We settled at a table in Starbucks with a view of the park from the glass front. As the police pulled up 10 minutes later, I asked my mother if she had been afraid of the man at the curb.
She shrugged. “Some men just hate women.”
Like most grown women with little girls in their lives, I worry about what to tell my daughter. I wasn’t told much, myself. “Stay away from men” seemed to be the prevailing wisdom. I have, for the most part, and I have not been deeply harmed. But this is not owing to some fail-safe formula for reclusion; it is not the result of effectively secreting myself away.
And it is also no way for a little girl to live, pulling herself in when she’s meant to fling forth.
I will need to modify the advice I was given growing up: Listen closely to men. Stay away from the ones whose words belie strange ideas about who women are. Listen for expectations of subservience. Listen for irrational anger, for unreconciled loss, for pain. Only begin to ask questions when you have determined that you do not need to run. And then: listen ever closer.
The last man was toothless and I had a hard time understanding him. He saw the money in my hand at the hot dog truck and looked from my face to the bills to my face. He was old and it was hot, the sun still high in late afternoon. “Water. Water. Water be nice. W-w-water’d be nice.” Flustered, I asked the woman dressing my daughter’s hot dog where she kept the water. She pointed to a cooler to my left. When I opened it, the man said, “Coke, too. Can o’ Coke? Coke be nice.” Handing him the water, I muttered, “This is the best I can do.” I’d spent my last cash on it. My mother shook her head from the car, where she and my daughter sat waiting.
“What did you buy him?” she asked, before noting that I rarely turn anyone down. Then she smiled, likely thinking of how close the man had stood to me while making his requests. “You looked so unfazed.”
I wasn’t. There is little I find as unnerving as a strange man asking for help and in the process of being given it, changing the stakes or asking for more.
He would not have harmed me; he seemed harmless. But I was not unfazed. We sat and watched him acquire more from other tourists, stopping to get Popsicles and soft pretzels for their kids. I was glad he would not go hungry and glad to be back in the car.
We do not know which men will respond to us in ways that will make us feel safe. We do not know which ones will be kind and which are not used to kindness. We do not know what men will simply hate us because we are women. My mother, my daughter, and I encountered all of these types during our two days in D.C. And this is as much a reason to move freely through the world as any. To hide is merely to wait in immobile terror for an unknown evil to find us. And sometimes, it will.