I had been driving around in the unpredictable Chicago climate without windshield wipers for quite some time. I admit, in a city where you can conceivably use your car’s a/c, heat, wipers, and defrost all in the same day, this was inexcusably hazardous. I blame my negligence largely on frustration.
Since taking ownership of my grandmother’s 1995 Toyota Corolla, I’ve had to familiarize myself with the mostly manual operations of pre-“touch of a button” vehicles.
My grandmother’s car, which I affectionately named Sudie Mae in her honor, is nearly 20 years old with less than 60,000 miles. But sitting for years parked in her Memphis driveway hadn’t done its parts any favors. The window crank (yes, manual operation) broke…in my hand. The passenger door handle broke…in my passenger’s hand. The AM/FM cassette radio did not break, but its antenna range and sound quality are that of a broken modern system.
And the wiper blades, which I had previously replaced, are as old and difficult as the car’s namesake, my 94-year-old grandmother. I’ve had several mechanics struggle with replacing the blades and I was not looking forward to doing it on my own.
But it was raining, so I drove to the local Auto Zone and purchased the new blades. I placed them in my car, figuring I would tackle the task in front of my own home. Before I could ease from the curb, a car pulled alongside me, blocking my exit. The man inside held a card toward me. It was too far of a distance to reach, and I sat unmoved.
Finally, he stretched farther across his passenger seat and asked, “You need some help putting on those wipers?”
Fuck. I did need help with those wipers. I don’t mind paying for honest work but I didn’t have any cash and I didn’t like dude’s initial approach. “I don’t have any cash on me. So, thanks but that’s okay.”
He slid back into driving position and paused. “You know what? Don’t worry about it. I’ll put ‘em on for you.”
So we stood facing Sudie Mae as the Stony Island Avenue traffic sped precariously close to our backsides. The man grabbed the passenger blade and replaced it impressively quickly. He returned to the driver’s side and stared at me as he wrangled the blade. “You married?”
“Yep.” I lied. I had felt a slight obligation to stand outside with him since he was doing the work gratis. I had planned to offer some decent small talk focused on his automotive work, but that was completely derailed by his inquiry and the way he stared at me. His eyes, nay, his entire face scanned me head to toe. He leaned back, cocked his head and repeated the motion.
I felt violated. But I thanked him when he completed the last wiper. I remembered that I had three dollars in my pocket. “All I have is three dollars.” I offered.
He grabbed the cash and said, “That’s cool. I’ll take a hug.”
I shook my head. “Nah, that’s alright.”
He stood there, arms spread and moving closer. I did not want to hug him, but I did. My arms bent between us forming a barrier of space. I backed away after a millisecond and slide into my car. I sped off just as I saw him approaching another woman walking down the street, his hand outstretched, proffering his card.
I felt repulsed by the situation. I was angry and first began to blame myself. I thought that I should have known better. Of course he would have wanted something. I thought that I should have stood my ground. I did not have to hug him. But just like I lied when he asked if I was married, I complied with the hug out of a fear of the unknown alternative. This man who had no problems running his eyes up and down my body might also have no problem calling me a bitch or putting his hands on me. He was too close for comfort, so instead of fight or flight, I played dead.
I thought about retelling this story to different friends and relatives but found myself ashamed. I worried they, too, would blame me for not knowing better or exercising necessary caution. In the voice of my cousins, I told myself that I was acting brand new -- that insult reserved for those who know better but do not act accordingly, therefore deserving our plight.
I have been conditioned, like all of us, to blame the recipients of injustice, oppression, assault, and violence. I have to fight the lingering results of that experience, the impulse to relive and re-inflict the discomfort of it in light of new thoughts about it and myself.
Neither can I just let it go and say that it was nothing. It was not a rape or a groping. It was not a beating or even a verbal altercation. It was…three dollars…and a hug. Still, it feels like I paid way too much for those damn wipers.