Solo in the City: An Education in Fear

I haven’t posted in while and that’s because I was on vacation in New York City.

Be jealous.

This was my first time in New York. This was my first time travelling alone.

I won’t bore you with the details of my trip, but I had a fantastic time.  No music or podcasts, no social media or texts, I was on my own. Just me.  The ability to go where I wanted, when I wanted, was liberating.

Also, when you’re alone nobody can judge you for eating pizza every day.

I ate it all.

Before I left on my trip, I started to notice a pattern. I’d tell people about my plans, letting them know I was going solo. Most reactions were, “Oh that’s so fun, you’ve never been? You’re going to have a great time.” This was usually followed by recommendations for what to do in the city…. But then there would be further advice: “Be careful”, “Watch out.” One male friend relayed a cautionary tale about a female family member who had gone to New York and almost been forced into a van by a group of men, “Watch out for that.” Essentially his message was to watch out lest I be attacked, kidnapped, or sexually assaulted. Don’t get raped. I understand that these warnings from family and friends come from a legitimate place of concern for my well being, but I couldn’t help the nagging feeling that no one (or at least not as many people) would be saying this to me if I were a man travelling alone.

I started to get defensive. Particularly sarcastic and facetious, Oh… So…DON’T GET RAPED? Well, shucks I never thought about it that way…But I’m on vacation goddamn it! I already have to worry about figuring out the subway and THIS too! However will I manage to make it?

 

I started to take these comments as a little patronizing. I mean, I’m a woman already living and working in a big city who does a many number of things alone. At night even. Unaccompanied. The horror.

But when I actually thought about it, I realized how much this is actually on my radar. There is an education I’ve received based on the fact that I’m a biological female: Always be on guard. Don’t take drinks from strangers. Don’t walk alone through the park. Don’t wear certain clothing if you don’t want to be considered a slut, and therefore somehow more susceptible and deserving of an attack.

This is actually the way I move in the world. There are places I won’t walk alone after a certain time of night. If I’m at a bar have had drinks, I will most likely opt to take a cab home, not only for convenience, but for safety. If I do walk, especially at night and there is a man by himself walking behind me, I’ll use the reflection from storefront windows to see where he is. Often, I’ll slow down or stop, pretending to check something on my phone and let him pass me so I can keep on eye on him. I get nervous when a car slows down next to me. Then there’s the key trick–I’ll slip them between my fingers in the advent that a three inch key is going to save me from the attack that I have been warned will, statistcally speaking, come.

Stay back.

It’s a sad realization, but the truth is—I live a lot of my life in fear.

I didn’t always have this fear.

I grew up in a small town where we didn’t lock the front door, or even our cars. I would walk around town without the slightest notion that anyone would ever want to hurt me.

Then I grew up and moved to Toronto.

In my second year of university I was living just outside Moss Park. It’s a pretty rough area with quite a few homeless or under housed people. There were sex workers who were very friendly, but there were times where my roommates and I would encounter a man in a car attempting to pick us up. Occasionally, you would hear a popping sound in the distance followed by sirens that could have quite possibly been gunfire. But we weren’t scared.

There was one night where I was walking down Sherbourne after having gone on a date. I had just past Filmores, a particularly suspect strip club. It was the end of summer at about 2:45 in the morning. I was wearing a white sundress and had walked, for the most part, alone from Queens Quay. As I rounded the corner, a cab stopped next to me. The driver pulled down the window, “I’ll drive you home.” I responded that I didn’t have any money and I just lived around the corner, “That’s fine you don’t have to pay. You shouldn’t be walking here.” I accepted his offer and directed him to my house. He was almost angry with me. “Young girls like you shouldn’t be walking about all alone so late” he said. Before I stepped out the door he instructed me, “Next time, take a cab home.”

My education continued when several attacks were reported on the campus of my university, stories from friends about being followed or threatened, catcalls and sexually aggressive comments directed towards me on the street. Once I gave the finger to a group of men in a car who had called out, “I want to fuck you in the pussy” they threw a beer bottle out of the window that shattered at my feet. It’s quite an education, to learn that you’ll never be safe, just because of your biology and appearance.

The irony is, is that if a cab driver offered to drive me home for free now, I would probably be hesitant. I wouldn’t trust him.

Now I’m not the first person to point this out, but maybe if we conditioned men to you know, respect women as equals and escape this whole rape culture thing, I wouldn’t have to live with such fear. What would it look like if men were given the same kind of education when it came to not harassing maligning or disrespecting not just women, but other bodies and identities that have been deemed fair game for this kind of treatment?

