Walking the Walk

11/13/14




I once turned down a date so I could go walking up Broadway, NYC, by myself.

I'm not even joking.
It's a story that I related later on to my mom, who could have strangled me, like any frustrated mother with a single daughter over 30.

But you see, that solitary walk was something I always did at the end of a visit and it was precious to me. I was in New York on routine business, I met this guy through work, it was my last day in the city, and he wanted to go somewhere. I took one pensive look up the magical lamp-lined street, crowded with all those wonderfully mysterious and indifferent city folk, and I totally bailed. And not very gracefully.

I am a horrible person.

Okay, not a horrible person - just a horrible dater. There are a few things that feed my soul, so much that I never turn down a chance at them. Walking in New York is one of the big ones. You'll just have to forgive me that predilection, because there is no cure, and if you go to New York with me I will probably ditch you too at some point, just like that poor, bewildered young man. I could be married and have three kids by now y'all, but we'll never know, because I just HAD to have my customary walk.

Anyway, my point is coming. And it's probably way controversial. Not by design, but by nature apparently - because I have a tendency to think that most videos that go viral are super lame and most neo-feminist drivel is...well, drivel. And it's so easy to be controversial without really meaning to, isn't it?

So here we go. The puzzle of the day. Do men catcall abundantly on the streets of New York City? That is the question raised by millions of youtube connoisseurs lately and it got me scrolling through the memories because I'm not just a casual pedestrian. I've savoured many a Manhattan avenue and therefore must have ample evidence that I can testify to. So let me think...yes they do catcall.

But I've never noticed it much.

Don't freak out, I'm being completely honest with you.
I'm not a fan of bandwagons, witch hunts, or sweeping generalizations. I have to consider more than just the popular memes and video clips of the day and I can't take sides based on gender - because I believe in humanity as a whole. Perhaps you feel the same way. So let's consider.

Maybe I come at this from a different perspective right from the start. I have been bullied and mocked my entire life, by male and female alike - for my glasses, my clothes, my hair, my faith, my shyness, my insecurity, my economic status. Decades later, I am practically immune. A few thoughtless words cannot ruin something I enjoy as much as taking a walk in my favourite city. This is a life skill. People are unkind and thoughtless and that takes many forms. You know you're going to face it every day.

When you walk down a busy street in a busy city, you get people talking at you from every direction. Panhandlers, evangelists, political activists. I don't regard any of them. It's a disrespectful way to engage someone. Period. And believe me, I often heard that subtle smack of the lips as a man walked by, supposedly communicating some mysterious man-code that I have never bothered to interpret. In fact, I laugh at myself to recall how long it took me to realize what it was that I was hearing. Seriously? Was that a kissy noise that dude just made at me? And when I did realize the astonishing truth, was I offended beyond reason? Not at all. Why would I be offended or flattered or in any way affected? It has nothing to do with me.

You see, when you're offended, you give a person's words and actions power and meaning - often more than was ever intended. You make it your problem, when it began as someone else's.

Therein lies the difference between those who imagine themselves insulted at every turn and those who don't. Walking down an urban street is a freedom I value too much to give away. Unless someone does something physically to me, prevents me from doing something, or in some other way invades my space or imposes on my will, I simply don't care if they want to mumble or pucker up as I breeze by. I just don't. Nothing encourages disrespect more than giving power and importance to those who disrespect.

Try to deny me my equal human rights, and I will surely raise hell. But whistle at me and the only harm done is to prove to all bystanders that you are an idiot. And that's actually a conclusion that I can get behind. So go ahead. By all means. Display your desperation to appear more suave or bad**s than you are. It's a free country.

In the meantime, I'm going to keep walking. And let me tell you, my New York wanderings are some of the happiest moments of  my life. I cringe to imagine how different the composition of my soul would be had I chosen to be horrified and petrified by any stupidly innocuous displays of juvenile overcompensation. Think of the moments that are ruined by taking offense! And for what? It doesn't fix things. It doesn't change minds. It doesn't even make you feel better. Calling a man a "pig" has never made him less of a pig.

And it's never made you more of a saint.

But obviously there are rude men out there in the world and with a population as large and as varied as New York's there's bound to be a slightly higher than average rate. But consider this: for the dozen or so ungentlemanly males that I passed by on any given day, there were a few hundred that were perfectly respectful. The actions of a socially stunted few are hardly proof of a global misogynistic conspiracy.

So let me tell you about what I experienced traversing the streets of New York. Because I have stories. Every woman does. And so does every man.

