Growing up, my family went to an orthodox synagogue that was a 20 min walk from my house.
Every Saturday starting from when I was 9 years old, we’d wake up at 8:30 am and walk down Union Turnpike until Francis Lewis Boulevard, make a left and go straight until we saw the low, beige building after the bridge. I never particularly enjoyed going to this orthodox shul until I made friends who I’d hide with in the stairwell instead of praying in the main sanctuary. I always felt oversized and awkward in my Shabbat clothes (and not just because of my boobs). It felt like a fashion show that I’d always lose. That feeling didn’t really go away once I got older and I still feel anxiety going to shul today but this post isn’t about religion or New York Jewry or even clothes.
It’s about the walk home from shul.
Sometimes, when I didn’t feel like waiting for my parents and siblings, I’d leave early and walk along Union Turnpike on my own. It was a long stretch of street with “forests” on either side. I know they’re not actual forests since it was Queens and probably barely half a mile deep but they were long areas of trees and every 1000 feet there was a sign that said FOREVER WILD (which I always wanted to steal when I was a teen).
I would walk home lost in my own thoughts, writing poems or picking up cool leaves. But sooner or later. I would hear a car honk at me. Without fail. Every week. It would be one man, or two. Or teenage boys. Always looking at me – sometimes waving or sometimes shouting things at me. This was such a common occurrence that one time I walked home from school in a heavy snowstorm down that road and heard insistent honking – after trying to block it out for 10 min I finally looked up to see a friend’s dad trying valiantly to offer me a ride home. There was only one reason cars honked at me on that road. And while I didn’t necessarily feel unsafe walking home during the daytime from shul, I always felt embarrassed and powerless. I was 10 or 11. I didn’t stick up my middle finger or shout SHUT THE FUCK UP. I shrugged and said it was a compliment. It was part of life.
This #metoo thing is trending on Facebook and Twitter (as much as stories of sexual assault can be “trendy” but that’s the word so). So many women speaking up about their experiences with unwanted sexual attention, tactile or otherwise, and giving support to those who’ve had similar things happen to them. I watched my newsfeed flood with the posts and applauded them. I didn’t join in the tag because I don’t think I qualify (whatever that means) as a victim of sexual assault and don’t want to cheapen others’ brave declarations with my jumping “on the bandwagon.” I read stories about my friends having strangers stick their fingers up their skirts as teenagers and bosses touching them inappropriately. On and on. It’s devastating. And I felt lucky that I had (thank God) never experienced sexual assault. I feel weird and bad writing this right now because it’s hard to explain how sad and lucky I feel at the same time. I know it’s only random dumb luck that I haven’t been. There’s no real way to prevent it aside from educating and punishing men, it’s their fault and a patriarchal society where men get away with it.
Which brings me to last night.
Last night was trivia. I’ve been running trivia in Washington Heights for almost two years which might be the longest job I’ve ever had. Tuesday nights are the highlight of my week. I love walking in the bar, saying hi to the bartenders and regulars. I am in charge and I love knowing what I’m doing. It’s so fun and I’m good at it. Even when things don’t work, I know what to do. I have a regular order. Sometimes people see me in the streets in the Heights and recognize me. And 99% of the time, it’s great. And even when it’s slow, or hectic or freezing, it’s always a place where I feel competent.
It started off as a normal game, rules, prizes, round one. I called up team members for the first bonus round where one person from a team comes up and writes an answer to a question, the first correct answer gets a free beer. There were about 12 people and one guy, wearing a green shirt, starts shouting “What the hell! I’m all the way back here! How can I even win this shit?” I joked that he was allowed to elbow people out of the way, much like I do every week. He was still shouting and I made my blanket statement that he could complain at our website.
“I’m going to www. I don’t give a fuck!” He grumbled.
I asked the question. He didn’t get it. He stomped up to me and threw the answer packet in my face and walked away. I glanced around and saw some people shaking their heads or doing that thing where you raise an eyebrows like ‘what an asshole.’ I smiled at them “It’s a bar! What can ya do?” I asked.
The next round was an audio round. I play 8 clips of songs and people have to write down the title and artist. Green Shirt was talking loudly at the bar. We play two songs and I realize I hadn’t downloaded the third one onto iTunes, so I paused it and told everyone to wait a couple of seconds while I grabbed it from my folder.
“OH MAN SHE CAN’T DO IT. SHE’S JUST A WOMAN!” Green Shirt started shouting at me. “FEMINISM AT ITS FINEST RIGHT?!”
I focused on my iTunes. I kept my head down. Hoped the honking would stop.
“WHY ARE ALL THESE SONGS BEING SUNG BY WOMEN? THEY SUCK!” He continued shouting to anyone.
I got the song up again. “Sorry you had to listen to that guy everyone!” I apologized. My hands were shaky. He didn’t stop. He started loudly singing along to songs and shouting out answers, ruining the game for everyone. One woman told him to stop and he shrugged it off.
Who was this guy? It was like he was some sort of sentient robot who downloaded all of Reddit’s MRA posts and walked to the nearest bar. Usually when I trip up a question, that’s just me, Aviva, not knowing how to read or fucking up the audio.
This time I was a “woman” who couldn’t do a simple job. It was awful.
But what was even more awful was that I didn’t know what to do. I had tried to joke it off earlier, I had even jokingly apologized FOR HIM. What I wanted to do was say “Hey. Shut the fuck up.” Was I allowed to do that? Would I get in trouble??? Would I get fired???? What would someone else do???? How do I diffuse this???
Lili the bartender came by to pick up some glasses. She saw my face and assured me he would be leaving soon. I told her that he had thrown the answer booklet at me and she told me she would kick him out now. I thanked her and she said “Of course, you work here, if anyone makes you feel uncomfortable we can do something.” Soon, he had finished his beer and was gone. Off to another bar to make someone feel shitty I assumed. How could there be men like this? Or people like this? The rest of the game felt off. I felt stupid stupid stupid that I didn’t say anything or that I was even letting it get to me. I resorted to what a lot of us do, tell ourselves it could be worse! I wasn’t physically harmed! The only thing hurt was my pride! Shrug it off. It’s part of life.
So, this post isn’t funny. It’s pretty sad and I feel a tiny bit sad about it even today. Sad that no matter how safe we can feel in a space, there might be someone to come by and shatter that. Sad that so many women get hurt by strangers and friends and family on a daily basis. Sad for that 11 year old girl who would hurry home instead of taking the extra time to look at the leaves on the way.
I wrote that on Facebook that I wanted to focus on the woman who shouted at Green Shirt and the bartenders who asked him to leave. That’s the positive here. Sticking up for friends and coworkers who need help from creeps and bros and “well meaning” guys. I hope I’m brave like that for someone else.
And while I was too distraught to say it last night: Fuck you Green Shirt. Get the hell out.