Something happened recently when my sister was in town that just crossed my mind today. We were out walking through Capitol Hill, just the two of us, and as we had just crossed a street a stranger approached us saying, “Excuse me, Miss, excuse me.”
Now, what I did was stare straight ahead, pretending that I could hear no one, and continued walking pretty much the same pace as though nothing was happening. My sister, on the other hand, stopped and listened to the guy. He was just visiting in Seattle and needed directions to where he was going, directions only I could have given him because my sister was a visitor as well. If she hadn’t stopped, I basically would have looked like a total asshole.
Of course I didn’t stop because that’s what I had learned to do in New York City. I had learned from experience, as all women do in the city, that “Excuse me, Miss” is almost always followed by unwanted words of sexual harassment.
As I looked back on it, I wondered if there is anything a man could say to me on the streets of New York to make me stop and listen to him. Saying “Excuse me, Miss” seems the most polite way to approach someone on the street if you need directions, but I wouldn’t stop for that. People handing out flyers can get very creative in New York, stopping you in your tracks because what they’re saying sounds so weird coming from a stranger, such as, “Is your birthday coming up?” or “You never responded to my text last night.”
But even those comments I learned to tune out while walking. I won’t tell you my birthday, I didn’t get your text, and excuse you, sir.
Maybe if I was a braver (or just less paranoid) person, I would have opened myself up to pleasant street interactions more in New York. I saw them happen for other people – eccentrics or neighbors getting to know each other right there on the sidewalk corner. And sure, there were some conversations I’d have with strangers in the subway when our train was inconveniently stopped underground for a while.
But not on the streets. Not in New York.
Because whenever I did stop or respond to “Excuse me, Miss,” I was greeted with unwanted sexual advances, such as “You are so beautiful, God Bless you,” (which may seem harmless, until you see how angry they get if you don’t smile or say something back), “Can I get your phone number?”, or the absolute worst, “Are you pregnant?” (something I think some men just say to piss women off or hurt their sense of self-confidence because you show no interest in them).
Fun Fact: One time I responded to an old man saying “Excuse me” on the sidewalk in Washington Heights and he barked in my face. Right up in it.
In the smaller big cities that I’ve visited, I think there is less enough people that you can expect an “Excuse me, Miss” to actually lead to something harmless like asking for directions or the time. And not to say that street harassment doesn’t happen everywhere – Seattle is safe, but it’s not immune to crime. However, the man eyeing me up and down to compliment the pattern on my pants had a very noticeable difference in his tone of voice than the one calling out “Sweetie” from across the street. And I should have noticed that tonal nuance when that guy asked my sister for directions.
I would like to open myself up more to kindness on the streets in Seattle and other places. Obviously street smarts are essential for any woman in any city, but maybe if I could just tone down the high-alert security system I seem to have put between myself and everyone on the street everywhere, I could actually meet some nice people and help out fellow travelers to new cities. I’d like to try.