When is it safe to be outspoken?

16 Jul

I.

This past weekend I had one of those experiences that goes into the negative column of my pluses and minuses analysis of being a bartender in New York City.  It was my second night working until 4am in a row and, if you know me, you know I am not at my best on little sleep.  Around 9:30pm, about 1.5 hours into my 8 hour shift, these two guys walk in.  One of them orders a vodka soda, the other an orange juice.  I serve them and go about my business.  Every time I look over, the one with the alcoholic beverage is looking at me expectantly, despite the fact that his drink is almost full.  I walk over to see what he wants (a glass of water, perhaps?) and he looks me up and down and says, in a thick Russian accent while simultaneously miming squeezing someone’s ass cheeks,

Those shorts look nice but they could be tighter.

Cue Rebekah’s Blind Rage.  I do a few quick deep-breathing exercises, turn to the asshole sitting across the bar from me and say

Yea, this isn’t going to go like that.  Mind your manners or leave.

I continue doing my job, hoping that the many shades of anger have drained from my cheeks.  Whenever I look up, however, the man is still staring and I vaguely hear him asking me questions.  Do I work out?  What’s my name?  Where do I hang out?  Okay, that is it. I grab the man’s credit card from where I had placed it behind me, run it through the machine, and slap his card and receipt down in front of him.  He gently takes it, signs it, and pushes it back towards me.  Good, I think, he got it.  But that would be too easy.

Can I get another drink?

No.  There are plenty of other bars around here that you can go to but, just a word to the wise… keep your opinions about your bartender’s wardrobe to yourself if you want to be welcome anywhere for more than 5 minutes.

And then the fun really begins.  He stares across the bar at me with this awful little smirk on his face, arms folded in front of him while his friend looks on with knowing silence.  Clearly this wasn’t his first rodeo.  I stand there, staring back, blood pressure rising.  I tell him to leave, he seems to think his comment was completely acceptable.  I get more and more annoyed.  He isn’t going anywhere and I’ve decided neither am I.  I am fully aware that as long as I am standing in front of him, he is going to try and stay in control of the situation but I just can’t allow it to happen.  I have to prove a point, even though I know the point will be completely drowned in his misogyny.  He tells me I am harassing him.  Clearly he needs a dictionary.  Finally, I’ve had it and I say, calmly with my arm pointing towards the exit,

Get the fuck out of my bar.

And, all hell breaks loose.

What did you say to me?  You wouldn’t say that to me on the street, bitch!

I absolutely would, actually.

You whore!  I will kill you!  When I see you out of here I will fucking kill you!  I will knock you down and spill your blood on the street!*

At this point, standing up to achieve the highest possible level of intimidation and still yelling his head off, his accent getting thicker with each spat threat, he reaches a pointed finger across the bar and, unintentionally I think, pokes me violently in the bottom lip.  His face registers just the tiniest bit of shock and he turns on his heel and walks out of the bar, friend silently following behind.  My anger goes through the roof.  I storm down the length of the bar, and out the front door, screaming at him as he retreats down the street.  Some friends and regulars of the bar, looking an even mixture of confused and concerned, pursue the man down the street and I retreat to the office to catch my breath, leaving the fate of the bar to my bar back who was of relatively little help during the whole altercation.  My boss and I check the business name on the card, a garbage and carting business.  Great.  As usual I get into it with the wrong guy.

*This is not a word-for-word quotation but I’m pretty sure I got all the key phrases down.

II.

There was, of course, the inevitable moment when I retraced the build-up to the blow-out, thought about all the things I did and what I could have done differently.  Did I overreact?  Should I have just ignored him?  Could the whole thing have been completely avoided?  Could I have calmed this man down rather than riling him up?  The list of questions amassed, relating to ways that I, the victim of sexism, verbal abuse and assault had actually been the instigator.  How classic.  This then led me, the next day, to a downward-thought spiral about what it means to be female.  It means that, to many, my body is public property there to be ogled, critiqued and touched.  It means I have to think about when it is safe for me to stand up for myself and when it is best to put my head down and walk faster.  It means that, as much as I disagree with this, I feel compelled to contemplate my outfit before I leave the house lest it lead to additional attention that I don’t want, am not looking for, did not ask for.  I know that me calling this man out on his behavior was not the most productive use of my time, anger, righteousness, but behind the bar, for the most part, I am safe and, for once, powerful.  I have something that he wants and cannot just take.

On the other side, though, his over-sized reaction got me thinking about issues of power, powerlessness and safety.  I know what my capacity for violence and reaction is.  I can assume where that line lies for most of the people I come across but there are some, mostly male, oftentimes white, who have never had their privilege questioned by someone they see as lesser than they whose actions I cannot predict.  It was at that moment when I realized I was not safe.  As a woman, I am not safe.  The power dynamic between genders that flourishes, oftentimes unchallenged, in everyday life is one that puts me at an express disadvantage.  I am worth less, I have less ownership of my body and because of these things it is my responsibility to pick my battles wisely because, in asserting my own equality, in demanding respect, my body can easily become the battleground and that is a battle that, sadly, I would lose.

I do not regret what I did and, if placed in the same situation tomorrow, I would handle it the same way.  But I will take the experience as a teaching moment in which I got a glimpse into the depth of violent anger possessed by, and uncontrolled by, someone else.  It’s a scary thing to face.  I was (relatively) safe where I stood and I had plenty of people there to back me up.  But if I came up against that guy on the street, alone, and hurled my favorite choice words in response to his degrading comments, I might not have been so lucky.  It’s an unfortunate reality.  What we as women face is not only violent language, it’s violent actions and in the latter case we are largely disadvantaged, we will oftentimes lose.  It’s something to keep in mind.  For me, for all of us.

9 Responses to “When is it safe to be outspoken?”

  1. Liz lord July 16, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

    Argh. I hate that guy!

    • FranklyRebekah July 16, 2012 at 6:07 pm #

      Yea me too. But I’m gonna try and find the good this time 🙂

  2. creatingcarrie July 16, 2012 at 6:21 pm #

    Apparently there is a serial gooser on a bike here. I’ve now decided to mentally prepare myself before I leave my house to be ready to punch that asshole (or any other) and knock him off of his fucking bike, pin him down, and punch/knee him in the nuts until the police arrive (hopefully for him). I do not want to have to do this mental exercise every day, but now I feel like I have to.

    Also, I hate that guy!

    • FranklyRebekah July 16, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

      I have to say that I don’t think something as serious as drive-by ass grabbing should by called by a name as silly as “gooser.” I think we should rename it. A biking ASSailant? The harASSer? A serial ASSaulter? The possibilities are endless. But seriously, don’t get goosed. And also, the image I have of you knocking him down etc, etc is priceless.

      • sybbys February 21, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

        Rebekah, I’m so sorry that asshole did that to you, and I’m glad you stood up for yourself in a safe way given the circumstances.
        I am also enjoying the mental image of Carrie knocking down the ASSaulter, though I hope it never has to come to pass.

      • FranklyRebekah February 21, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

        Yea, that guy was a total dick. Haven’t seen him since, luckily!

        I also hope it never comes to pass but I am glad that you reminded me of that comment exchange because I just had a good laugh. Again.

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