It was a typical winter weeknight. I was lying around the house in a frumpy sweatshirt, yoga pants and a book in hand. Then I got a phone call from my dad. He had a flat tire, and at 73 years old, needed some assistance changing it.
I threw on some UGG boots, hopped in my car, and was off to save the day.
He was waiting next to his car outside of a gas station convenience store near a busy intersection. I parked next to him, threw my hair up, and prepared to get my hands dirty.
For a moment we just stood outside of his car, lit only by the florescent lights spilling out from the store windows. He started to relay the string of unfortunate events that had gotten him the flat tire in the first place.
Earlier that day, he had parked just feet from the entrance of a convenience store and left his car running because of the unreliable battery. He planned to buy one item quickly. But it wasn’t quick enough.
In that minute, someone got in his car and drove away in it. The police recovered it soon after, but claimed they weren’t allowed to help him with the flat tire the hijacker left it with. I just listened, happy to see that he was OK after such an ordeal.
As we stood there, I started to hear faint catcall whistles. I figured they’d stop soon, so I kept my attention and my eyes focused on my dad. Plus, it’s my practice not to give any bait, meaning no acknowledgment, to catcallers. It’s my way of saying "You’re not worth a second of my time."
But the whistles didn’t stop. They slowly grew louder and closer. Since my dad is a little hard of hearing, and was completely engaged in his car-hijacking story, he didn’t notice the whistles. (Though looking back now, I also wonder if his ears aren’t as attuned to the type of whistling that is imprinted in the brains of most women.)
The whistles soon became hoots and hollers, muffled sporadically by the passing traffic. Since I was holding strong to my no-looking policy, I wasn’t exactly sure of the catcallers' location. I wasn’t even sure that the calls were intended for me.
But then, about five yards behind my dad’s back, a car started to slowly creep by. It stopped in my direct line of sight. Two men stared me down. It was me that they were yelling at.
My dad, still unaware of what was unfolding behind his back, kept talking.
Why didn’t I tell him that I was being sexually harassed literally behind his back? Had I convinced myself that it was just some benign annoyance that would quickly pass, not even worth mentioning? Or had I convinced myself that as a strong, self-respecting woman, I shouldn't be bothered by their nonsense and should just tough it out?
I told myself both lies simultaneously. But in truth, they were making me feel vulnerable, as if I were standing there naked, and I was praying that they would just give up and go away. But they kept on with their lascivious smiles and whistles. What happened to changing a tire and saving the day?
Even if they had left right then, and my no-looking plan had worked, all bets were off for a feel-good ending. Me “winning” by denying them what they wanted—some reaction from me—wouldn’t have made me feel like a winner. All I felt was disgust and disgusting.
And there is something uniquely horrifying about being sexually demeaned in front of your own father. Some heightened feeling of awkwardness or embarrassment.
Then, as if their vulgar stares weren’t enough, they started making blowjob gestures. Were they trying to solicit sex from me? Did they think I was offering services to my own father?! I tried to stay cool, calm and composed, but inside felt fear, shame and anger.
Their relentlessness finally broke me. I completely snapped.
"Fuck you!" I yelled, throwing up my arms and giving them the finger. “Fuck you! Shut the fuck up!” I yelled again.
Now, instead of avoiding eye contact, I stared deep into their eyes with fury.
Shock and confusion came over my dad’s face. As he turned to see why I was yelling, I reached into my pocket to find something, anything, to hurl at them. My hand seemed to act on its own accord, without consulting my brain.
Then my dad, his posture suddenly ridged, started marching toward the car. But I called him back immediately. Who knew what those men were capable of?
The lip-gloss that I threw hit their car door, though I was aiming for a face. They stopped smiling and became angry. How dare I intervene with their harassment?
The driver hung his body out of the window and started threatening me.
“I’m gonna go get my sister and she’s gonna fuck you up.”
Sister? Whoa. Did she often act as his accomplice in harassing people, women just like her? What camaraderie. Because surely, if two aggressive men were to roll up on her at a dark gas station the brother would… join them?
My dad started toward them again and I pleaded for him to come back. These weren’t little boys. They were grown men fully capable of inflicting physical harm. Finally, they slowly rolled away under the threat of returning.
The whole fiasco lasted only a couple of minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. Luckily, we didn’t see them again.
They didn’t even touch me, but I felt so violated. What the hell had just happened? Why? I worked to suppress tears. I refused to let a pair of misogynists make me cry. I didn’t even want my dad, who was visibly concerned for me and disturbed by the whole situation, to see my reddening eyes.
After all those years of arguing the feminist side of debates with him (like that I could like, and even excel in soccer even though I’m a girl), I'd learned to fight to keep any “overly sensitive” emotions in check. The only emotion I allowed myself to express was momentary anger. That was how I proved to him that I was the strong woman he thought I was.
I started to work on the tire, but could barely focus.
On the way home, I cried as I replayed the scenario in my head. But I wasn’t relieved to finally do so in private. Instead, I questioned the fact that I was still hung up on it. After all, if I was still upset about it, didn’t that mean I was giving them too much power over me?
What were the bystander perspectives? I wondered. The two men were in the protection of their car, out of public view. I was in full view, visible to everyone who passed through the store and the gas station.
The few stares I caught from passersby expressed more fear of me, "the erratically behaving crazy lady," than fear for me. I realized that my efforts to stay composed were partially motivated by wanting to avoid the label of “some crazy woman.”
Only a couple weeks later, I found myself in a similar situation, but this time as a bystander. My boyfriend and I were driving home in afternoon traffic and passed a lone woman walking on the sidewalk. She was yelling and cursing toward some vague place in the direction traffic was moving.
"What’s wrong with that girl? She’s crazy!” I said, turning in my seat to continue watching. But she just kept walking, head slightly down. It took me until we got to the next stoplight to realize what I had done.
A wave of nausea hit me upon realizing how quickly I judged her as just some crazy lady. That she could have been, probably was, a victim of street harassment standing up for herself.
Even more bleak was realizing that most people would have probably made a similar quick judgment. Because it’s much easier to pay no attention to a woman, to discredit her and her emotions, if you can slap a crazy label on her.
I replayed the gas station scenario in my head again. That night, my idea of being strong meant not expressing the gamut of emotions running through me. Only recently have I discovered that expressing them was actually what I wasn’t strong enough to do.
It ended with me yelling, just like that girl. But it started with me silencing myself, even in front of my own dad. The masking of my vulnerability meant that nobody could hear my pain. And silence erases all possibility for change.