The second day in Harlem I was walking casually down 1-2-5 to the 4,5,6 train. It was a hot August day, so I was wearing a festive little dress (which, like most things I own, was quite modest.) A guy walking opposite of me mumbled "Oh, mami. Sexy" and grabbed my ass. In Rolla, KC, or Arkansas nothing like this would be commonplace. I had an incident with a creepy old man in Little Rock, but for the most part I have rarely been treated so crudely. I remember thinking "Oh, great. This is what it's going to be like. all. the. time." Luckily this wasn't quite the case, but life was still extremely different.
Before making the move people often warned me. They would say things like "Be careful on the streets there, girl." Or "Don't venture over to Spanish Harlem too often. The men will eat you alive there." I listened to their advice, but can't say I quite understood it at the time. Now I know.
Walking down Lenox or 1-2-5 (or 125th street to outsiders, *ahem*) it's common to hear at least a few catcalls: "Hey snow white!" "Oh, God bless you white girl." "Hey, you like coffee?!? I like coffee? You know what else I like? Milk! You know, a little bit of milk, a little bit of coffee... they go good together."
It's weird. I've talked to girls that have lived here their entire lives, and they haven't encountered the things I have. One of the boys that grew up here said "Girl, it's just because you're white. They see a pretty African girl or a Dominican and know not to mess with them. You, you're fresh meat." I knew I would be an outsider in one way, but not in this one.
For the most part, the cat calls don't bother me. In fact, I often write down the best ones to send to friends back home. Sometimes I would try to think of witty comebacks but mostly I ignore them while walking to work. That was until this past week.
I was coming home last Friday from my mates' house in Crown Heights. It wasn't too late- around 1 or so, and the streets were full of night owls and tourists. I was lugging a vacuum home to prepare for my upcoming move, and decided to stop into the local bodega for a sandwich. I had to work early the next morning,and thought that grabbing a sandwich for lunch the next day would be a good idea. Unfortunately, it was a poor, poor decision.
I've mentioned my favorite bodega before, the one on 130th and Lenox. The guys are usually friendly and oh-so-sweet; I know them by name. I've seen them pal around with other customers, so I thought this was a normal thing. This night was a bit different, though. It's a family business, and the older brother David was working. His younger brother usually works nights, but tonight he was simply in the store stopping by to say hello. After getting my sandwich, the usual, I headed out the door. I didn't head out alone, though.
The younger brother left, following me home. He tried to take the vacuum from me, rationalizing that I wasn't strong enough to carry it home. (The bodega is half a block from my house; I had carried this thing from Brooklyn.) I tried to rationalize him following me home, thinking "Well, I know he lives around here. It's late. He's headed home, too." But then he stopped at my gate. He took the vacuum from me as I opened my gate. I tried to take it from him, saying "Okay, well, I'll see you around. I need to head to bed." At this point he asked if he could come upstairs. "Please, just for twenty minutes." I told him no, that I had to go to bed as I had to be at work early the next morning. "Oh, please, just for twenty minutes." I kept on protesting. Then his story changed. "I have to work tomorrow morning, too. I'll wake up at 7 and be out of your hair." "I need to sleep, though. If somebody is in my room I won't sleep." "You're not married, and I have nobody else, I swear. When you come into my store, I love you. Oh please, just let me come up." I said no, again. At this point I wasn't sure what I should do. My phone had died before my evening had even started,and I was on an eerily-empty side street. I knew that I didn't want this man in my building, and that he wasn't going to leave. I then started heading up to my porch, thinking that would fend him off. "Okay, I'll go this way, and you'll go that way" I said, pointing to the street. He didn't relent, though. He followed me on to the porch, getting closer. Finally I thought he was going to leave, and he tried to hug me goodbye. For a split second I thought "Oh, a hug. Okay." but knew better. I backed off, while he attack-kissed me. I turned my face, but he kissed my head and face several times. He tried to kiss me at least three other times saying "Oh, just a hug. Why not?" This was never the case, though.
