On Memorial Day, we had four encounters with men. We: three women—my mother, my daughter and I—walking near Washington Circle Park, hungry after checking out of the hotel in Washington, D.C., where I’d booked a one-night stay. They: everywhere.
The first man did not ask for money; the sign propped against him on the sidewalk detailed his dire straits. I did not bother to read it all before slipping a dollar into his cup. His eyes focused on us for the first time then, looked to the three of us with a flash of surprise that settled into a mix of gratitude and shame. He was still young, perhaps in his early 40s, and healthy looking despite his apparent hard times. It was my turn to be first surprised—that he seemed so lucid and self-aware—then ashamed for finding that remarkable. His expression compelled me. I wanted to stay until I found something more useful to offer, more enduring than that meager dollar. But we went on. …
We are three women defined, in many ways, by the absence of men. My mother knew but rarely saw her father; she was not raised to revere him, but she is a romantic and I believe that, in many small ways, she did. She adapted by loving the idea of men, by flirting not so much with them but with what they might come to mean if they stayed long enough. Her love has the longest arc; it begins by anticipating the happiest, haziest end. And she is rarely afraid of men—whether friend or family or foe—because she is projecting their best selves onto the broken bodies they bring to her. She is seeing their darkest spaces as capable of holding the most light.
I am not like her. I am often afraid of men. They are so foreign, so unknowable, and I become less of myself with them.
We came to D.C. the day after Elliot Rodger committed mass murder in Isla Vista, Calif. By the time we arrived, both media and popular opinion had offered their framing of the tragic narrative: Rodger resented women because no woman had ever wanted him. This, to his mind, was a crime punishable only by death.
He and his entitlement and racism and self-loathing became tentpoles onto which we draped our declarations: #YesAllWomen have been menaced by men! And we came to the altars of social media, laying stories at one another’s feet, digital flowers at a makeshift memorial—only we were not quite mourning the dead (not yet). We were mourning whatever parts of ourselves we’d lost to men who’d made demands. We were lamenting the fear that never fails to form in our eyes whenever we are about to reject a man who will not take it well.
The second cluster of men were in the park, a lush, green circle sealed in by a ring of asphalt. One began to yell, hulking and hovering over a feebler man with a cane. We watched from a sidewalk across a street as the yelling man pushed the cane-bearer down. He stayed down as the other man punctuated his accusations with light kicks: “I was your friend! You lied to me and you hurt me!” A third man, who seemed to know them both, looked on. “When the police came to arrest you, I tried to stop them. I did! And this is how you do me?”
“Where are the police now?” my mother chuckled nervously, looking around for a patrol car.
As we watched, another man approached the curb where we were waiting to cross. He was carrying a quart jug of iced tea, more than half empty. While I searched my phone for the nearest restaurants, in part to avoid having to ask anyone else, my mother merrily asked the iced-tea-clutching man if he knew where we could find food nearby.
He turned his entire body toward her, fixed her with a stare both malicious and deeply annoyed and waited a beat before gritting, “I. Don’t. Know.” He kept staring at her after she smiled and said OK. He kept staring at her as I stared at him, dread creeping over my arms like a shawl. Then when he seemed satisfied, he turned himself out toward the street. He never looked toward the fight in the park. Maybe he’d known enough anger and violence and betrayal, too much to be concerned with its presence in others.
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.
To live is to engage every sense and gauge for ourselves our own stakes and the odds. We can live as though every man who comes near us is a bearer of a private apocalypse; we can hunker down, away from them. Or we can claim our space in the world, come what may, because it is our right. Either way, there will be fear. But only on the latter path will we learn to breach our own perimeters and feel free.
Stacia L. Brown is a writer, a mother, and an adjunct professor in Baltimore. She is the founder of beyondbabymamas, a blog dedicated to conversations with single mothers of color. A full version of this piece originally appeared on her personal blog. Follow Brown on Twitter.
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