alone.
It seems there’s only one thing to do when warm weather arrives and, as my friend Dayo puts it, “hollerin’ season” has arrived: Put my game face on.