Monday, August 31, 2015

This is why I won't take the late train.

I had a really scary experience Friday night which is still echoing.

I had to work late because we were having a special event. The bus I needed to take stopped running at 7, so a coworker drove me to the Norwalk train station. It was 9 at night and I was waiting on a bench inside. The building was deserted, with no sound but the ticking clock. There was a calmness to the sense that I was the only one there.

Then, as I drew faces in my sketchbook, a man approached me. He must have been in his early to mid twenties. He had both an iPhone and a Tracfone. This immediately set off a red flag, since people involved in all kinds of creepy bullshit often carry both a regular cell and an untraceable one that’s easy to discard. He sat by me and started asking to see more of my drawings. I told him I was busy, but he wouldn’t leave me alone. He stared at me intently, leaning in closer.

I kept writing in the sketchbook, trying not to let my hand shake. He said, “I wrote a thousand journals in my head and I want to give them all to you.”

The man kept getting calls on his Tracfone. He intermittently walked across the room to talk to whoever was on the other line in a hushed voice. He then came back and continued to intrude with question after question, most of which I didn’t answer. The questions didn’t feel like they were hitting me; more like burrowing in. He offered no information about himself, and I didn’t ask. He demanded to know what I’d eaten that day. Where I lived. Where I was going, and how long my train ride would be. He asked if I had a boyfriend and I said, “I’m married.” He smirked and asked, “How are you enjoying that?”

I didn’t get up to leave because I knew he would follow me. I couldn’t say anything overtly angry because he would get violent. I could hear that threat as clearly as his breath. The tension pressed forward, ebbing and flowing in his lungs, at the whim of however I responded. I was at his whim. At any time he could snap the thin layer that solidified the air between us. There was a bulge in the pocket on his lower hip which was shaped exactly like a handgun. I was anchored to the chair, removed from the situation. I just watched it happen. As long as I kept him talking, he wasn’t raping me. As long as he stayed on that bench, I wasn’t being abducted. If I let him think about other things, he wouldn’t think about the gun resting against his leg. There was no one to run to if this conversation slipped off the track. It just kept barreling forward with me as the passenger.

This went on for half an hour.

He drew closer I distantly heard him say, “I came into your life for a reason. When you interact with somebody, you wanna get something out of them. I want to get something out of you. And I want to leave you with something. Every man has power, and women have power too. When you meet someone, you exchange that power and take it with you.”

If I could feel my skin, I think it would have been prickling.

He asked if I like blue. I answered, “Are you asking because everyone likes blue?” He reached under my bench, took a blue Skittle from the floor, and said, “I asked because I saw this here. I thought it was a sign.”

He peered back at the sketchbook and said, “I want to read your writing.”

I shook my head. He asked why not and I answered, “I don’t know you.”

He sighed, “That’s deep.”

Everything he was saying would have been hilariously trite, like a parody of a cheesy pickup artist, if it wasn’t carrying a bullet. He went on, “I saw you on the bus earlier. I saw you twice today, so I do know you.”

A darting glance at the clock told me my train was on its way. This shook me out of the numbness. I started to get up, and had to force myself to slow down and look calm.

He asked, “Do you want to see me again?”

I said no. He replied, “Doesn’t matter. I know what bus you take, so I will see you again. And again and again, and I’ll keep moving closer. And then I’ll be a part of your life.”

My legs were finally running and I disappeared behind the train door, heart pummeling, not looking back.

I never told him my name or where I work, but he knows from my name tag and the words on my shirt. And now I reach for my pepper spray and scour every direction when I step onto the bus. I’m never going back to that train station again.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Appearance-shaming, Freedom, and Entitlement

A lot of people will see someone dressed in a way they dislike, or with a body they don’t find attractive, and respond with actual anger—as if it’s a direct offense to them. As if a stranger’s appearance is supposed to please them, and the person is neglecting their job if it doesn’t. Especially if the individual in question doesn’t seem to care. This is expressed when somebody is disgusted with another’s style (usually a woman’s, although I have also heard this directed at men) and says, “I don’t want to see that.” As if everybody else’s sole reason for looking the way they do is to appeal to that viewer.

I've heard this about everything from revealing clothing, to piercings and tattoos, to styles that are just seen as silly, to factors like size and age. As if once a person crosses a certain threshold of weight or years, they’re now obligated to isolate themselves at home. As if occupying time and space on this planet is an indulgence (thank you, Industrial Age hangover). The one making the comment will sometimes accuse the other of being “selfish” for their visibility, completely oblivious to the hypocrisy of that idea. Additionally, those casting this judgment very rarely meet the beauty ideals they demand of others. They often even dress in a style similar to what they mock.

To be clear, I do think there are fashion choices which are not appropriate to all settings. Wearing a wedding dress to a wedding when you’re not the one getting married, obviously. Walking into a preschool in assless chaps. And something like blackface or a decorative swastika is strictly reserved for “Nobody, Nowhere, 0:00 p.m.” But that’s because those choices branch out beyond personal taste and into the “making a wildly hostile statement” territory. Those statements are obviously, deliberately directed toward people with the intent to harass them. Especially symbols that are aggressive toward marginalized groups. Those are the most harmful on a widespread scale, because they reinforce a power imbalance and highlight a traumatic history.

An outfit which shows a lot of skin can be a gray area. It's true that a body in itself shouldn’t be seen as offensive. (That doesn’t mean anyone is obligated to feel attracted to another person or to think they’re good-looking. But the fact that I don’t think someone looks good should not offend me. Their appearance isn’t my clickbait media. And likewise, nobody is obligated to think I'm attractive.) At the same time, people shouldn’t be forced to see nudity. This is where one’s wishes may impose on another’s consent. But to some people, any glimpse at a person they think is ugly—even if fully clothed—is regarded as a violation, which is ridiculously selfish entitlement.

As I mentioned, this isn’t only directed at women by men. I’ve heard women do this to each other. I’ve heard women do it to men. I’ve heard men inflict it on one another, and every gender variation in between. It’s true that men are also ridiculed and discriminated against for how they physically present themselves, and how they involuntarily look. I would say, though, that a man’s overall value tends to not be judged by his appearance to the same degree as a woman’s. This judgment over appearance and personal style also severely affects trans men and trans women. Many ignorant people feel threatened by seeing those whose clothing and bodies don’t meet traditional gender norms. That is never the fault of those being attacked for it. A person’s gender expression is nobody else’s concern.

The transphobia that creates the sense of feeling “attacked” by simply seeing a trans person is similar to the type of fear and outrage inspired by seeing other marginalized people wearing what denotes their identity. Clothing associated with those of lower economic status, for example. I can’t count how many times I’ve witnessed people up in arms over “that knockoff [insert brand name]” or “that ratchet getup.” It’s not just the clothing that disturbs them; that’s shorthand. Just as some are upset by the bodies inside the outfits, many are outraged by the people whom the attire represents. An outfit is rarely just an outfit and a body is rarely just a body—even if oppressed people are reduced, in the public eye, to their appearance alone. People encompass identities, and vice versa. The real sense of indignation derives from feeling threatened by the fact that some humans make their existence known without apology. No matter how ridiculous others may say they look, they’re wearing their dignity. To those with privileges to lose, that armor is seen as a sword.