You live in a city like New York long enough and you learn to ignore things. The urban cacophony – sirens, horns, music, and that relentless commentary on you and the body you walk around in. You know, those verbal flares men send up that illuminate you in the crowd and alert everyone to the woman over here with the audacity to unbind her feet and venture out into the public spaces men think they own.
I have been asked by complete strangers, men passing on the street, Why are you wearing that baggy jacket that covers you up? Where are you hurrying that’s so important? Do you have a boyfriend? At newsstands and markets, men behind the counter have seized my hand, locked my eyes and smiled lasciviously while asking for my number. And I can’t even count the number of times male passersby, store clerks or strangers in restaurants have asked me why I won’t smile for them. Why are you so serious, baby? Smile!
Of course, the most celebrated hecklers, the men most likely to remind you most loudly that it’s their world and not yours, are construction workers. I think it’s the mob-like nature of their commentary that makes them notorious. Or maybe it’s their primitive vocalizations of grunts and hollers and that thing they do with their tongues. But when a crew of them sets their sites on you and send up their call, you begin to feel like the sickly caribou at the back of the herd and you put down your head and pick up your pace. At least, that’s what I always do.
Until the day I didn’t.
I was back in my Midwestern hometown, a college town where intellect is prized, and gender, though endemic, is well controlled by healthy doses of liberalism. It’s the kind of small city where a girl can grow up believing she is equal to men. I suppose there was a sensation of safety for me, being back in such a tolerant little place after fifteen years in New York where gender, ethnicity and wealth form a brittle template that defines all human interaction.
It was a balmy July evening, and I was strolling downtown with my old best friend from high school. Dating back to the ninth grade, I had walked like this with Wendy through shopping malls and high school halls and also these same downtown streets. And although I can remember both the drama and the joy of being teenaged best friends, what I remember most vividly is the reflections of our two selves in every window glass we passed: Wendy, the tiny, adorable and utterly feminine one with perfectly feathered hair; and me, the tallish, heavyish, lumbering one with her hair pulled back tight in a hair band or barrette. I saw myself as Big Bird and Wendy as the gorgeous guest host who makes Kermit swoon.
But now, in our 30’s, that mirror image was reversed, and I was learning to enjoy the way I looked in a pair of black jeans. And, apparently, on that July evening, so did a crew of workers resurfacing a downtown parking lot.
As we passed their worksite, their call went up and the flares went off and sounds began to issue from the men as they turned away from their work and towards we two women in our summer garb. But amidst the unintelligible chorus came a string of words in the form of a question: You wanna’ take a ride? One of the men was pointing at one of their machines. It was massive, easily 10 feet off the ground, with a shiny hot steel cylinder nearly as high that slowly rolled across the sticky black asphalt in a wake of tarry steam. He asked again, You wanna’ take a ride? and gestured at a driver’s seat high atop this mechanical monster.
And apparently, on that particular summer evening, I did want to take a ride.
I turned off the sidewalk and moved towards these hard-hatted men – to their utter delight, it seemed. They turned off their equipment, ceremoniously pulled back the sawhorse barricades, and cheered me on as I entered their hot, hard-working world. When I stepped onto the plywood planks that crossed the lot, I looked back and saw Wendy standing there, hands clasped just below her beaming, slack-jawed smile.
I don’t remember how I actually mounted the rolling machine, but somehow I found myself sitting up high, next to its driver as it rumbled and jolted and began to move. We took a few runs across the lot, back and forth in the kind of pattern you see combines travel at harvest time.
I have to tell you, it was exhilarating. The sheer scale and power of the machine beneath me gave me a glimpse into what makes men and boys stop and marvel at cranes, bulldozers and concrete mixers at building sites. I also have to tell you, it was a little bit scary, so I remained firmly seated rather than stand up, as a different woman might have done, and wave my arms in some gesture of liberated abandon.
As I’ve shared this story with friends, however, I’ve come to think that a different woman might not have accepted this invitation in the first place – let alone spread her arms like Kate Winslet in “Titanic.” And this surprises me.
It surprises me that I, of all people, the one with the baggy jacket and the Big Bird stride would seize this moment, defy expectations, and turn a sexual taunt into an invitation by saying ‘Yes.’ Did this fellow in the caution-yellow vest and work boots really want me to ride his roller?
Back in my New York days, I was once walking along with a girlfriend, beautiful Lydia. An old, disheveled man passing by muttered that she should stop and give him some time. So she stopped. And then she yelled, You want me stop, old man? You want to drop your pants so I can give you a blow job right here on the sidewalk? Is that what you want? Well c’mon then! The man, however, just kept walking.
Men don’t really mean it when they ask you, a total stranger, to stop and engage in whatever it is they’re asking for – your phone number, a smile, a ride on an asphalt roller. Men with the gumption to make such requests of women they don’t know are usually just singling you out for scrutiny and judgment, flagging you as a trespasser in the world they dominate. But it’s also true that you can stand your ground and claim your place in this world by proceeding with confidence, acting with joy, and, sometimes, by simply saying ‘Yes.’
Anne Singer lives in Washington, D.C. where she works as a freelance writer and communications consultant for political and public interest causes.