Public spaces, safety, and spines

Today, I was sitting at a table in a coffee shop with two other young women. We were laughing and chatting. The kind of talk where you interrupt one another frequently to make a joke or ask a question for clarity or to accidentally, unwittingly change the subject. A man, who we noticed earlier when he asked if the table next to us was free, sidled up to us at a particularly high point in our conversation. My alarm bells went off.

Let me be. Let us be safe in a public place.

He was wearing a yellow fluorescenty reflective vest and he had come in with a bike helmet. He had a brace of some sort on his left leg, and black-framed glasses on a pale expression that was a little off.

He interrupted us with a compliment: You ladies look like you’re having a good day. Bunch of geniuses sitting over here having great conversation.

He said something about how when men get together and talk it’s trivial and unworthy but not so with women.
I could tell from his speech and his mannerisms that something was amiss.
He then made some joke about men building cars and driving, again referencing the stupidity of men, and the superiority of the female sex. My comrades were doing that thing women do when they are confronted with a seemingly non-threatening man in a public space. Laughing politely, smiling, graciously accepting his compliments with a bit of self-deprecation, as all women are taught to accept the attention of strangers. I sat by quietly, letting my discomfort leak through my uncomfortable grimace of a smile. Give me my space back. What strange men fail to notice every time, probably because of the forced laughter and smiles of the women they’re accosting, is that they’ve created a vacuum and that all the geniality and comfort which was present the moment before they stepped into our personal space has been sucked out and replaced with apprehension and waiting. Waiting for you to leave so we can recover our time. Recover our lives.

Because men are taught they are entitled to interrupt the lives of women, in every aspect.

He then dramatically and abruptly changed the subject.
“Cherish the good times. Cherish your friends and family. Cherish every breath.” And proceeded to try and evoke our sympathy with his tale of woe. He was all champion all state something class A best of the best, hottest of the hottest wrestler in high school. Top of his game. But then he bought a crotch rocket, against his parents’ advice, and wrecked it at 220 mph. The only thing that resulted in his being present and standing there in front of us at the coffee shop was the helmet he was thankfully wearing at the time. And now what. Now he is ugly and out of shape and physically deformed with the cast on his leg and the unseeable but obviously present damage to the rest of his body. Gone are the days when he could enter the room and draw the attention of strangers with his physique and his good looks. Thank god for his friends and family who have stuck by him.

“Hey ladies, I told you all how smart you are, but maybe I should have started out by saying how pretty you are.”

He avoided eye contact with me, even as he passed his iPhone with pictures around the table. He knew I wasn’t having it.

Yes, man. I’m sorry you fucked up. I’m sorry you drew the short straw. I’m sorry you crashed your bike and lost your perceived awesomeness and now feel trapped by the disability of your body, the body you once cherished. I’m sorry you took everything for granted. I’m sorry you have a hard time picking up chicks and getting laid and now feel the need to go around and pour your pity story out on unsuspecting ladies who you hope have an affinity for broken men like they do for homeless cats. Society has a pretty fucked up view of disability and difference and I’m sure you are treated now like you are less than human. Welcome to the world of anyone who is not a straight, thin, young able-bodied white male. I’m sorry, but you are uninvited and you’re not welcome and as I said before, fuck off.

We were all so uncomfortable and no one wanted to tell him to leave us alone. The women with me eventually followed my cue and stopped laughing, stopped smiling, and began to answer him in one-words. Faced with our silence, and the profiles of my companions, he moved away. But we felt so invaded that our conversation, our time, was irreparable. We gathered our dishes and moved stoically to the front of the cafe, where we spoke in hushed voices about what we had just encountered as the man strapped on his bike helmet and moved out to the sidewalk of the restaurant to make another table of ladies uncomfortable.

It’s not okay. I’m sorry you’re broken and sad and lost and obviously very lonely. But guess what, lots of people are. Everyone has their own story, so stop presuming yours is the most important. Stop presuming yours is the saddest. Stop presuming that we haven’t learned our own lessons from our own tragedies. Life is what you make it.

And now for my second point.

Women are taught to mitigate. Women are taught to ease conflict and tension. Women are taught to accept attention from strangers. Don’t upset strangers who have done nothing to you. Especially if those strangers are men. We must be polite and accept the attention of men, because they don’t know any better. Placate them, darling, until they get bored and wander away. Boys will be boys, after all.

Why? Why do I have to be nice to strange men?

Oh, because if you’re not careful, they will potentially do as they wish. Men get what they want, and if they don’t, they take it. Men are allowed that, to take what they want. They’re rarely called names or shamed for their actions. [especially white men] Because. Just be nice until they go away and then you can go on with your life. No harm done.
Being a bitch only draws attention to your character flaws, not theirs, so I’m supposed to be nice and sweet and gentle. And smile at your story and coo coo with sympathy and put my hand on your arm and lean forward and ask for more. As a male, you’re supposed to impress me and impart your wisdom and your knowledge and shape the world for me. Fill in the blankness with color and purpose. You shouldn’t have.

I refuse. I’m not going to play nice because of my gender, and please, for the love of god, stop being the conqueror because of yours. Contrary to popular belief, women don’t wait around for men to notice them, to give them life and purpose and value. I don’t need your attention. Your presence causes no activation within me. You’re not the one I’ve been waiting for. I wait for no one. Society teaches us that women have no time of their own. It’s their children’s; it’s their spouses’; it’s their parents’, their grandparents’, their siblings’. Read a news article, follow politics: a woman’s life is only valuable if it’s attached to the purpose of a man’s or a child’s. What worth does a woman have individually, on her own? [“She’s someone’s mother, sister, daughter, friend.”]

I get it. For a long time, women were taught to sit down and twiddle their thumbs and bide their time until the right man came along. Women are still taught a version of that. It’s obvious from the magazine covers and the pop songs and the tv sitcoms. What is a woman without a man? What does a woman have to consider, have to do, without a man to focus her energy on?

To conclude: I have a brain and a story of my own. I am not your one-way ticket to feeling powerful.

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