55th and Ellis at ten on a Friday night. A large black man in a tan hoodie is walking toward my friend and me, muttering something under his breath. I assume he’s going to walk past us because I can’t hear what he’s saying, but later my friend tells me:
He comes even with us and then stops, turns. Says something.
I’ve been staring at the other side of the street, waiting for the walk sign to come on, narrowing my world down to that light. I think I heard what he said, though, and I glance at my friend in confusion. She’s staring at me, eyes wide, and I know I must’ve heard what I thought I did.
“You got a pussy down there?”
For some reason I still can’t believe it, and, as if for confirmation, I glance at the man standing beside us. He looks me in the eye and grabs his crotch.
“You got a hole down there? I got balls.”
In my heart, I am scared, but unbidden my lip curls and eyes narrow in incredulous disgust. This whole exchange is both obscene and ridiculous. This has nothing to do with me, and I want nothing to do with it.
The walk sign comes on.
“You guys got a cig?”
“No.” I stride into the street, out of this situation, digging my heels into the road.
“I’m going to follow you.”
I’ve always assumed that, with enough steely resolve, I could just walk out of something like this. I don’t talk on the phone or listen to music when going from one place to another, and I figured that if I committed none of these offenses then the world would likewise commit no serious offenses against me.
But the paradigm has suddenly shifted: This isn’t some incidental guy who happened to float into my proximity and who will just as easily float out. This is someone who consciously crossed the street to get to me and now will cross the same street again to threaten me. And my mind reels trying to assess the new situation: He says he’s going to follow me. What the fuck can I do about that? But what the fuck can he do? We’re in the middle of East 55th Street, there are a couple guys right at the bus stop behind us, and my friend and I make two against one. He can’t do anything, right? But where do we go from here?
And even though I’ve had my eyes fixed on the opposite street corner throughout this whole encounter, only now does the blue-jacketed security guard materialize into my view. Things fall into place. I pick up the pace.
“Can we stand here with you for a couple minutes?” I ask around a sigh of relief.
“Yeah, sure,” the security guard replies with a knowing smile.
This guy who’s drunk, high, whatever doesn’t quit. “Am I harassing them?” he asks mockingly.
“You have five seconds. Go,” the officer says. And the guy takes two steps back, stoops down to pick a cigarette up from the street, puts it to his lips.
“I’ll walk you back,” the officer says, and we start walking along Ellis back to Max P. The other guy peels off. “How’s your night been?”
I’m sorry that I don’t remember the name of the nice officer. Shout out for listening to my nervous blathering with patience and kindness.
My friend sat in my dorm room for about an hour afterwards, too shaken to walk the final blocks back to BJ. She spent that hour dissecting what had just happened, recounting the words, actions that had been exchanged and analyzing their details. She asked questions: Would the same thing have happened if we were male? If we were not Asian? If we were dressed differently? If she had reacted differently? To her, something so deeply affecting, so traumatic, must have been personal. But to me, it was the most impersonal thing in the world.
From start to finish, all I had done was stare and walk forward in an environment that had shifted around me. First it shifted so that, unfortunately, a man harassed me. And then it shifted again so that, fortunately, a security guard stood on the opposite corner. In many ways, I had nothing to do with either the initiation or outcome of this event. I just did what I could—kept walking.
Over brunch the morning after, my mom was telling my sister and me about a feature she had seen on TV about two parents who had been shot in their home. And as they tried to make sense of who the killer could have been—who had a motive, who was close enough to them to enter their home—it occurred to me that the killer really could have been just a random person.
Because sometimes things are just like that. They happen.
Eleanor Hyun is a second-year in the College majoring in English.