Three months ago, I was walking from my friend’s apartment to what would become my apartment to pick up keys for the 2 bedroom I had just signed a lease on. I was new in the neighborhood but my friend, who lives less than a half mile away, had graciously agreed to let me stay at their place for a week while I waited for everything to be finalized. It was on this short walk in this new place that I passed a middle aged, white man in the crosswalk.
I was talking on the phone with a former New York City roommate, but I could tell through my peripherals that he was headed my way. So I walked as intentionally far from him as I could without stepping into the street. After all, it was just us in the crosswalk. That’s when he beelined toward me, roughly grabbed my shoulder, shoved me, and then kept walking.
I turned around in shock and, perhaps being a bit bolstered by my on-the-phone-friend in my earbuds, I looked at him and said, “Sir, that was really unnecessary. You didn’t have to do that.”
He spun back around with pure rage and shouted, “Yeah? Well, what the f*** are you going to do about it?!”
March, evening, cold. I scanned my surroundings, looking for an ally and finding none. “All I’m saying is please do not do that again.” I held my ground firmly. “F*** you!” he started to yell. And with that, I turned and walked to my new apartment, a block away.
I’ve been thinking about that moment since it happened. At the time, it was all I could do to retrieve my new keys and get back to my friend’s empty apartment. With the door double locked behind me, I slid to the floor and cried. I sobbed until my body felt wracked by the shallow breaths and blurry vision. Then, I called my partner and cried some more.
I cried for all the people who have been violated in passing moments and in lifetime abuse. I cried for all the people who have felt defenseless and powerless in the face of someone physically stronger. I cried knowing that the answer to his question, the question that would haunt me for months, was nothing.
If I want to get home safely? I’m going to do nothing.
And perhaps there is a dignity in nothing. A strength in being able to say “I will not let your words and actions impact me. I will not allow you to steal my sense of security and wellbeing. I will not stop taking up space in a world where people who look like you discourage it.”
Ah, but perhaps I did do something. You see in that moment of engagement that every fiber of myself knew was perhaps the wrong decision, in that moment where he spun and screamed and challenged me with “what the f*** are you going to do about it,” I did something.
I moved into the neighborhood and made a friend downstairs. I explored the best places to go running and the best places to take out of town guests for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I fought through the anxiety that that encounter caused. And I built a home that I love.
So, dear neighbor, while your intention that day was to make me feel small… to remind me that I was powerless… to challenge a hierarchy of status in which you are able to take what isn’t yours and stain it with your careless actions, I have to tell you you were unsuccessful.
I truly hope you find the help that you need. And in the meantime, I will be over here… doing something for myself.