Ain’t no hollaback girl!

When you’re a woman who’s nearly forty, how do you go about explaining the lifetime of harassment and unkindness that goes into your response to harassment?

The man’s movement was sudden and shocking.

I was sitting at a small table in a fast food eatery, checking Twitter on my phone and minding my own business. It was about 10pm and I had come to sit with a friend while he ate dinner. My friend had gone to the bathroom, so I sat alone, doing nothing of consequence to anyone, other than existing.

They had stumbled in a few minutes earlier, bringing a ruckus with them. They were too loud, too bold, just too much; these two men, wreaking of alcohol and tobacco, demanding their less-than-35%-actual-beef-stuffed pseudo-Mexican food, and making fellow patrons uncomfortable. They were physically large, sure, but they also had a presence that filled the entire dining room.

I was on alert.

My friend, being male and, thereby, moving through the world in a different way altogether, hadn’t noticed a thing. I guess that’s why he didn’t think twice about casually going to the restroom while I felt a storm brewing.

As soon as I was alone at the table, the two men stood near me, their bodies like a wall. One came toward me fast; I was caught off guard by how quickly he moved for his size.

“I wouldn’t fuck you with a bag over your head,” he hissed, near enough to my ear that he could have whispered, but didn’t. The beer on his breath likely rendered him unable to gauge his own volume.

The other one piped up, loudly, “I would! Let’s put a bag over her head!”

I looked down. The other diners looked away. Their order number was called, and they were gone.

My friend came back and I told him what had happened.

“Why didn’t you say something?” he said. “I didn’t even know you were capable of NOT saying something.”

When you’re a woman who’s nearly forty, how do you go about explaining the lifetime of harassment and unkindness that has gone into your response (or lack thereof)? It takes a million tiny–and not so tiny–experiences for us to become our current selves.

As for me, my million is made up of being female, being overweight, having developed large breasts in elementary school and living with them for three decades since, having a job where I am treated as less than, surviving two sexual assaults and an abusive husband, as well as the tiny, everyday indignities that we all as humans endure.

It just so happened that, on this particular night, I had recently left work and was still in the uniform that was providing, on a daily basis, a chance for humiliation and degradation by both customers and management. I was not at my strongest. I buried my chin in my polo shirt and prayed for the men to leave quickly and, thankfully, they did.

Though this incident was just another +1 in my million and quickly slipped to the back of my mind where I was safe from it. I was reminded of it this morning, when I saw this video (sound NSFW) of a woman, calling out the man who was harassing her on the subway. Loudly, clearly, strongly.

Forty-six seconds long, at least one hundred tears. That’s more than two tears per second! It was like all of my million surfaced for that time. Empowered by the beautiful, outspoken mystery woman (was she always like this or had she just had quite enough, thank you very much?), I did a little research.

My googles took me to Hollaback!, a website and movement, working to end street harassment. They believe in “building communities where everyone feels comfortable, safe, and respected.” It’s a place for women or men to tell their stories of harassment without judgment, which, sadly, is what happens sometimes in the real world. There is also an opportunity to post pictures, though they don’t necessarily have to be of the harasser’s face (which I like). It could be his shoes. It could be his hands. It could be a street sign, indicating where the offense happened. The website encourages citizens to talk about the problem, which is a huge step in abolishing it.

The woman in the video was not identified in any of the news stories that I found, but the man was. Mario Valdivia, 51 years-old, of Queens was charged with forcible touching, public lewdness and sex abuse. An important victory for many women who have felt victimized at one time or another, myself included.

I’ve donated a small amount to Hollaback!, as well as contacted them about starting a Richmond chapter. While the problem is small here in comparison to some cities, the meshing of country folk, city folk, and suburban folk can sometimes lead to a lack of sensitivity, and I think it’s important that people have a place to tell their stories and feel heard.

And you’d better believe that if you’re the next person to tell me what you would or wouldn’t do to my body, without my permission, I will be standing up to you. I hope. After all, I’m only human, and it’s me against a million.

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The Checkout Girl

The Checkout Girl is Jennifer Lemons. She’s a storyteller, comedian, and musician. If you don’t see her sitting behind her laptop, check the streets of Richmond for a dark-haired girl with a big smile running very, very slowly.

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