The Streets Aren’t Safe

My best friend was harassed while waiting at a bus stop today, and I am livid.

Photo Credit: "2011 Our Streets Too March, Washington, DC." Ted Eytan. Our Streets, Too! is a march against street harassment and gender violence taking place in Washington, D.C. "Harass This At Your Peril" Flickr

The streets aren’t safe.

My best friend was harassed while waiting at a bus stop today, and I am livid.

I’m angry that I wasn’t there to protect her, and angry at the senselessness and stupidity and gall of the person who accosted her, and I’m fucking furious that not a single bystander got involved.

I got a call at work today from my friend, struggling to speak, hyperventilating and stuttering like a child who scraped her knee. This smart, confident, fiercely kind woman, reduced to that. By an asshole in his car. She was waiting at a bus stop next to the curb in Trenton New Jersey when a man in a silver car pulled up and opened his passenger side window, yelling. He hollers, “I want to talk to you.” She responds, “No”. She starts to walk away.

Unable to turn his car around, the man drives around the block to pass by again and continue yelling things at her. She calls my husband at work to come get her, as he’s nearest. I have to calm her down as she tells the story because she’s having trouble breathing. As the survivor of abuse and assault, I can tell that she’s staving off a panic attack, in the public library of the college where my husband works, waiting to be taken home to her husband. And I am so fucking angry.

I want to press her for details, I want to figure out exactly what happened, ask how she got away, ask what he looked like, ask exactly what he yelled to her through the window of his car, but I don’t press her. I can’t. I hold my tongue and I gulp down my willful silence as I have so many times in the past. I can’t count on both hands how many victims of sex crimes I know. The details go unasked because it just hurts too fucking much to tear them out. Her pain is his protection, that piece of shit, wherever he may be right now. Maybe enjoying the football game or some takeout food.

I’ll tell you right now, I’m not interested in sounding pretty or sounding nice or thoughtful or balanced. I want to rip this motherfucker’s throat out. I want to physically harm the man who reduced my friend to tears. But he’s not the only one. I want to hurt the motherfucker who introduced her to the concept of panic attacks and sleepless nights. I want to hurt the ones who taught her that the streets aren’t safe. I want to hurt all the ones who taught me that the streets aren’t safe. Not for me. Not for people who look like me. Not for the 5 foot 3, the 120 pounds, the ones with feminine walks or feminine hips or feminine shoes that can’t run away as easily as a man’s.

I want to hurt the very idea that a woman can say clearly and in broad daylight, No, and a man will keep screaming as though nothing could possibly matter more than what he wants at that very moment. And who knows what the fuck he wants. Who knows if he’s just looking for someone to scream at, and any woman will do. Maybe he wants to be angry at someone today. Maybe he’s pissed off because some other woman rejected him or because his boss embarrassed him at work or because the Eagles suck so bad as a football team. (Yes, Philadelphia, I’m pissed at you too for teaching me the streets aren’t safe.)

Maybe if she didn’t have a friend in town or a cell phone or working legs she wouldn’t have been able to get away. Maybe he would’ve gotten out of his car. Maybe grab her, take her somewhere by force, made her the subject of the 6 o’clock news. Maybe the fucking fool just wanted a date and was never taught that you have to talk to women like they’re human. I don’t care. I don’t give a shit what he wanted or what was so important that her fear didn’t matter.

I care that my friend was brought to tears, and adrenaline spikes, and panic attacks, and white knuckles and cold sweat and emergency phone calls and wide eyes and helplessness. I wonder if she clutched her house key between her knuckles as I have done so many times, caught weaponless on the streets of 2016 America, undeniably a woman and therefore open season.

I’m angry at every dumb fuck who’s ever told me “not all men”, who’ve yelled at me, furious at me, furious I would ever talk about guys as though they personally weren’t nice guys. But the nice guys don’t ever seem to be around when you need them, do they? And isn’t that starting to seem fucking typical. Utter something in the woods about how maybe men should stop screaming things that women from cars, and four will pop out from behind the goddamn tree trunks to demand you apologize for implying that they would do such a thing. But when one guy does his best to prove them all wrong by terrorizing a woman on the street in broad daylight, wouldn’t you know there isn’t one of those fuckers to be found.

Somewhere in my guarded, frightened heart, this is starting to seem typical, and starting to feel a lot like a crime. I’m not talking to you if you’re the kind of person who screams at women from cars. I’m beyond words with you. Meet me with my house key in the parking lot and we’ll settle things. I’m talking to the hundred and one who see and do nothing. That’s you too, ladies. That’s me too.

One time, on a train, a man was pushing a woman around. Just a little. They were fighting, and she would start to look away, and he would grab her roughly by the arms, forcibly turning her to look at him. Another man who finds his place in the world by dominating women. A man who thinks that forcing a woman to look at him is the same thing as being worth looking at. I didn’t confront him.

I bore holes in the back of his head with my hatred and anger. I issued silent dares for him to become outright violent. I desperately, desperately tried to make eye contact with the woman to gauge the situation, to say something in the language that only those in open season could understand and find out if she was okay, and find out if I could help. As my heart pounded and my sweat broke out cold and I could taste my heartbeat, I mustered up the words that I was going to say to him–something simple, something direct. Leave Her Alone or Stop Doing That or Is There a Problem Here? Or do I ignore him entirely and reach out to her? Do you need help? Are you okay? Is everything okay?

And just when I came so close to speaking, I stopped, and remembered an old love of mine. The type of guy who would be embarrassed in public and take it out on me in private with days and days of angry silence. And I know how some guys act differently behind their own doors, and I wonder if the type who grabs shoulders is also the type who hits. I wonder if he’s maybe the type who would not like to be called out in public, on a train, by a woman, and would take it out on this woman who must look at him. Or if he’s the type who would follow me off the train. Her pain is his protection.

They got off at their stop, and the moment passed, and I prayed. I prayed, and prayed, and prayed for more courage. Or at least for sharper keys.

Nicole Hallberg is a regular contributor to Raging Chicken Press. 

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