Tag Archives: safety

When is it safe to be outspoken?

16 Jul


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.


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.

My Feelings on Street Harassment

26 Apr

My feelings, as you may have already presumed, are not good.  A few weeks ago, my friend Creating Carrie posted about an incident of street harassment she experienced while on her bike.  In the end of the post, she asked her readers to respond to a number of questions which were posed to the victims, the by-standers, and the perpetrators of harassment.  I had been planning on responding to this post since she wrote it but just hadn’t felt compelled.  Until right now.

I have, earlier in my thus far short blogging life, posted about two different experiences I have had with different types of street harassment.  One was verbal, one physical; one I took action that resulted in punishment for the perpetrators, one I still fantasize about what I could have done differently.  (I will not share with you some of the more violent fantasies.)  Each situation is different, the levels of safety are different, the time of day.  Is the harasser in a car, on a bike, walking down the street?  Is he alone or with buddies?  My immediate feeling, despite the scenario, is always the same.  Anger.  Intense, intense anger.  Sometimes people tell me that I should just ignore it but, honestly, I find that those people are usually men.  They don’t understand.  One night, walking home from a bar that my boyfriend at the time owned and worked at, (if you’re wondering what time of day it was, what I was wearing, and whether I had been drinking then I have nothing to say to you) I heard behind me, on the sidewalk, the crunching of bike tires.  Even though I think it is rude to ride a bike on the sidewalk, going the wrong way no less, I decided to just swallow my words, move aside, and let the biker pass.  I was a few yards away from home and it seemed silly to start something right then.  And then, it happened.  The bicycle rider, who turned out to be a food delivery boy (I use “boy” not in any derogative way but because this person was, or at least appeared to be, a kid) grabbed my ass and rode off.  I was livid.  I yelled, of course, but bikes are faster than legs and I knew there was nothing I could do but stand there and seethe and feel completely violated.  I walked into my building and the tears came immediately.  Not because I was afraid but because I felt so dehumanized, so disempowered, so enraged.  Ignore it?  How?  I tell people this story and sometimes they laugh.  I wonder what the hell they think is so damn funny.

When was the last time I was harassed on the street, you might ask?  About 20 minutes ago.  Here’s how it happened.  I decided today would be the day I would start doing some of the things I have been putting off.  I used power tools and I hung up a mirror.  I felt powerful!  Self-sufficient!  I said to myself, “self, today you are going to hang up that pendant lamp that has been sitting in a bag, swaddled in bubble wrap, waiting to be mounted on the wall or broken by marauding kitties.”  I got my things together and walked to the nearby Home Depot.  I looked everywhere (and failed to find) the item that I needed but in the process I passed a middle-aged man who said, in a whisper in my ear right as he passed me, “hello.”  Honestly, unless you have experienced this you can never really understand how creepy that is.  To have some dude pass you so close that you can feel his breath as he whispers something at you is one of the most unnerving things.  It is a complete violation of space.  I ignored him and kept walking.  And then I heard an automated voice behind me so I turned around to see the source and, unfortunately, he turned around at the same time.  It was like that scene out of countless movies when two people pass, find each other attractive, and then catch each other looking back over their shoulders and that’s the beginning of the story of love.  Only I wasn’t looking at him, he was looking at me, and I found him repulsive.  I knew I had made a grave error.  I decided to wander around the Home Depot a while longer, weaving around the store, making sure that this man who probably thought he got some invite to conversation, or who knows what, wouldn’t see me purchasing the box of 100 garbage bags I had settled on.  I left the store.  I was still walking down the driveway, a mere 100 yards from the entrance of the store, when I caught something out of the corner of my eye.  It was the man, in his car, keeping pace with me and staring.  It seemed more than just a coincidence that we left at roughly the same time.

“Hey sweetheart, you need a ride?”

Sweetheart?  Really? “I’m fine.”

“Where are you going?  You look awfully nice.  I bet I could get you there faster.”

All I could do was look straight ahead and say “get away from me” as calmly as possible.  Luckily, he listened to my stern request and said nothing.  The entirety of my three-block walk home I was looking over my shoulder, worried that he had parked in front of one of the semis lining the street I was walking up, waiting to try his luck again.  Thankfully, he didn’t but the point is that he could have.  The point is that he, like the other men who have harassed me, made me feel unsafe.  It feels especially invasive when it happens so close to home.  As Creating Carrie so wonderfully put it,

A harasser’s desire to harass cannot be allowed because of some mythical safety. Guess what? Harassment destroys my safety. Physical violence is not the only way to make a neighborhood unsafe.

Is the Home Depot now on the list of places that a woman shouldn’t go alone?  Oh, there are so many men there, so much testosterone-inspiring power tools that a woman is just asking for it.  Fuck that.  Me looking over my shoulder in response to an unexpected sound is not an invitation.  I was born with breasts (not literally, but you know), and a vagina, and all the other things that come along with being female but that doesn’t make me any less human.  So don’t tell me to ignore it.  Don’t tell me I am only making it worse.  Next time you see a girl and want to say something, just don’t.  And the next time your friend or girlfriend tells you a story of harassment, don’t laugh it off or suggest she do something different, just listen.  Otherwise, next time I am harassed in Home Depot I might heed my friend Cherie’s advice and grab the nearest nail gun, axe, 2×4….because, despite what people may think, we know how to use these things.