When I say gender, you say equality!

I didn’t take a vacation from this fear. It’s something I carry with me. But I will say there was never a time on my vacation where I felt unsafe. I encountered some of the loveliest, nicest, kindest human beings. From strangers offering me directions, friendly hellos, interesting conversations, I felt nothing short of welcome in the Big Bad Apple, but I was still on guard.

 

 

Tall Tales

“You’re really tall.”

As a woman standing at five-foot-nine this is something people say to me. Mostly men. Particularly from men shorter than I. As though I am unaware.

It’s not exactly a compliment.

It’s not exactly an insult.

It’s kind of like an accusation.

Sometimes I think they mean it as a good thing, and then it’s not?

Yeah, being tall is Awe–WAIT, WHAT?

More often than not, it’s a shitty observation that comes with the subtextual message that I am somehow doing wrong by being such a fucking–TALL PERSON. It makes me feel immediately self-conscious: Is he trying to say I’m too tall? Is there something wrong with being tall? Does he think I’m ENORMOUS?

For example: I recently attended a friend’s wedding, and after the toasts, the meal, and the cake cutting we all hit the dance floor. The gentleman who had been sitting across the beautifully decorated dinner table sidled up to me,

“Wow. You’re really tall. I was going to talk to you… but you know, you’re so tall.”

“Oh, well, I mean we have actually spoken.”

“I know, but I meant, like, talk to you.”

Now, how the fuck am I supposed to respond to that? I mean…He’s right. I am tall, extra tall in the heels I’m wearing. But this statement wasn’t about me, it was about him, he’s five-foot-six or something and I guess he just can’t help himself but alert me to the fact that my height excludes me from being a prospective sexual partner. And because, women’s bodies are like, you know, public property wherein comments about their physical appearance are offered freely and without consequence, I guess I should just be happy that a man is speaking to me and just eat it, right?

I don’t get it; in the Western ideal of beauty we worship tall, long legged, super models and actresses. High heels are marketed specifically to women. But I’ve found that once those uncomfortable, overly priced, fuck me pumps have you looming over a man, he’ll take the opportunity to knock you down a peg with a look up and down and make an announcement that makes you rethink what exactly you are supposed to look like.

I just can’t win.

Maybe I should react in kind, making declarations about men without offering a clear indication of what exactly I mean by it:

“You have hair on your face.” (subtext: SLOB)

“Your hands are medium sized.” (subtext: WHAT DOES THAT MEAN ABOUT YOUR DICK?)

“You have lips.” (subtext: DON’T YOU THINK THAT MAKES YOU WEIRD?)

I guess my insecurity about my height goes back to the seventh grade when I hit puberty and shot up five inches in a summer and suddenly had breasts. School dances provided horrifying opportunities where I would awkwardly slow dance with the boys a solid foot shorter than me, their hands perched lightly on my waist, the space between us not because we were, “leaving room for the Holy Spirit”, as my teachers used to say, but because in comparison to these prepubescent boys I was a gigantic sweaty weirdo they didn’t want to get too close to. Inevitably, my crushes would end up “going out” with the petite, cute girls in class.

And so, in the wish to be a smaller, lighter, cooler girl I began to slouch, like really slouch (much to the horror and constant objection of my Chiropractor father).

Picture 11

It took me years to have the confidence to stand up straight. Boys finally caught up with me and we could start talking and dancing at eye level, but there is still a small part of me that just wants to slouch my shoulders and droop my head forward, lest I be noticed.

So what’s with this unwritten rule that heterosexual men are supposed to be taller than their partner? … I guess…It’s because… they’re better than us right? Something…about… how they are supposed to be physically stronger and, just like, more superior? That’s it right? Okay, I’m being too facetious, I recognize and can sympathize with an impossible and prescriptive beauty standard, and I know there is pressure on men to be tall and fit and just like Jon Hamm. I get it.

Just listen to Tina.

 

What I came to quickly realize when I started to date, specifically online, and when using the app Tinder is that a lot of men mentioned their height (and those who did all said they were 6 feet tall… really… are you all six feet tall?!)

I had a Tinder date a little while back. I really liked this guy’s photos. He was hot. In the description section he stated, “These photos make me look taller than I really am, I’m 5”8” I was like, Okay, That’s really a problem for me. A little shorter than me shouldn’t be a big deal right?

