The day before I left for the Philippines, a country I have lived in for the last few months, I was out buying some t-shirts for the trip. It was around nine and I was walking home through the snowy streets of Brooklyn, streets which were not empty but certainly had been put to bed for the night, when a white van pulled up next to a woman walking on the sidewalk about thirty feet ahead of me. She was bundled up against the cold and wind, and from behind in her long coat she looked like a wizard in faux-fur trim.
The van slowed down next to her and the head and breath of a man around thirty years old protruded out the window. I didn’t think anything of it, I assumed he knew her and was talking to a friend. But as she continued on, one determined stride after another, her head steadfastly forward, and as he leaned his whole torso out the window of the van rolling next to her, I realized I wasn’t witnessing two friends crossing paths on a Tuesday night. My curiosity piqued, I picked up the pace of my walk and got closer. He was hitting on her, asking her name and where she was going. Nothing overtly sexual or demeaning, but his meaning was clear.
What’s your name baby? Where you headed tonight?
When she didn’t respond, he quickly gave up and the van pulled away. As I was now fairly close, I was tempted to say something to her, to let her know that I had seen what happened, that it was crazy, and that not all men were like that. But then I realized I was another strange man, walking behind her on a dark night, and that the last thing she would want was another unfamiliar man to engage her. I wasn’t going to get a chuckle of relief if I said “Out of a van? Did he think that would actually work?”
Because that’s what I was thinking. I was thinking that the guy, the scrub (he was, after all, hanging out the passenger’s side of his best friend’s ride) was sure, a creep, sort of an asshole, but mostly just an idiot. My reaction was one of bewilderment and, I admit, amusement. I certainly felt sorry for the woman to have to deal with male harassment as she was making her way home, but I was also amused by his “game,” I thought it was funny that anybody could think that a woman would respond to the overtures of a guy leaning out of the side of a van on a dark night, asking her name. Did he actually think that would work?
I was told repeatedly by my father growing up to not only respect women, but that it was a man’s job to protect women. I was told that was the very definition of man: protector of women. If the van’s passenger had tried to get out of the van or had grabbed her, I would have run up and tried to stop it, I know that much. If he had kept at it for a while, I would have picked up my pace to pull even with her, and the van probably would have driven away. If it had turned into something serious, according to my definition of that word, I would have intervened. That’s what I told myself anyway.
But in that moment, I thought 1) nothing was going to happen and 2) the ineptitude of his pick up attempt was funny.
I’ve only realized over the last day or two, getting gently reprimanded on Facebook and reading #yesallwomen tweets, how scared that woman may have been. I’m sure she wasn’t thinking “oh man, what a lame pick up attempt,” like I was. I understood at the time she was probably uncomfortable, which is why I quickened my pace to get closer, and why I wanted to say something reassuring to her after the van pulled away. But I saw that van as something like a really bad online profile, something creepy, a turn off, precisely because of the “rape van” connotation, but somehow in the moment I didn’t immediately understand that “rapey” doesn’t just equal “creepy” it equals “potential for rape.” I only now realize that I interpreted a man making sexual overtures from the window of a stalking van as a turn off more than I did a threat of violence. That’s because I assumed nothing would happen, I assumed nobody was going to be snatched off the street in front of me. I assumed dudes hit on girls, and as distasteful and uncomfortable as it was, as unfortunate as it was, he would quickly drive away and the only damage done would be to his ego when she finished ignoring him (although if he lacked the self-awareness to decide to hit on a girl out of the window of a van at night, I doubt he would have the self-awareness to be embarrassed when it didn’t work.)
Good thing there were was a man like me around, a man who not only knew how to properly hit on women, but was raised to respect and defend them.
What an asshole.
I made that moment, a moment in which I watched a woman walking home on a dark night get harassed by men (at least two, because obviously the driver was involved, and who knows how many more guys were in the back) and thought about what a great guy I was. I thought about what a better man I was then those creeps that speak to women in catcalls from large vehicles and street corners. I thought about how different I was. I thought “I’m not like that.” Not, “how can there be men like that?” Not “what steps can I take to make sure I never have to witness something like that again?” Not “how many more women are going to have to deal with that tonight?”
No. “I’m not like that. I have value as a man, because I can both seduce and defend women.”
Not “is that woman’s heart pounding?” Not “is she remembering a time when the van stopped?”
If that woman turned and saw me walking behind her as the van pulled away, she wouldn’t have thought that she was safe. She wouldn’t have been thankful that I had been watching the whole time. She would have seen a man with his hood up on a snowy night walking behind her on mostly abandoned streets.
Even now, it’s about me. Christ.
I hope you made it home safe.