The first time it happened, it was seriously an old white van with all of its back windows painted over, AKA the creepiest vehicle on the face of the earth. I was walking home from a friend’s house on a summer evening, and it wasn’t in the best neighborhood but it certainly wasn’t in the worst (and we seriously need to interrogate how we define “good” and “bad” neighborhoods anyway). It was slightly later than I had intended to leave, but not by much; it had fallen dark but it wasn’t what anyone would call late. I was walking down the pretty, tree-lined street, feeling great.
Until I noticed the van.
It was driving suspiciously slowly, and either it was my imagination or it had slowed down even more in order to follow me. Literally inching along just behind me, I could see it out of my peripheral vision, but was determined not to turn my head.
“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god” my brain was racing, trying to figure out what was about to happen. As a woman who walks places, I’m no stranger to sexual harassment, and I typically brush it off, but this was seriously unnerving. I bit the inside of my mouth and the van continued to inch up, finally coasting along, just level with where I was walking.
The passenger window rolled down.
“Excuse me? Excuse me? EXCUSE ME MISS?” a male voice was demanding my attention.
I’m not scared on the street very often, but y’all, this time I was scared. But if there’s one thing I know, it is that you do not answer these guys, because that only makes it worse. So I held my breath and hoped that if I didn’t engage, he’d drive off eventually. I felt for my cell phone in my pocket, wondering how quickly I could get ahold of someone if I needed to.
“Miss?!?!” the voice sounded exasperated, and against my better judgment, I looked up for a fraction of a second.
A man with stubble on his face was looking out at me. “Are you ok?” he said, looking like he was genuinely concerned. “You shouldn’t be walking this late, you oughta be careful! You know there’s weirdos out, anything could happen.”
For a second I just stared at him, taking in his face.
I honestly believe, to this day, that he had no idea how much that phrase — anything could happen — sounded like a threat.
He looked back at me, wide eyed and concerned: like here he was in the creepiest van known to humankind, literally creeping along, following a young woman home, and he somehow legitimately believed that he was some kind of knight in shining armor.
I gritted my teeth. I wanted to scream “You are the only weirdo here! You are the only person I’m afraid of!,” but I was shaken up and just trying to get home. I didn’t exactly feel like trying to make it a teachable moment. I said “I’m fine, please leave me alone.”
And I put my head down and continued to walk. As I expected, he inched along next to me for the next block, and then drove off in a huff.
Strange men tell me to be careful. They tell me to be careful when I’m walking home from the grocery store, from the bar, from a friend’s house. They do not, I’ve noticed, tell me to be careful if I happen to be walking with a male friend. They take one look at me, filter my short-framed blond-haired feminine self through the layers of misogyny and bullshit in their minds, and they think “well she should be careful, I’d better tell her!”
No one has ever explained to me what “be careful” means in this context. These men, they don’t have an specific suggestions, they don’t inquire about whether or not I have mace or have taken a self defense class. The unspoken implication, I think, is that I need to be careful and watch out for strange men. The subtle suggestion is that walking in public, especially walking in public after dark, is not safe for womenfolk. It isn’t safe for us, of course, because there are strange men out there.
The men who tell me to be careful never seem to grasp that they’re basically tell me to watch out, for well, men just like them, the very men concern trolling me on the sidewalk.
I’m walking home, with my baby strapped to me in his carrier, and a bag full of produce slung over my arm. It’s an awkward maneuver, but the kid is smiling and laughing, and every block or two we pass someone who smiles affectionately at him. When we pass another little one, being pushed in a stroller, he leans over as far as he can to stare at the other baby.
As I cross the street, I notice a middle aged man walking with swagger and determination. He glances at me, and then looks me up and down slowly. Even though my child is quite secure, my arm instinctually wraps around his frame.
“You better be careful out here.” the man says.
I shudder, and keep moving.
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