HOWEVER, when he showed up for the date, he was more like five-foot-six. It didn’t bother me so much that he was shorter, it was that he was a short LIAR.

Like, I get that everyone lies a little bit when they are dating, like little white lies like making your job sound more exciting than it actually is, and that you work out and eat kale or… whatever, those are lies that can go on for a long time before the other person realizes you’re a phony, but to lie about your height? That’s something you can tell right away. The date didn’t go well for other reasons (he kind of sucked as a person), but I couldn’t help but be simultaneously bothered by his deceitfulness and ultimately reflective about the nature of our heightist society where we all feel pressure to look and act a certain way.

Now, I’m a vapid, beauty obsessed, shallow asshole like the rest of us, and I do tend to find taller men more attractive, which makes me a huge hypocrite, but I have never walked up to a shortie and been like, “Damn. You short.” Because that would not be kind of me. I would be commenting on something they just couldn’t help, so why do these men think it’s okay to point out my stature in a negative way?

 

I am tall and am going to continue to be so until I’m an old lady and start to shrink. But in the meantime I’m going to stand up straight, own my height, and maybe instead of just pointing out that I stand at a different altitude, just be nice to me and see me a whole person and if you say something about my physical appearance it should be something respectful and maybe complimentary?

Because, really,  everybody’s the same height lying down, AMIRITE?

Drunk in Love (Or Not)

The end of summer is upon us and that means the kids will be going back to school, sweaters will emerge from our closets, pumpkin will find it way into a many number of our food and drinks, and the last ditch effort for the summer fling is in full force.

My friend just got engaged so I ask her out for drinks, she brings along her friend who is going to get married in two weeks. We pre-drink at my place and end up at the Drake. It’s a Saturday night in Toronto after midnight, so there is a line everywhere, and the Drake is no exception. I politely approach the bouncer at the head the line in the hopes of ascertaining how long the wait will be when the bride-to-be comes up behind me, interrupting my overly polite request:

“We’re here for Dave’s* birthday party.”

“Dave who?”

“What do you mean Dave WHO?! We’re here for his BIRTHDAY!”

This girl was serious.

He looks the three of us up and down and I try to surpress a smirk when I see that the five-foot-three bride-to-be has successfully flummoxed this six-foot-two ominous looking bouncer. He unclasps the velvet rope ushering us in, “You still have to pay cover,” he says in a slightly muted voice.

We peer into the dance floor; it’s loud, crowded, and haunted house level dark. Last time I came here a guy spilled his drink down my back. The memory of ice cubes in my panties comes rushing back.

The bride-to-be decides this won’t do: We have to get up to the top patio. The stairs to the patio is guarded by another bouncer who, although he has the physique to match his position, is a baby faced man in his mid-twenties, nervously playing with the radio leading into his ear. She doesn’t even look at him. She starts to ascend the stairs with confidence and we follow until the bouncer puts his arm out like a police officer directing traffic.

“We’re at capacity.”

“We are here for Dave’s birthday!”

“We… We…” He fumbles with his radio.

“How are we going to get the bottle service going if we aren’t up there?! It’s for DAVE!”

This goes on for a little bit, this young man not sure what to make of us, I’ve decided to look unimpressed and aloof to the whole affair and let her do her thing, which at this point I’m realizing she does super well. I’m out of her league when it comes to the cool, confident party girl. At her insistence, he let’s us up the stairs and we find ourselves out on the packed patio.

An extremely intoxicated man approaches me:

“Do you read?”

“What?!” (the music is really loud)

“Do you READ?”

“Yeah.”

“What do you read?”

“Books.”

“What kind?”

“The, well, the fiction kind, and… you know… Books.”

“Weird. What’s the last book you read?”

“Love in the Time of Cholera.”

“I don’t know that one.”

“It’s kind of popular.”

“Who wrote it?”

“Gabriel Garcia Marquez.”

“I don’t know her.”

I just walk away.

 

We grab some drinks and my friends eye a cute boy with a ponytail standing at the other end. I approach him:

“Hey my friends like your ponytail.”

“Oh yeah.”

My friends join us and one starts to play with his hair.

“Susan’s got really long hair!”

He puts his hand in my hair.

“Nah. Not enough volume.”

“Well, fuck you too.”

“Sorry?”

“I said fuck you too Ponytail, I was just trying to introduce you to my cute friends and you insult my hair!?!”

You’re dismissed.

Maybe I was just a little drunk.

Maybe I was about to get my period.

