We’re coming upon an interesting, exciting time in the Bronx–summer. It’s fun wherever you go, but in the lower-income, multi-problem areas known colloquially as “the ghetto,” it’s time to wild out.
The warm weather does something to people. Especially after a long, harsh winter like the one we just had. Talking about it, I start to sound like a pioneer wife who neglected the canning the previous autumn. Once the temperatures heat up, people are outside more, drinking on stoops, playing basketball in the street, wearing less clothing.
All in all, it’s a fun time. But there’s one thing that brings me down.
For people who don’t deal with it in their day to day lives, it tends to sound kind of funny. People say ridiculous things to you, in some lame attempt at a hook up, or any reaction, really. For those of us who do deal with it all the time, it’s decidedly less amusing.
I don’t flatter myself into thinking that this is because I’m so distractingly hot. (I mean, I am, but I don’t think that’s the main factor at play here.) I’m very often the only white person on the street. I stand out. I’m also usually dressed (somewhat) professionally. People assume I’m a social worker, teacher, something like that. I’m young, and I look even younger. There are also a lot of unemployed guys in the neighborhood where I work, who have nothing better to do than stand outside and annoy passing women.
The combined factors of my race, age, and perceived profession seems to make people think I’ll be easily intimidated.
Take a moment to guffaw at that one.
Part of my job is being out in the community. I am always walking to people’s homes, or going to see kids at schools. Being familiar with the community, and being a part of it, is an important part of social work.
So I get lots of comments. They’re often some variation on “lookin’ beautiful, mami,” “hey, white girl,” “baby, you can’t stop and talk to me?”
If I may quote the great Ms. Jackson, my name ain’t baby. I do not know you sir. I have my headphones on, I’m walking with a purpose and clearly on my way somewhere. There is no way that you have misinterpreted my body language to mean, “I’m walking the streets of the Bronx, looking for a date or perhaps a random sexual encounter. I hope a strange man on the sidewalk will approach me with a backhanded compliment!”
Men have a difficult time understanding why women feel offended or afraid of this kind of behavior. “If I couldn’t walk down the street without someone telling me how good I look, I’d take it as a compliment!”
I’m sorry, but someone leaning into my space and saying, “Hey snowflake, you look sexy, you lost?” is not a compliment. It’s an attempt at intimidation, and at making me feel out of place. It’s a way of a man asserting his superiority through sexual aggression.
I mean, that’s how I take it.
There’s no consensus on the best way to respond. Some friends and I were discussing this recently. They said that sometimes they felt that just saying hello made people leave them alone.
My feeling is, you can’t win. If you ignore the guy, you’re a bitch, and he’ll let you know. Often, in one of the great mysteries of the universe, you’ll be called a slut for not dropping everything to blow this stranger in public. If you say hello, that’s rarely satisfactory. Then we need to have a conversation. This guy will feel at liberty to follow me. When I walk away, again, I’m a bitch.
You might not believe this, but sometimes I think a snarky response is in order.
Recently, I was doing a home visit and had to walk through a crowd of young men standing in front of the building. I had my headphones on, as always, and said “excuse me.” They let me pass, but one asshole always has to ruin it. He leaned over, asking where I was going, why wouldn’t I stop to talk to him, all that nonsense. I just walked by and ignored him.
Of course, guys like this tend not to have a ton of social engagements to attend to, so he was still there when I walked out. He tried saying hello to me again, and ignored my polite attempts at letting him know I was not available for conversation. I was putting my headphones on, and he asked, “What kind of music you listening to, snowflake?”
He had nothing to say when I replied, “Lesbian folk rock.”
What an idiot. I was actually listening to mind altering indie.
Did my sarcastic retort change this man? I’m sure not. But it shut him up for a minute. I don’t like the idea that I should play nice with someone who makes me uncomfortable, because that’s the best way to stay safe. I’m not generally in the mood to smile demurely and say “thank you” when strangers comment on my physical appearance. Whatever gets you through these kinds of encounters, and makes you feel better, I say go for it.
I don’t owe anyone anything, not even a hello, just because I’m walking down the street. This is my neighborhood too. If I feel like talking to someone, I’ll let them know. By talking to them. Guys can talk about how they think they’re just being nice, but I’m quite sure that they know exactly what they’re doing.
So if you need a witty, mildly obnoxious comeback, you know where to find me.