Every day the same elderly crackhead fawns over my size-six feet as I pass him on 14th street. “She’s got them tiny sexy feet,” he stammers, “I like them tiny sexy feet.” I walk faster, but don’t break my rhythm. I know that if I turn my head or pause to scan the scene, he’ll notice, and jammer on about it. He’ll ask me what I’m looking at, who I’m looking for: A boyfriend? A lover? A mister-ess?
I have been thinking a lot about my body since moving to Columbia Heights. I’ve been made very aware of my curves, drowning them out in coats, sweaters, yoga pants. But I realize none of my efforts matter, that the guys around here don’t care about particular features or shapes. All you need are the basic womanly triggers: hips, hair, eyelashes. And then the men will set forth. They will curve their heads back, watch you toddle all the way to your apartment. They will tell you they can give you the good life. They can make you a baby. They can make you one tonight.
I try to develop game plans to avoid walking past certain throngs of men. I loiter around the corner of 14th street for a few minutes, wait for the on-street soup kitchen to clear out. But today I time it all wrong. When I walk past E. Street, there’s still a mass of “diners," milling around the food truck. They are all hunched over, their backs crooked into fucking horseshoes. I notice a guy with chicken-stew slobber all over his chin. He is calling out at me, “You want some chicken, girl? You want it. We made some chicken just for you. ”
I tell him no thanks, even though I haven’t been able to afford meat in weeks. “But you could use some meat on your bones!!! You could use some chicken on your chicken legs! A-hahaha.” He keeps at it, “Chicken on ’da chicken legs! Chicken on ’da chicken legs.” I feel my eyes and lips flinch at the same time. I am used to all this. But the thoughts still come. I start thinking about murder and rape. About which one I would prefer to happen first. I decide on rape (horrendously). Best to get it over with. Give my afterlife a break.
I jaywalk to the other side of the street, and the slobbery man takes notice. “Hey, I was just trying to do some good. Just trying to offer you a nice meal.” I feel sickened with myself. But I also feel exhausted. Three days ago, a methed-out stranger told me I had a fine little package, then lassoed his arm around my waist. A month ago, a homeless man chased me all the way up the staircase to my apartment. My survival instincts keep spraying safety tips into my brain: Don’t talk to that guy. Don’t talk to that one either. He’s a rapist. Everyone is! Walk faster. Take taxis. Lose your iPod. Rape is after you. It’s chasing you. I mean it, Rachel. You’re not going to make it out of here alive.
But even with fear comes breaking points. Eventually I crack and then soften. I don’t want to go through life seeing rapists in everyone around me. I know I won’t ever see the good in anyone, if I keep fearing everyone. I want to process my surroundings more slowly, more compassionately. See past lewd comments and into aching wounds. His mom was a crack fiend. And her mom was a crack fiend. I get it. I get them. Everything is a sick lottery. Paint me a picture of what I would look and act like if I grew up in a Columbia Heights. For all my fear and judgments, I deserve to see the inverse of me.
We cackle on about being seen as objects. But we aren’t exactly seeing the “sexist sickos” around us as rounded beings either. Maybe sometimes we really do have to cross the street. It’s dark outside and we just got called a “hot tamale.” And for just one goddamned night, we don’t want to be talked about in greasy culinary terms.
We should be safe. We should cross the street. But as we scurry to the opposite sidewalk, we should try to think of our “oppressors” in their entirety. In all their seven thousand layers of circumstance and happenstance that led them up to who they are. We need to learn to love each other more. The hot-tamale guy may very well be a creep. He may also not have much more than a 9th-grade education. We’ve learned it’s ill-mannered to yell across the street at a woman but there’s nothing inherently demeaning about making a complimentary metaphor from several feet away. It just doesn’t fit nicely into our own theories or our culture.
But now we are all sharing our cultures. The world is gentrifying, baby. It’s happening. We’ve all got to work this out together. Life is confusing out there. Let’s all try to cut each other a little slack.