Maybe I’m just not cut out for this particular crowd.

I’m more comfortable sitting on a patio in Kensington, dancing to 90’s hip-hop at Clinton’s or The Garrison, or even playing Ms. PacMan at Get Well. There’s a certain frequency these places like the Drake seem to function at, where the top 40 music plays with an overtone of YOLO an undercurrent of find someone to hook-up with or GTFO. I’m having fun with my friends, but there’s something about the room that makes me feel uncomfortable, and I’m slightly off put by the obvious desperation of the waning summer and I guess I was putting out a not so great vibe. As one gentleman articulated,

“I’m gonna guess you’re twenty-six.”

“That’s not that far off.”

“I think your friend is twenty-four.”

“I’ll tell her that.”

“The only reason I say you’re older is because of your attitude, you know… You just, you’re talking to me but you got this attitude like, ‘Yeah you’re a nice guy, but FUCK YOU, you know’?”

I thank him for his feedback and try to relax a little. We start chatting with a group of guys who came together,

“So do you party?”

“Ye—Wait. Are you asking if I go out and have fun at parties or if I do cocaine?”

“Both.”

“I go out to parties.”

“Do you want to come back with us and do a mountain of cocaine?”

“Oh, no thank you”

“Why not?”

“It’s a very nice offer, really, but no thanks.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want to.”

“WHY?”

“Because I said no.”

“What did you think we were going to molest you?”

“Well NOW I do.”

We quickly run out of things to talk about.

Being technology obsessed and pretty narcissistic, I take a SnapChat to send out to everyone I know. In the middle of recording a short video, I feel a hand slip around my waist, and a man’s face in my ear.

“What are you SnapChatting for?”

He pinches my waist.

“None of your business.” I take a step back from him.

“Oh… I just… I’m with those guys.” He points to the men my friends are talking to.

“I don’t know those guys.”

He makes a quick exit.

The bride-to-be comes over to me, “What did you do that for?”

“He touched me without my permission.”

“That’s what guys do Susan, you’re hot and they want to touch you.”

I don’t have the time, energy, or blood-alcohol level to explain to her that, although, I am a big fan of being touched, kissed, fondled, fucked, you name it, by men—HOWEVER, this must come with my explicit permission and I am not comfortable living in a world where women’s bodies are seen as public property. Plus, that fucker pinched me really hard.

And then it hits me—Not only am I not cool enough, but I am also too feminist for this bar.
(On this particular night. I’ll go back for like, brunch and maybe a show or just drinks–really not tyring to pass judgement on the Drake as an institution).

I don’t want to participate in a culture where I have to act in a certain way just for the pleasure of men. I’m not against receiving a compliment, but the lesson she was attempting to relay to me is that I should enjoy male attention and accept it as some kind of validation based solely on my physical appearance.

 

And so my night continues in this fashion. Just being myself, which seems to assure that I will be going home alone tonight. Case in point:  A man in a suit offers to buy me a drink and I make a joke about Rohypnol. On out way back down the stairs a woman walking up lets me know my fly is down—AWESOME.

We hit the dance floor and I remember I can’t dance, but fuck it, I’m dancing for me, not for anyone else. A man from the sidewalk sees my friends dancing and taps on the glass, I’m flailing away as they wave and laugh.

I got moves.

I broke one of my rules that I’ve acquired after years of living in the city: Don’t stay on Queen Street West after last call. At the strike of 2:30 the clubs and bars vomit out crowds of unruly, drunk, horny, people all trying to either get food or a cab, and now I was one of them.

I leave my friends at the epic line at the poutine joint, I do have to work in the morning. I start walking down Queen and pass groups of all kinds of folks and I try to hail a cab, but there are none to be found, so instead, I start walking. At this point in the night, as a solo woman, I have to decide whether or not I take a side street where it’s quieter, but that comes with the danger that if someone attacks me there’s no one around, or I take the major streets and deal with the catcalls, but with the safety net of witnesses. (Patriarchy!)

I choose the main streets, walking up Ossington ignoring the calls of “Where are you going?” and “You’re hot!” When I finally reach College I see a cab and raise my arm. When it stops, a man about my age walks up to the door as well.

“Oh I’m sorry, I don’t want to steal your cab.”

“No, no.” he says, “Ladies first.”

I’ll take it.

Let’s say I’m too feminist for the bar, but I’m not above taking the cab based solely on the fact that I am female. I say thank you, and really mean it, and take my silly ass home.

*There is no Dave.