First there was the guy in the suit who looked up from his newspaper on the subway, leaned in ever so slightly, and said "I don't mean to bother you, but you have the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen." And then he went back to reading his paper.

There was that billionaire that offered me, totally out of the blue, the use of his apartment in Chicago. Kind of an awkward conversation, but I lived to tell the tale.

There was the soldier on the way to the ferry who said he'd like to marry me.

Or the JFK security guy who was positive I was some famous actress trying to travel incognito.

And then there was the darling old man with the salt and pepper hair in Harlem who said...and I quote..."Ooh girrrrrl, pink is your color. You should wear pink every day!"

Of course I'm relating the humorous and the harmless. Because that's what I remember. The rest has been discarded as superfluous data that doesn't hurt me or help me. The thing I took away from each of these instances was not how they made me feel - because they didn't make me feel anything in particular. My point is this: not one of these men, of differing races and economic classes, was attempting to make me feel small or oppressed or devalued. If they had intended it, they would have failed miserably.

The streets of New York take your breath away. They reveal every side of every story. They challenge every view. And when you dare to mingle with the world on such a scale as a Manhattan sidewalk, you have to be strong enough and brave enough to love humanity. Even if it whistles at you. Especially when it whistles at you.

Because YOU judge as you stroll past people. You assume. You condemn. You admire. You even objectify. Perhaps not out loud, but you do it. Even if you're the most condescending, self righteous feminist to have ever put on a wounded air.

It's never okay, but it's definitely human. Such flaws can be outgrown and overcome - and usually are. Your own respected father was once a cocky young man hanging out of the passenger side window. For those who never do outgrow it...well, that's sad. But it has nothing to do with you.

The only way to walk down a street in New York or any public street at all, is to do so with perspective, with forgiveness for every imperfection, and patience for the personal journey of the individual. Unlike many of the roads in Manhattan, tolerance is a street that goes both ways. How can we honestly protect and preserve human rights and human dignity if we can't handle the less than ideal usage of the vital rights of speech and thought?

And how can we be so unjust and so insensitive as to compare some attention-begging catcall to legitimate harassment? To measure bruised sensibilities against bruised bodies? Or compare a sleezy line to workplace threats and leverage? They don't come from the same place. Bald male insecurity is not the same as predatory aggression.

Hey, if some jerk gets handsy or abusive, pepper spray him to hell and back.

But if you can't tolerate your fellow humans who may travel more slowly along the road to gender enlightenment, then you're going to be offended every damn day of your life.

And honey, what a waste that would be.

Let me tell you about the time I faced down one of these so called "pigs".

I was walking across a park and got catcalled by a very young man hanging out with some buddies. He was obviously expecting the typical reaction: either I would hurry away, hurt and self conscious, or I would get all ruffled and indignant, or I would smile and blush, which does happen - each scenario a victory for his fledgeling ego. Instead, I turned and walked purposely toward him, neither angry nor humiliated. I got within a few feet of him and said, "Hey buddy, that's really not cool". He was startled and embarrassed. The only reason I even attempted to speak to him - and probably the only reason he was too chagrined to retaliate - was because he was just a kid. But I realized that catcalling has nothing to do with the woman. Not really. It's about a person trying to make himself feel less powerless. And that deserves our pity.

The battle of the sexes that rages in our social media culture today has nothing to do with equality and everything to do with wounded pride, vindication, and misunderstanding. It points fingers, makes accusations, and judges without mercy. We could easily make a few youtube videos that prove the flaws and injustices of select groups of womankind. But what good would that do anyone?

The question isn't whether or not men catcall in New York.

The real question is, how do we move forward with compassion, fairness, and a lasting belief in humanity? How do we improve communication between the sexes rather than divide them further?

We are cogs in the grand wheel of a society increasingly chopped up into pixels and sound bytes. Texts, tweets, speed dating, internet porn, prostitution and "hooking up". We try to squeeze human interaction into 140 characters or less. We keep it "casual" without thought, feeling or consequence. No need to fight for real relationships when you're faced with a barrage of quick and easy clickables. This is our culture. And communication will only continue to degrade. Could the way we interact with one another on a public street be at all impacted? You don't need maturity, courage, respect, patience, or any other virtue to live a drive-by kind of life. And that's what "street harassment" is : a drive-by bid for validation.

Could this be a symptom of a deeper problem that has nothing to do with some imagined patriarchy or hierarchy?

Well, these are my thoughts on the subject. Agree or disagree at your leisure. But go beyond your initial gut reaction, will you? No bandwagons for the thinking woman.