Streetwalker

I pretend not to hear

A bead of sweat trickled down my freckled face, pausing a moment on my nose to sting the tender, burnt skin beneath it before plummeting to the pavement below. Waves of heat radiated from the gum-speckled concrete—the streets of New York City in the summer are prisons for heat, each slab holding sunrays captive. The roasting sidewalk had already penetrated the thin layer of plastic passing for my shoes. But my summer feet were tenacious, seasoned by the coarse sand and sharp shells, so I walked on. A gust of warm, moist air escaped from the subway grate, providing temporary relief from the 85-degree day. A medley of melting garbage and hot dogs wafted by my nose, making my stomach churn as my fellow pedestrians also let out moans of annoyance. I continued on, listening to the clapping of my flip-flops with each step.

I smiled as I turned down a side street—this was the freedom I had long been waiting for. The streets of New York were mine; I could finally navigate them alone, free to walk at my own pace, to stop periodically to browse store windows, to buy a coffee without asking. My actions were no longer dictated by the adult accompanying me; I was the adult. As I neared the end of the side street, I was yanked out of my reverie by a piercing whistle: “Hey, baby, come over to my place and I can cool you off.”

My eyes darted toward the source of the sound—a tall middle-aged man leaning against the side of a building. I scanned the street searching for the object of his call— in front of me was a mother with two children while behind me was a young man going to the gym. I glanced back at the man in an effort to decipher the meaning of his whistle. As our eyes met, a toothy grin spread over his face as he quickly shut his right eye. Suddenly, everything became clear: He was calling to me. The once claustrophobic heat seemed to evaporate as a chill crept up my spine and a shudder shook my muscles. My heart began to beat hurriedly, thumping loudly beneath my ribcage. I quickened my pace; the once slow and steady clapping of my flip-flops now replaced by an anxious, hurried rhythm. I looked around for help—the gym-goer behind me seemed unfazed, moving his lips to form a slight, sympathetic smile. As I neared the mother in front of me, she too was unhelpful, completely consumed with her stroller-bound children. I had assumed that both as a mom and a woman she would protect me, but she remained unperturbed. As the fearful adrenaline dissipated, a slew of emotions and questions crowded my thoughts. I was in awe that a man in his mid-40s would hit on a girl who had barely turned 13. I was conflicted. I felt simultaneously flattered and insulted—insulted that a man would say something so degrading to me, but also honored that he had chosen me to say it to.

As I walked the remaining blocks to my house, I became increasingly self-conscious of my appearance. I was unusually tall for a girl of my age, and most of my height was in my legs. I shamefully examined my outfit—my white jean shorts were fairly short, and my Abercrombie and Fitch tank top was slim fitting. “Had I provoked this man with my clothing?” I wondered. I thought that perhaps it was my fault—that my abundance of skin had suggested I was looking for attention; if I dressed more conservatively or walked with less confidence, he would see me differently, would treat me with dignity. I wondered if I deserved what he said to me. I was only 13, but part of my childhood ended in that moment.

Perhaps that childhood was artificially extended by my time at an all-girls school. We traveled in packs, bodies buried beneath scratchy blue jumpers and sensible shoes. It didn’t matter what shape each girl was; we were similarly disguised in uniforms that dated back a century. The camouflage went deeper than the surface though: For me, Nightingale treated being female as a fact, not a definition or identity. From a young age, teachers taught us to avoid “feminine qualifiers,” skirt length was measured with a ruler, and we were encouraged to carry ourselves with strength and anonymity—to suppress our femininity. Nightingale taught us self-defense—an alarming and ridiculous class in fourth grade where each girl faced off against a large, padded trainer. Echoes of “do not come any closer” and “NO” were punctuated by kicks to the groin and stomps on the instep. The class was called Prepare, but in truth it only prepared us for true combat, not the more subtle daily indignities that most women living in New York face.

Even the physical experience of going to school was sheltered—parents and caregivers ferried their charges back and forth long past childhood, halls were carpeted, doors were held. The lower school staff consisted only of women, many of whom had been there for decades. Even some of the younger teachers were Nightingale graduates themselves, coming full circle. From a young age, our interactions were all with women—they were our supervisors, teachers, friends. One of the few exceptions was an ill-fated P.E. instructor, Mr. Miller. Ironically, he was almost a caricature of the stereotypical man—muscles bulging to unnatural size, buzz cut, booming baritone. One year for the gymnastics show he choreographed, 40 little girls in blouses and bloomers sprinted into the gymnasium to the song “Eye of the Tiger.” After the requisite flips and tumbles, we flexed our pectoral muscles like the Hulk and shouted “I’m huge!” The parents’ laughter was sudden and uncomfortable—Mr. Miller would be gone come spring. Perhaps in its effort to develop independent, thoughtful students not defined by gender, Nightingale might have been more conscious of its women in the context of modern society. A single-sex education still has responsibility for helping its students navigate the co-ed world—in education, in daily life, in relationships. I learned a great deal in my time there—I found my voice, learned true empathy, had experiences free of self-consciousness—but was unprepared for expectations that would come with encroaching adulthood.

The jumper is long gone, but the shorts remarkably endure. I now have developed my own ways to protect myself—I avert my eyes, listen to music, and pretend that I haven’t heard. I smile when I think of my innocent 13-year old self being astonished by a cat-calling man. However, soon my smile disappears and unease fills my stomach. Unease over the fact that I have accepted the ubiquitousness of this behavior in society, that I have stopped thinking and started accepting. Unease that I pretend not to hear. Now, as I walk along the streets, the construction workers yell out at the women walking in front of me, and I do nothing. I am the equivalent of the mother with two children from five years ago—the one I could not believe stayed silent. But I cannot live poised for confrontation, I cannot travel closed to observation. Some men stare, some do far worse. But I hope I can find some path toward subtle change, without changing myself.  I may never “be huge,” but I am female. I should be able to walk the street without being a streetwalker. And that should be okay.