I spent a good part of last Thursday night at a quiet bar with a male friend. The bar was small and intimate – the kind of place you go to talk with friends or coworkers and you don’t have to shout to be heard. There were pockets of groups and couples chatting and enjoying a relaxed evening after work.
As we were preparing to head out, my friend went to the restroom. I propped my backpack on his now empty stool to check the time on my phone and as I looked up, a well-dressed man in his mid to late thirties had approached me, standing opposite the stool. I assumed he wanted to take our two coveted bar seats and was about to tell him that yes, we were leaving and yes he could sit here.
Instead, he put both hands on my shoulders and leaned in toward my ear as if he was going to whisper something. He didn’t and slowly, he backed away.
Are you from Pakistan? He asked.
Are you Pakistani?
Oh. Uhm. No.
Oh really? Are you sure? Where are you from?
Oh, haa. Well what’s your ethnicity?
Oh I’m… he trailed off into something about his religion or ethnicity. My eyes darted to the bathroom door. He realized I was quickly losing the nonexistent interest I had in him and he again touched my arm and hit me with the best (?) worst (?) pickup line I’ve ever heard:
You are the sweetest and nerdy-est girl I’ve ever seen.
He shook his head enthusiastically and then turned back to the bar to order us shots. Shots.
Oh, we’re leaving. Like now.
My friend rounded the corner and I slid into my backpack, behind him, and away toward the door. My friend’s eyes darted between me and the strange man. We said our goodbyes to the bartender (a friend of my friend) and I snuck out without another glance.
As I sped out of the bar toward 1st avenue, I did an over exaggerated shudder.
Ugh, why do people have to be like that!?
Rushing to keep up, my friend asked what happened. I explained the story, latching onto his shoulders to demonstrate the unwelcome touch.
Wait he touched you?
Yes! I said, the exasperation building in my voice. There’s a right way and a wrong way to approach a girl at a bar. That was the wrong way!
Then we came to the eternal breaking point. Why hadn’t I stood up for myself quicker? Why hadn’t I told him to not touch me and to back off? Why hadn’t I walked away the second he got too close?
Why had he been creepy in the first place?
We walked in silence for a few blocks and later, on my train ride home, I’d carry this story in delicate hands.
What kind of compliment is “sweetest and nerdy-est” anyway? Is it the glasses and the work appropriate sun dress combo? I knew it.
One night, my female roommate and I were discussing ways to shoot down cat callers on the streets. We talked about how we can always think about the perfect thing to say or do after the fact, but in the moment we freeze up. I was thinking a lot about the questions and thoughts my friend and I bounced off each other as we bustled toward the L train.
Absolutely 100% he, as a stranger to me, should not have snuck up on me - as I stood with my head buried in my bag - and earnestly put his hands on my shoulders as though we were old friends. That said, I am not at all going to feel guilty at my inaction. I just need to work through and understand it.
Here I was, in a place I spent a majority of the evening with my friend, visiting and sharing stories about life and otherwise. It was a happy evening. It wasn’t a “take someone home” or “let’s get trashed” or “dance the night away” bar – at least not on that Thursday.
I was completely comfortable and at ease. I knew I could have politely, yet firmly, told him to stop touching me and go away. I could have told him I was with a friend or that I was not interested. I could have said we were leaving or not even engaged in the conversation. But I couldn’t. My entire life as a woman, I’ve been taught to be polite – especially to men, especially to people older than me. My entire life I’ve been told to be the bigger person and give everyone a chance and smile and not cause a scene. My entire life, I’ve set my feelings aside so as not to make someone else feel uncomfortable. But what if I’m uncomfortable?
It’s almost ingrained into my brain at this point. I can hype myself up all I want with witty comebacks, stern disapproval, or dignified walking away but in the moment I freeze. I revert to what I know. Be kind but slightly guarded.
There was a group of older men that used to hang outside the laundry mat by my old apartment. Every time I’d do laundry, they’d yell and gesture and be wildly inappropriate. I was talking to a friend about it. I told her it was frustrating that even though I knew I was safe and in a fine situation, I couldn’t stand up for myself. I knew nothing would happen if I stopped and said, “I really don’t appreciate you yelling at me every time I need to wash my sheets.” but I still let myself be frozen in words I could never vocalize.
That’s when my friend shared a profound idea with me. You’re stuck between a place of being fiery and independent and not wanting to take crap from anybody and a place of self-preservation. While you might know its broad daylight on a heavily trafficked avenue, you don’t want to say anything because there’s a small part of you that is afraid of what would happen if you did. And we’re all like that in some ways. We want to tell off the cat caller but what if that makes him more aggressive? So we sacrifice little bits of our self in order to preserve the whole.
I thought back to my bar scene. I knew I was safe. I knew my friend and I would walk to the train together. I knew this guy was harmless – unless awful pickup lines are a crime. But I reverted to the other thing I knew. Don’t cause a scene. I froze up. I am a perpetual poster child for manners.
There’s no resolution to this post. No big conclusion or life changing understanding. I just wanted to put it out there for everyone who had ever beat themselves up for not acting sooner or reacting in what they think is the “right” manner. It’s okay. You’re okay.