Before I moved to New York City almost seven years ago, my family in Tennessee cautioned me about the dangers of the big city. The most dire warnings came from the relatives who had never actually visited the city, to whom New York was a montage of movie and television scenes, its streets flocked with bird ladies, like the one in "Home Alone 2," and roped off with Law and Order-esqe yellow police tape.
I moved in New York despite their warnings, and despite having been accepted to a higher-ranked law school in my home state. My desire to move here was fueled by my own vision of the city, which was the composite of happier movies and television shows than my family seemed to be watching.
I have always felt pretty safe here, even as my years in New York have pushed me progressively further and further from the epicenter of Manhattan and into increasingly sketchier neighborhoods. Sure, scary things have happened to me over the last seven years. The scariest thing, though, probably has been the economic recession that hit the year I graduated from law school, and not some kind of physical threat.
Because I'm usually too broke to take cabs to Manhattan bars from my apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, I ride the subway in the wee morning hours, watching the skyline glitter beyond the scratch-graffiti of the train windows, between the supporting beams of the Williamsburg bridge. And I've always been okay.
One night, though, after the bars closed, a man stood in front of my seat on the subway, put a Metrocard in his mouth, and began chewing -- I deemed him the “Metrocard Muncher.” He didn't hurt me; he only subjected me to watching him eat a tasty plastic snack. Another time on the J train, a guy stared at me intently from across the aisle while stroking his dingdong and taking a picture of his subsequent erection with a camera phone. That actually happened around 4 pm, in the broad daylight. But he never laid a hand on me -- only on himself.
My nearest brush -- more of a squeeze than a brush, really -- with crime in the city was on one of the first warm nights of May this year, a Saturday, around 11 pm. My usually peaceful cats had been waging a civil war all evening, so I did not feel like cooking. I placed an order at the Chinese restaurant across the street, the lights of which shine directly into my bedroom window. I went outside, walked out of the way to the crosswalk (safety first!), then crossed the street and turned back in the direction of the restaurant.
The sidewalks were full of people, enjoying the weekend and the weather. I was lost in thought about the delicious fried goodies on my horizon, when a hand reached out and squeezed my left breast. Or honked it, really, as one would honk an air-horn.
My first thought was, Do I know this person? Could this heinous act be at the hands of a misguided friend, who thought he had invented a nifty new way to say hello? No, I could vaguely recall the young, lean face of the Honker as we crossed on the street, before he reached out his hand. It was a face with which I was not previously acquainted.
My mouth dropped open, but I was too shocked to scream or point or do anything to call attention to what had just happened. I could see the Honker's back as he walked quickly away from me. He was wearing a jacket that had -- of all things -- the word “TENNESSEE” is a rainbow pattern across his shoulder blades. I had always heard about the past coming back to bite you on the ass, but never about it returning to honk you on the boob.
I composed myself and walked on to the restaurant. As I waited for my french fries and vegetable rolls to finish frying, I felt hot tears burn in my eyes. Food in hand, I returned to my apartment and screamed to my sister -- “Someone grabbed my boob on the street!”
I replayed the event over and over in my head. Had I done something wrong, made myself a target somehow? Maybe I was too focused on fried food to be aware of my surroundings. I dressed especially conservatively for a Saturday evening -- something I don't usually do! -- in a modest black top and long black slirt. And yet that guy still freakin' grabbed my freakin' boob. Maybe the sicko liked it that I was dressed conservatively. Maybe I should have just worn a skank-dress like I usually do on Saturday nights.
It could have been so much worse, I know. I felt violated anyway. I can joke about it, maybe because it's the only way I can deal with knowing that people like the Honker exist in the world, that situations like this and worse happen everyday, situations that can take all of your freewill away.
I had gone through life thinking I had choices -- like the choice of which people could put their hand on my boob, and the choice over what my career and personal life would look like as I approached 30 -- and life in this city was proving me wrong.
Yet, in spite of my sporadic doubts, I keep trudging on -- you can grab my boob, but you can't break my spirit. The possibilities in this city are awe-inspiring, even if the pitfalls are, too.
There are eight million people here -- of course some of them are going to be perverts. I can only hope that I'm lucky enough to avoid them in the future. The only way to live here -- maybe the only way to really live at all -- is to embrace uncertainty, despite the scary possibility that it might squeeze you back.