Tonight was the first time in a few years that I have been legitimately frightened.
It started on my walk home from dinner with friends. It’s a walk I take often, on a route I know well, and the route isn’t very well-lit. That’s a problem for much of Roosevelt Avenue, but I did what I’ve done the majority of the time I’ve lived in New York: I puffed up my chest, and held my head up, threw my shoulders back and walked quickly and with purpose, and aside from a few instances of prolonged eye contact or staring, I didn’t notice anything that would cause me to pause.
Near my apartment, there’s an open courtyard. It’s steps away from a major train stop and men gather there in the afternoons and evenings to socialize. It’s used on occasion for celebrations; recently, there was a ceremony and tribute for the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday.
This evening, it looked like any other summer night. Men sat on the curb, and on two concrete blocks that close the street off from the main thoroughfare. I crossed through here, and then walked the intersection toward my house. The street I approached is one that doesn’t have too many lights, and also has some scaffolding built on one of the sidewalks. I noticed in the periphery of my left eye a man who was too close to me.
“Too close” for me can sometimes mean matching my steps in a way I don’t appreciate, walking directly behind me, or standing with aggressive body language within inches of my person (on the train, for instance). Something about this man didn’t feel right, so I cut across the street between cars — and I was right, because he followed me. So I turned around. “Stop following me!” I yelled, looking him in the eye.
“You don’t wanna talk to me?”
My mouth couldn’t form the words to say, “It’s 10:30 at night, I’m not trying to meet people, I’m trying to go home!” Instead, I said, “No,” and turned around. I didn’t want to lead him to my apartment, so instead walked down the well-lit main thoroughfare, taking care to keep an eye on my peripheral vision and turn to check the reflection in the store windows as I walked, to gauge his distance, and whether he’d given up yet.
No dice. Phone in hand (it’s always in hand), I dialed Monique’s number. All those years of texting and walking, keeping a good note on the proximity of myself to others, was coming in handy. He saw me dial, and I heard him say, “Oh, what? You’re gonna call the cops?”
I didn’t want to look down, afraid that if I did, he’d capitalize. He’d run up from behind, or grab me, or try and pull me out of the light and into a shadowy nook. Thankfully, most of that street is brightly-lit, even at 10 pm, and there wasn’t really anywhere for him to try and sequester me. The street is also fairly busy for that time of night, and there were plenty of people around.
“Hey, are you home?” I asked, keeping my voice as normal and cheery as I could. She confirmed she was, that she just got in. “I’m close. Don’t lock me out.” I wasn’t sure what I could say that would convey my situation. My mind turned to the domestic abuse commercials where people order pizza with an emergency operator in order to covertly get the cops to their house. Instead, I dropped my voice a few octaves and a few decibels. “There’s a dude following me.”
She stayed on the phone with me. “Do you want me to come down to the lobby?”
Approaching the end of the block, where I’d normally turn right to go to my apartment, I spotted a bus stop. I stepped into the light, where an old man sat. The man following me stopped directly behind the plexiglass, in the shadow of a building, right behind me.
“Well, I’m at a bus stop.” As I stood there, I fished in my bag for my keys. Finding them, I zipped my bag, and threaded two keys between my fingers, like Wolverine’s claws, a tactic women employ all the time — hell, I employ any night it’s late and I’m feeling nervous on the way to my building.
“Do you want me to come meet you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want him to know where we live.” I didn’t want two young women to be potentially vulnerable. I didn’t want her to have to walk all the way over in the dark only to have to deal with this schmuck.
“Look, how about this? I need cereal, anyway. I only took off my shoes. I’ll put them back on, and I’ll come downstairs and meet you, and we’ll go to FoodTown.”
A bus pulled up to the stop. The old man who was sitting in the bus shelter got up, and boarded. As soon as the bus pulled away, the man following me walked around the stop and sat down on the bench, feet from where I stood. I turned and walked around the shelter, behind him. Monique had hung up, but I held the phone to my ear and pretended to continue talking, while having spotted, again in my peripheral, the man get up and resume following me.
“I just wanna get to know you.”
As I walked, another man rammed into my shoulder. “Mother! Fucker!” I kept my expletive rather quiet. We live in a somewhat conservative neighborhood, and there were two Muslim men in traditional garb not far from me, and I didn’t want to be egregiously offensive. They turned in my direction, but paid me no mind.
“Do I need to say something? Do I need to get involved?” The man following me had sped up, and seeing the other dude ram into me, decided he now had a purpose.
I turned around. He wasn’t far from the two Muslim men. “I don’t know you!” I shouted. “Stop following me!” The other men didn’t register, and kept walking.
I sped toward the corner, keys in hand. At the corner, he caught up to me. “I just wanna get to know you. You don’t wanna talk?”
I turned around, furious. “If you get any closer to me, I’ll slash your fucking face. I don’t. Know. You. You don’t know me! Stop following me!” A small number of people had joined me at the corner. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed one man take a headphone out of his ear and linger.
“I’m just trying to get to know you.”
“I don’t know you! Go back home, go to wherever you’re going! Leave me alone!”
