This morning, like all mornings, I prepared for my morning commute by locating the latest BBC World News podcast on my smart phone, shoving in my ear phones & putting on darkly tinted sun glasses. These are my weapons against the onslaught of solicitation, catcalls, jeers and the clamor of traffic that Manhattan offers its pedestrian commuters. As I stepped down the three flights of stairs to my apartment building's front entrance; I realized I was running late, very late, and the executive director was back from vacation today. It is possible that she, in her neurotic haze, could potentially notice my tardiness.
That possibility, compiled with the thought of having to wait in line to buy a new unlimited metro card (they cost $100 for 1 month and my month had just run out) led me to make a snap decision that is rather out of my character, I decided to fork over the $10 taxi fare and get a quick ride into work, shaving a good 25 minutes off of my commute. As a side note; to explain why this choice was out of character; had my metro card not been expired, I probably would have taken public transportation, regardless of how late I may have arrived at work. I attribute this apparent lack of consideration for timeliness to the fact that I get a bizarre enjoyment out of being economically efficient. Sometimes, on the weekends, I will use my monthly unlimited metro card to take me to a new place, merely because the more I use the card the more value I get from the money I spent on it.
I digress. Upon making the decision to take a cab, I took off my armor, as one needs all their faculties about them when hailing a cab. They don’t call New York City a concrete jungle for nothing. Everyday is a battle against the elements, and you are either going to fight or fail miserably at city life. Hailing a cab is just one of the many rites of passage. My face sans sunglasses and earphones felt open and vulnerable, but I held tight to the belief that no incident would occur in the short few yards between me and the corner where cabs can be hailed. All around me, there were people. High school kids clustered on stoops necking and aspirating smoke, laborers dumping and shoveling trash, busboys hosing down the sidewalk outside of their respective restaurants, yuppie types striding by in business suits, gay and straight couples picking up their miniature sized dogs’ poop in little plastic baggies. All this taking place within a couple of yards around me, I could practically reach out and touch any one of them at any given time.
It was while walking past one of the groups of high school students, the members of which were obviously enjoying their tardiness more than I was, that I heard a jarringly loud noise directly behind and to the right of me. It sounded like the word “BAT!” but it was not used in the context of, “Oh my, there is a rabid BAT flying towards your head.” Although, that would have been appropriate for the volume that the word was thrust out at me. Nor was it used in the less known, and more vulgar, acronym version of the word BAT, breaking down into the slang flattery of “Big Ass Titties”. No, it was born more in the form of an onomatopoeia, like those used in the original Super Man comics, 'BAM!’ ‘POW!’ and ‘WHAM!’. In this case, the word, used for the purpose of startling passer-bys, had a much less grandiose purpose than those in the comic, which were used to accentuate the fighting blows between villain and hero.
(An example of BAT's mulitple uses)
It did, however, work, and I was thoroughly startled, but not so much out of fright as out of annoyance bordering on anger. Can’t I walk ten paces down the street without being targeted for some petty assault? From my undergraduate psychology courses, I knew enough of the psychology of the bully to know that the only way to stop being targeted, would be to stand up to the bully. This would mean a further delay in my commute and an effort to identify the assailant. In order to get a better vantage point of who my attacker was, I moved aside from the main traffic path of the sidewalk, to the less used edge, and waited. It may seem obvious to you, reader, that the high school group was the culprit, as they were the group I had most recently walked past. I thought they might be also, but I try not to jump to conclusions, especially when the judgment would fall on someone(s) who remind me of a younger version of myself. So, I decided to wait for empirical proof before I made a judgment.
Thankful, for once, for the high rates of foot traffic on the city sidewalks, I didn’t have to wait long. After a young Hispanic woman passed by me, a young Caucasian blond woman, dressed in a smart business skirt and blouse, breezed by. The wayward group of highschoolers sat silent, grinning on their stoop as the Hispanic woman passed; however, as soon as the blond was a footstep beyond the stoop, one of the high school grinners abruptly blurted, “BAT!” and, indeed, the blonde was startled enough by this outburst to take a mis-step and trip. The whole gang broke out in laughter, giving each other superior smiles and knowing looks. I stood for a moment, stunned into silence, which, if you know me, know, also, that this is a rare reaction.
It wasn’t so much the blatant disrespect directed at the blonde woman, and myself, which affected me. I could write that off as typical teenage revolt against an older generation and even to male posturing, as being the clown of the group can garner him status and upgrade his position in the adolescent pecking order of their social circle. What I could not accept, however, was the fact that this small outcropping of highschoolers, all who happened to be of Hispanic descent, let the Hispanic woman walk past unmolested. Racism, in any form, turns my stomach. While I am painfully aware of the fact the my “white” skin lends me all the white privilege that society presents me, and I am also aware that I do not appreciate this fact as often as I should, I was still astounded to see this apparent racism embedded in the hearts and minds of such a young group of individuals. For me, this explicit form of racism, in which white women are targeted but Hispanic women are not, turned an innocuous prank into the manifestation of a particularly abhorrent society-wide issue, racial tension. This mild stoop in my neighborhood was transformed into a festering pore on the indignant face of intolerance, a source of exit for the community’s infection of ignorance.
The fire within me at being targeted by a bully was suddenly cooled. Left in its place was a thick, heavy knot. This was turning into an issue too big for me to fix with one fell swoop of backbone. Still, I knew I had to approach my assailants, the high school is on the block that I live on, meaning I pass this same group of students everyday on my commute to work. Alas, this is a concrete jungle, and, so, like any other animal, I had to assert myself, or else be over-ridden by a stronger animal. I approached the group, straight backed and squinty eyed. Quickly, I stated what I had to impart on them, namely my opinion that what they were doing was rude. While the admonishments did include words like “inappropriate” and “don’t you have anything better to do?” I did not bring up the issue of race.
The alpha male did his best to stare me down, maintaining his innocence and grinning at the other boys, but, in the end, he was first to break eye-contact. However, this triumph was bitter tasting; I was too chicken to bring up the fact that they were targeting white women, and did not feel like it would be appropriate for a white woman to lecture them on why they should do their best to treat all races equally, (I am sensitive to the fact that they too, have had to live their lives in a world with white privilege, and for them, this means that they are given the short end of the stick more times than not). Developing tolerance is going to be a life long endeavor, that I can do best through example, and cannot expect to fix in one rushed encounter on city streets. I did, however, win a tiny victory for myself, as one lowly little animal standing up to a pack, on the sewage strewn streets of Manhattan this morning.