Fall in New York City makes me forget all my troubles. The juxtaposition of red, orange, and yellow leaves over blue-glass buildings, the breezy weather, the yellow taxis pressing the leaves into the pavement, the splendor of the botanical garden I visited a few weeks ago–all of it sometimes feels like it was made just for me to wander through.
Today I walked almost five miles through Central Park. I had my headphones off, which I almost never do. Usually I keep them on, even if I don’t want to listen to music, so that I don’t hear the things men say to me. But I wanted to hear the sounds of the park.
I’ve wanted to see the Mall in autumn for a while now–you know, that walkway lined with American Elms that features prominently in When Harry Met Sally.
Well, I saw it. And as I was seeing it, a man stopped me.
“Excuse me miss–”
“No thank you, I’m not interested.”
He started to walk away towards a couple sitting on a bench, but I whipped around like a woman on fire.
“What did you just say to me?”
It’s happened plenty of times, but it still surprises me because it feels so far from where I’ve been. My voice came out clear and strong. I faced him, looked right at him, as the couple on the bench watched on.
“I asked if you’d donate to–”
“No, after that.”
“I said have a nice day.”
“Sure you did.”
I walked away.
What else can you do?
I thought about how easily he had told that absolutely blatant lie. He did not appear nervous. He did not hesitate. His voice was confident, casual. It’s nothing, just a little misunderstanding.
They all lie so easily.
“I said have a nice day.”
“I never touched her, I don’t know what she’s talking about.”
“Of course I didn’t call you the n-word, I’d never do something like that, I’m not a racist, stop pulling the race card.”
“I didn’t sexually assault her; she got upset after I rejected her advances and falsely accused me.”
“Despite a strong connection between us it became clear to me that our on-and-off dating was unlikely to grow into a larger relationship and I ended things in the beginning of this year. She was upset by this and sent me messages indicating her disappointment that I would not commit to more, and her anger that I was seeing others. After this, in the early spring there began a campaign of harassment, vengeance and demonization against me that would lead to months of anxiety.”
It is not enough for them to simply say that we were wrong or misunderstood. They have to try to paint us as crazed, over-emotional, hysterical bitches, too.
Despite widespread belief that detecting lies is easy, research shows that people do barely better than chance at it. This man I encountered in the Mall was showing none of the signs associated with spewing complete unadulterated grade-A bullshit. Yet that’s exactly what he was doing.
It’s not just lying, either. It’s gaslighting, too. I’ve been through this many times. They try to get me to believe that what I absolutely just saw or heard did not really happen. Nothing to see here. Move along.
It is difficult, nearly impossible, for a woman (or another person affected by systemic oppression like this) to relearn the skill of trusting your own perception. There are many things that have happened to me that I’m no longer quite certain happened simply because somebody told me they didn’t. Like an altered Soviet photograph with a space where some persona non grata used to be, these memories feel shaky and uncertain to me.
Not this time. This man called me a bitch. He called me a bitch because I politely said no. Never forget that. I will never forget that, no matter what anyone says.
I am sure that there are people who would find it easier to believe that I, a person without hearing impairment, who was standing at most two feet away from this man in a relatively quiet place, either managed to mishear “Have a nice day” as “Whatever, bitch,” or that I deliberately accused an innocent man of saying such a thing (Why? To what possible end?) than that a man might use a slur against a woman who refuses to give him her time or attention.
It’s not just that these things happen so commonly. It’s that they happen so commonly and yet people continue to believe them to be the fantastical inventions of some jealous/delusional/over-emotional/vengeful/uptight/slutty/prudish/ugly/crazy bitch. Instead, they propose explanations that are more fantastical by orders of magnitude, such as the idea that I could have somehow heard “Whatever, bitch” instead of “Have a nice day.” Or that someone could believe themselves to have been sexually assaulted when nothing of the sort happened. Or that they would willfully lie about it and have their names dragged through the mud in front of the silent, shrugging world.
And I thought, too, about the couple on the bench, looking at the man and at me. Maybe they thought I was a crazy bitch. Maybe they knew exactly what was going on. Maybe they were confused and didn’t know what to think.
Regardless, I cannot concern myself too much with the opinion of the couple on the bench, because I will never see the couple on the bench again. I will, on the other hand, have to live as a woman in this world for the rest of my life. Talking back will not end sexism and it is not an option available to everyone. But it replenishes me. It is a power that I have. I know it is a power because if it wasn’t, men wouldn’t be so afraid of it.
The photos in this post are all ones I took during that walk today. I included them here for a reason, and it wasn’t to show off my photography. It was to give those of you who haven’t experienced it a sense of that juxtaposition, of having almost every joyful, peaceful, meaningful moment in your life punctuated somehow by oppression.
I am not a happy person, not even when I’m not depressed, but I am a person who constantly marvels at the world–the physical world, the social world. Yet sexism follows me everywhere, taints almost all of my experiences and memories. I can’t get away from it, not even in the twisted paths and falling leaves of Central Park. I cannot escape it no matter where I go.
Not three minutes after my encounter with the man who called me a bitch, another man approached me. I said the same sort of thing as I said last time, only my voice had gone cold and hard as the ancient boulders in the park. This man did not call me a bitch. He just said, “Have a nice day,” in the cruelest tone I’ve ever heard those words said. I thought, Too late.
After that I put my headphones on, concluding that particular experiment. As the world around me went quiet, I felt those headphones like a shield around my mind. The singing birds, the fountains, the intriguing conversations all became dull and fuzzy, like the way your mind feels when you’re sick.
But I didn’t turn the music on. Instead I imagined my own music. Sometimes I thought of the Russian songs my parents and their friends and I sing around campfires. Other times I made up my own songs. It comforted me.
I didn’t feel sad, exactly. I felt suddenly disconnected, like I was experiencing the world from inside a bubble. I felt very alone. I felt weary. I also felt grateful for the privileges I do have, without which this situation could so easily have been much worse.
But I thought about it for the rest of the walk, because it had lodged itself, as these things often do, in my mind like a splinter that itches and burns.
Central Park is a wonder this time of year. If you live nearby, I encourage you to visit it, especially if you, unlike me, have the freedom to be able to take your headphones off, let it fill your ears up with its beautiful noise.