Finally fed up and terrified, I decided to head inside. I was in the mudroom (a part where you don't need a key to enter my building) and went to unlock the main door. At this point he grabbed my butt, and slid his hand up my dress. I physically pushed him away, barging into my door and slamming it behind me. At this point, I had made myself perfectly clear that I did not want this man in my presence. He apparently didn't get the point, though: he slammed his foot in the door, making it so I couldn't shut it. I knew both of the downstairs neighbors were at work this late, and knew that nobody was around to hear me yell. So I leaned myself up again the door, using all of my force to shut it. He pawed at the glass, begging me "Oh, just twenty minutes, please. Eventually his strength wavered and I managed to shut the door. I stormed up the stairs (or rather, ran like a klutz) and unlocked my room. I threw myself inside, locking the door in a great fury behind me.
This whole event left me upset and a little unsure. I began to question WHY this guy had followed me home. I wasn't drunk. I wasn't dressed provocatively. I actually went through a bit of an identity crisis. I usually identify myself as a feminist, but this event left me thinking otherwise. Instead of blaming the guy, I tried to figure out what I did wrong. I thought about calling the police. I mean, this guy had been nice. Surely I did something wrong. He didn't REALLY do anything, so I couldn't really have a case, either. I decided to lay in bed sleepless, and forget the whole thing.
Harlem didn't let me off that easily, though. Rounding the corner onto Lenox (Once again, just half a block down) I was confronted by two large males. Walking on either side of me, they said "Damn, girl, you sexy." I was already upset, so this was too much. They each actually had the balls to take one of their hands and run them along my inner thigh, from my knee up. When I kept trudging down the street, ignoring them they turned around and yelled "Ugly bitch, turn around! I dare you to!" This was all at 8 in the morning, too.
Arriving at work, I needed to tell somebody. I told my manager, Rich, and he offered some advice. Later in the day two police officers stopped by, and he felt like he should talk to them about the incident. I was pulled into the office to talk to the officers, and told them the entire thing. At this point they asked "Well, what do you want to do?" I wasn't sure, though. Could I really put a guy in jail? That's a hard thing to do, being responsible for putting somebody behind bars. I asked the officers for their advice, what they would do. The female cop said "Well, I would have punched him before any of this. But, he touched you. That's sexual assault." The male officer said "I have a daughter, and I think we should lock this bastard up." I rationalized this with "But I move in a week" They said "That's an entire week he has to find you, though. And what if he doesn't stop at you?" So with that, I said, sure. Find him. And they did.
I must say that since this event I've changed my attitude completely. I used to feel comfortable walking from the train station at night, but now I'll hail a cab after 11 for those 6 blocks. I don't talk to people on the street, not even offering a smile. I even changed up my walking route: After seeing his face once again in the store window on Lenox, I began going out of my way on the walk to work. I didn't want to see him, or risk him seeing me.
The thing about being a Midwesterner is that I am automatically more friendly than the average American. My time in Arkansas, and my sunny disposition has added to this, making me a plain friendly gal. Usually my smile and upbeat personality are an advantage, but it seems here they are a hindrance. It stinks that I could treat an elderly lady and a middle-aged man the same way, but it will be perceived as flirting or sexual with the male. I know I am not to blame in any way for this, but for some reason I keep on just going back to myself, finding a fault that could have caused this behavior. My mother said it's just a woman thing, that guilt is built into my genes. I know this to be true, that I just naturally tend to feel guilty. This doesn't make it any more right, though.
Despite all of this, I still love Harlem. After this incident my entire community rallied alongside me, helping me with anything I needed. I must say that the move to Bushwick couldn't have come at a better time. I'll miss the historic streets of Harlem, the ones that Langston walked down so long ago. Yet I'm excited for the adventure ahead, and to live in a neighborhood that has more organic food, more coffee shops, and far less cat calls.