“I’d like to scrape up some sense of triumph over the fact that many courageous women have raised their voices. But I don’t feel triumphant. I feel humiliated and angry. They hate us. That’s my immediate thought, with each new revelation: They hate us. And then, a more sick-making suspicion: They don’t care about us enough to hate us. We are simply a form of livestock.” – Gillian Flynn in “A Howl”
What I have to say after fifty years of silence is relatively insignificant when contrasted with what many courageous women have lived with and finally come forward as the true silence breakers–as Time Magazine calls them–to tell us about the verbal and physical sexual harassment they suffered through.
Some women have been asked why they didn’t speak out sooner. Quite often, they feared for their safety, their careers, and for the blame and condemnation that society would bestow upon them as insult on top of injury. Many, I think, can echo Gillian Flynn’s statement, “I feel humiliated and angry.” That’s how felt after a smaller event in 1967.
During my summer break at Syracuse University, I took the New York Central train from Syracuse to New York City’s Grand Central Station. I’d been at the midtown Manhattan station before, knew my way around, and understood that it’s best in big cities to walk with a sense of purpose rather than standing around like a greenhorn who doesn’t know where he is or where he’s going. I was headed for Europe for volunteer work and planned to have breakfast and then grab a cab to the National Council of Churches office on Riverside Drive.
When I got off the train with my suitcase, an African American man in his late 30s appeared, grabbed by suitcase, and said, “I’ll help you figure out where you are.” I assumed he was a thief or a tout from a nearby hotel. I’ve always had fast reflexes. Before he could take a step, I grabbed the suitcase handle. He didn’t remove his hand, choosing to continue the side-by-side contact of our hands and looked me in the eye in a way I didn’t like.
“What are you seeking?” he asked.
“Breakfast,” I said.
He let go of the suitcase, saying, “Follow me out on the street and I’ll point out a place with the second best eggs and bacon in the city.”
I was surprised when he simply pointed to a restaurant a half a block away and disappeared into the crowd. The encounter seemed odd, but I put it out of my mind as I went inside the place–I no longer remember the name–and saw that it was typical New York, efficient, brusque, and carried the aroma of great food. I found a booth so I’d have a place to stash my suitcase, glanced at the menu for a nanosecond before a waitress appeared and said, “Yeah?” I have no idea what I ordered: bacon, eggs and hash browns, probably, because before the food arrived, the guy from the train station showed up, slid into my side of the booth like we were together, and asked what I’d ordered. When I told him, he said that wasn’t bad, but that he could fix me something better at his apartment a few blocks away.
Had my coffee arrived, I would have done a spit take and showered him with coffee.
“Why would I do that?” I asked.
“Because I want to make love to you?”
“My girl wouldn’t approve. I wouldn’t either.”
He laughed the way people laugh when they think they’ve heard a falsehood.
“Why didn’t this girl of yours meet your train?”
“She’s at work.”
“High class girl. What’s she look like?”
The waitress set down my meal and fled the scene with a frown that gave me little confidence she’d kill the guy while I escaped out the backdoor.
“Catherine Deneuve,” I said, because I had a crush on the actress.
“Can’t compete with that,” he said, fetching a piece of bacon off my plate. He was sitting closer than necessary. In fact, there was no space between us and his arm was behind me on the back of the booth.
“Nobody can. Go find an easier mark at the train station.”
He acted like I’d plunged a knife into his heart, a thought that crossed my mind, and then we argued as I tried to eat my breakfast while he became a lawyer, so to speak, claiming that a guy like me couldn’t possibly have a girl who looked like Catherine Deneuve.
Finally, he said, “I say it’s because I’m black and have a bigger dick than you’ve ever seen in your life. You want to run but you don’t.”
“I have no interest in men.”
“Ever tried one?”
“I don’t need to try a collie dog to know that there’s no future for Lassie and me.”
He put his hand on my thigh. “You need it bad. Here you are in the big city with a fake girl friend on Riverside drive and no place to lie down. I bet you don’t even have a hotel reservation.”
“The Woodstock,” I said, mentioning a reasonable place that had apparently gone down hill since my family stayed there some ten years earlier.
He seemed surprised to hear the name of an actual hotel. “That dump? Don’t make me laugh.”
“Get your hand off me.”
“You want it there. I can see that.”
I shoved the remains of my breakfast away, caught the waitress’ eye, and handed her enough to cover the meal and the tip. When he didn’t leave the booth, I pushed him away, got my suitcase and left the restaurant. I went to the first cab in the queue and when the driver came out and put my suitcase in the trunk, he asked, “where we headed?”
“475 Riverside Drive,” I said.
There he was, hovering next to line of taxis. “I guess you weren’t shitting me about Riverside,” he said. “Your loss.”
I ignored him even though he was holding on to the frame of the open window. I felt like telling the driver something out of the movies, “We’re being followed. Can you do something about it?” But I just let him drive away at his own speed because I was already wondering what I could have possibly done to attract this guy in the first place and how I could have gotten rid of him sooner.
Well, he was soon going to be a world away from me and out of mind. I sailed for Europe on an Italian ship the following day, happy to see he hadn’t come aboard. The summer in Europe captured my thoughts, but he remained in the background as a haunting specter whom I still wonder about from a day I felt humiliated and vulnerable.