He knew he had an audience now, and was visibly thrown off his game. “You go back to where you’re going and I’ll go back to where I’m going.”
“Go! Go back to whatever you were doing before you started following me! I don’t know you!”
“You go back.”
This was ridiculous, and wasn’t going anywhere. I turned to the guy who’d taken out his headphone. “Do you need help?” He asked me.
“My roommate’s a block away,” I told him.
“How do you want this to go down?”
I thought for a minute, conflicted. “Would you mind just hanging here, until I get to the other corner?”
“Thank you. I appreciate that.” I practically ran.
“Fuck you, hoe! Ain’t nobody wanna talk to you, hoe! I’ll fuck the shit outta you, hoe!” Creeper yelled after me.
When I hit the next corner and turned for my apartment, I turned my head. Creeper had started making his way down the street toward me.
Monique was walking out of the building at that moment, and she met me, and we crossed the street for the grocery store together, eventually ducking into its comforting lights and peopled atmosphere.
“What’s he look like?” She asked, as we walked through produce.
“About my height, red t-shirt, white lettering, blue jeans, maybe a black backpack.”
We turned into the cereal aisle and I told her the whole story. About bobbing and weaving along the street, about the man who stopped to help me. “I didn’t want to call the cops,” I told her, “Because I didn’t trust them not to roll up and start shooting.”
“Was he hispanic, white…”
“Black,” I said. She texted her boyfriend as we deliberated cereals. He changed clothes and set out to meet us in the grocery store, steps from our house, at least a quarter mile from his own.
“If I’d thought quicker,” I’d said to Monique in the noodle aisle, “I’d have snapped a picture of him.”
“Yeah, and then he grabs your phone outta your hand. Or grabs at you.”
In the dairy aisle, I confessed. “I also felt like it was going against my feminism to ask the man on the corner for help. Like, why’m I gonna rely on this white guy to save me?”
Later, after her boyfriend had arrived, scoped out the market’s surroundings and pronounced it free and clear of Creeper, she rolled her eyes at my thought process, with good reason. In a moment that could’ve gone radically different, I refused two interventions because of 1) the tendency of police to have happy trigger fingers and 2) my own hangups about independence and empowerment.
Thinking about it afterward, what would the cops have done, anyway? Aside from stand with him while I left, or escorting me home, they wouldn’t have been able to do anything unless he physically touched or harmed me. Is “menacing” a thing? He’s definitely guilty of menacing, and maybe lite stalking, but other than that, what would the NYPD have accomplished?
And what would that other guy have done? I’m deeply grateful he did stop to ascertain the situation, to ask if I needed help, and to at least say he’d wait, even if he didn’t (I tried to see, but there were too many people between us. I have no reason to think he didn’t). I’m grateful for quick thinking, for instincts, for well-lit streets among those that don’t have so many lights. The lack of lights is actually something I like about this block. It’s quiet; it’s secluded; it feels more residential.
It’s also too good of an excuse for some people.
“I was just thinking,” Monique said in our kitchen, after her boyfriend had gone back home, and she’d enjoyed a bowl of cereal, “with the days getting shorter, we should probably walk the long way, for the light.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I hadn’t even thought of that.”
It’s bullshit that something like this makes us change our route home, even if it’s only longer by a few hundred feet. Why should we have to adjust our lives because of someone creepy? It’s also terrible that I not only didn’t want to call the cops, but knew I couldn’t. I couldn’t because without a physical interaction, I’d be another white woman crying foul on a black man — regardless of the truth, which is that he was being a creepy motherfucker and I was actually scared for my safety, regardless of what semblance of a cool head I was able to maintain. I couldn’t because I don’t trust cops, especially not NYPD cops, especially not cops in situations involving black men. I couldn’t because I was not about to stand around with this doofus, waiting for them to arrive. How would that have even worked?
What was most unsettling (I know, after all this), was that he didn’t even really look creepy. There was nothing particularly malicious in his eyes, nothing overly aggressive in his body language — besides the bit about following me. He didn’t actually try for contact. Had I not noticed he was too close to me as I crossed the street the first time, I would’ve continued down a poorly lit street and who knows what the hell would’ve happened. The ones you can’t read are the ones to worry the most about.
But, I’m not the first woman to confront this issue, and I sure as hell won’t be the last. And, really, I’m lucky.
Like I said, it’s been years since I felt that afraid. The last time was probably when the cabbie followed me down 4th ave in Brooklyn (another post, another time) at 2 am. That was 2007. Eight years ago! So many women endure much worse on a much more regular basis. I get catcalled fairly regularly, but nothing as bold as this.
I’m thankful for friends who’ve empowered me to speak up and out when someone’s violating my space; who’ve taught me that it’s not rude to do so (That was, unfortunately, a lesson I had to learn as an adult). I’m thankful my no-good stepdad from long ago taught me how to hold my keys in my hands. I’m thankful for tips and tricks learned from comments sections on sites like Jezebel and The Toast.I’m thankful for a quick-thinking, no-nonsense roommate, and for her son-of-a-retired-cop boyfriend. I’m thankful this is the first and only time this has happened to me in my neighborhood.
But mostly, I’m thankful to be home, in my bed, unmolested and safe.